I first became interested in sustainable tourism because I wanted to avoid tourist traps. I hated the the crowds, the aggressive locals, the made-in-China souvenirs, the Americanized food, and the pollution. At the time, I didn’t realize that these are some very classic examples of how tourism can be unsustainable. I simply wanted to get off the beaten track and feel connected to the places I visited and the people I met.
Unfortunately, many tourists think that if they are sustainable, then they are reducing their standard of living. When they are on vacation, they just want to relax. They don’t want to have to make responsible decisions or sacrifice their comfort. In reality, though, a sustainable traveler is someone who consciously chooses to have a more authentic and meaningful travel experience.
Professionals in sustainable tourism theorize that each destination goes through a lifecycle. The backpackers that are interested in adventure sports, such as surfing, usually come first. They are willing to go to destinations with very little infrastructure so that they can enjoy the perfect wave. When they go back to their hometowns, they brag to their friends about the little piece of paradise they “discovered”. When word gets out, the tourists come flocking in. The locals then open up restaurants, shops and hotels that cater to them. As a place becomes too popular, it loses the very details that made it special and it comes “ruined”.
If you are a traveler, then you play a central part in making a destination great. The first step takes research. I personally love this phase because I get excited about the upcoming trip. For example, I always make sure to learn a few phrases of the local language and make careful decisions about which tour to book with. However, I realize that as a sustainable tourism professional, I can recognize sustainable travel experiences more easily than others.
Sustainable tourism can be a difficult concept to understand so here are some of my favorite examples. Sustainable destinations welcome people from all communities, whether they are LGBT or have wheelchair accessibility needs, because everyone has the right to travel. At sustainable hotels, you will receive better service, because it treats its employees fairly. Sustainable travelers are respectful when they try new foods and engage in new customs, even if they seem strange. They also participate in local activities such as music, dance, art and sports because it connects us no matter where we are from. When packing, a sustainable traveler brings a reusable water bottle, straw, and bag to limit their trash. And most importantly to me, sustainability means that you should travel slowly so that you can meet the locals and really get to know the place. Traveling can open up your world but only if you honestly embrace it.