SUSTAINABLE TOURISM: What’s it all about?

October 11, 2018

‘Sustainability’ in tourism is a pretty hot topic right now, but what does it actually mean?

Is it offsetting the carbon emissions of your flight, or airlines trialing biofuels? What about airports harvesting water from their immense rooftops or covering them in solar panels? Or car rental companies introducing electric or hybrid cars into their fleets?

Well, they’re all part of it. Every ‘green’ shift is a step in the sustainability direction, and there have been plenty of those in recent years.

 Image: Virgin Australia recently completed a successful biofuel supply trial at Brisbane Airport. Credit Virgin Australia)

Hotels typically encourage guests to re-use their towels to save water and detergent usage. Some even reward their guests with F&B credit for electing not to have their rooms made up each day. If you can manage four or five nights without housekeeping crisply making your bed or replenishing your bathroom amenities, then dinner (maybe even dessert) is probably on the house.

Sure, these practices help hotel bottom-lines as they save more than just natural resources, but they do contribute to the sustainability equation. But is that all we, as travellers, should concern ourselves with as we move about the world as sustainably as possible?

 Image: Following the Songlines tour. Credit: Crooked Compass

Lisa Pagotto, founder of Sydney-based ATAS-accredited immersive small-group tour operator – Crooked Compass, says, “Sustainable travel goes far beyond having a short shower and taking your rubbish with you when you are in nature. Of course that forms part of it, but it is so much broader than that.”
So what does sustainability look like when we step back and take broader view?

In recent years we’ve seen some pretty dramatic responses to ‘over-tourism’ which is what happens to a destination when it can no longer handle the masses that sweep in to tick things off their bucket list.

A case in point: Venice. Only 50,000 people actually live in the city’s gorgeous centre, and they’re visited by 25 million tourists each year. Imagine what it’s like living in a community of that size, as millions of visitors traipse through it, affecting your ability to go about your life. In response to protests from locals, Venice has taken the dramatic step of installing train-station-like gates at critical locations that can keep visitors out if needs be. But, is this really a solution?

Your ‘Venice’ solution might be to travel outside high season when crowds are diminished and prices are generally lower. Your ATAS-accredited travel agent can help you with plan the perfect off-peak itinerary or help you discover emerging destinations.

Other European cities, too, are feeling the heat of local protests against over-tourism as they reach the limit of what they feel their cities can sustain. Many of the world’s most popular destinations are, it seems, at a tourism tipping point which is not surprising when you consider that when the jet age began in the early 1960s, around 25 million international trips were taken. Last year, that number was 1.3 billion.

 Image: Social media is a huge driver of tourism demand on destinations.

And it’s not just mega-destinations that are feeling the strain. In this world of immediacy driven by digital and social media, emerging destinations are being inundated with visitors long before local infrastructure is ready to receive them. Many have argued that tourism was once about experience-seeking. Now, they contend, it’s about using social media to build a personal brand—the photos taken on a trip becoming more important than the experience itself.

It’s an Instagram-driven inundation often with little benefit for locals. In fact, according to the United Nations Environment program, of every $100 spent in tourism, only $5 stays in the local economy. This equation sits squarely at the centre of Lisa Pagotto’s definition of ‘sustainable tourism’.

 Image: Connecting with remote communities in Mongolia. Credit: Crooked Compass.

“Sustainable tourism isn’t just about minimising your ecological and cultural footprint”, says Lisa. “Being a sustainable traveller means that you are aware and focused on making a positive impact when you travel through a local community, the environment you are exploring as well as economically supporting the region where you travel.

“It is all about minimising your ecological and cultural footprint. This can be done in so many different ways from simple things such as respecting local culture and being willing to learn more about it, purchasing locally made products from bazaars, shops and markets instead of from large supermarkets and dining in local eateries.

ATAS-accredited travel agent, Debbie Andrews from MTA Travel, agrees with Lisa. For Debbie ‘sustainable tourism’ is as much about ethical travel as it is about being ‘green’. “As someone who plans journeys to the far reaches of the globe, it is absolutely my responsibility to look into who we work with, and what their own sustainability, environmental and ethical credentials are like. I will always recommend an ethical supplier over a questionable one”, says Debbie.

What specifically does Debra look for? “I avoid tourism products that include encounters, for example, with animals under duress or that harm them. I look to see if the local communities receive a fair share of revenue from the tours that involve them. I also try to assess whether my bookings will negatively impact the place and people, or exacerbate an existing problem by leaving an unnecessarily heavy footprint.

“Many of my clients already consider these things when planning their travels. It’s satisfying on a number of levels to help them make a conscious, ethical choice”, adds Debbie. Simla Sooboodoo, Founder and CEO of Sydney-based ATAS-accredited Hands On Journeys, has another take.

 Image: Empowering women in a Delhi slum to sell handicrafts online. Credit: Hands On Journeys.

“I coined the term ‘Empowerment Tourism’ in response to the disconnect I found between many ‘voluntourism’ operations and how much sustainable impact they actually generate with their social and outreach projects”, says Simla.

“Our projects are aimed at empowering those in the communities we support through sanitation projects and skill improvement workshops. The end goal is for the community to be entirely self-sufficient and have an income when we move on which allows them to not rely on external contributions and improve their own lives with pride.

Image: Beading Classes established by Hands On Journeys created jobs for people living on houseboats in Chau Doc, Vietnam. Credit: Hands On Journeys.

“People are seeking new experiences that not only immerse themselves in a foreign culture but allows them to leave a lasting positive mark. Our travellers, together with the locals we visit, form a tribe. And when they stand together, they bounce ideas off each other and elevate each other. It’s powerful, and sustains all of us”, adds Simla.

Whether you’re planning a sustainable trip to Venice, Vietnam or anywhere in between, you’re ATAS-accredited travel agent can help you make the choice that’s right for you.

Looking for more insights from ATAS-accredited travel agents? Have you ever considered planning a holiday around some of Australia’s finest Indigenous experiences? Have your kids ever flown solo? And if you’re looking for a hotel with a popsicle hotline or a paragliding arrival experience, ATAS-accredited travel agents know just the spot.

Your ATAS travel agent can help ensure you are set prior to departure but here’s a few travel warnings and useful tips to keep in mind.

ATAS travel agents recommend that Australia passport holders register for travel alerts before they travel.

ATAS travel agents, experience you can trust.


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