Lighter footprints keep travel sustainable


From environmental degradation to pollution and community health, travel can have detrimental effects on a destination, especially heavily-touristed areas such as the Caribbean.

That collateral damage does not have to be the case. Organizations worldwide are now working to educate travelers and the tourism industry on how they can holiday without having a negative impact.

“There are a lot of social and environmental dynamics that happen in a destination if it’s not managed correctly,” said Paloma Zapata, CEO of one such group, Sustainable Travel International.

“But if you have the right infrastructure, create opportunities for the community, protect the environment – all of those things can be very empowering,” she said.

Under heel

The economies of many popular vacation destinations rely on tourism, at least in part, but can lose a lot in exchange.

The environmental impact, especially on remote destinations, can be huge and includes deforestation to make way for hotels and roads, wildlife loss, emissions from buses and cars, pollution from waste and the degradation of the local culture.

Carbon emissions are a big concern both in travel and daily life, and everything from long-distance flights to transportation in a destination rack up the metric tons. The more remote the location, the worse it may be.

“When you go [scuba] diving to faraway places, typically the boats use diesel gasoline,” Ms. Zapata said.

“When you say ‘remote resort,’ if they are not connected to the grid, they tend to be on diesel generators,” she said. “If you’re in a city hotel in Paris, you might use one metric ton a night, but it would skyrocket if you stay at one of these remote resorts.”

Pollution, too, can be a big problem, with tourists generating large amounts of waste, especially from plastic bottles.

Islands are particularly prone to issues in waste disposal, as there is nowhere for garbage to go.

Tourism can also have a large cultural impact on a destination, as local residents are displaced by foreign-owned resorts and lose access to their traditional livelihoods.

Often, locals are not even hired to work there.

“You have these big resorts, and they just build a big wall so that you can’t even see the local community,” Ms. Zapata said. “This model was created in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we have to redo that.”

Even the food is brought in from elsewhere instead of being sourced locally to cater to foreign tastes – on many islands 80-90 percent of the food is imported.

Barbados, Caribbean. Image credit: Getty Images
Treading lightly

For its part, Sustainable Travel International is working with vulnerable destinations to help them to build a more equitable and clean tourism industry.

“We work with the most iconic and vulnerable destinations suffering from a lot of the negative impacts of tourism,” Ms. Zapata said. “We provide them with strategies, planning tools, measurement tools and capacity building.”

This support is especially helpful in areas such as the Caribbean, where large cruise lines and resort companies dominate the economy and whose pollution leads to algae bloomings, coral reef diseases and habitat loss.

Visitors can reduce their carbon use by opting for trains and buses over cars, lower the air conditioning in their hotel rooms and taking shorter showers. Carbon offsetting credits can be purchased with each trip.

To help conserve the surrounding environment, Ms. Zapata suggests supporting protected areas that need tourism dollars to keep them going. Visit national parks, private land that is protected, or an ecolodge that has purchased and protected the land around it.

To support local residents, visitors should “try to stay off the beaten path,” Ms. Zapata said.

“Say, in Italy, you don’t have to go to the same areas where everyone goes,” she said. “You can just get lost in the little streets, go to neighborhoods that are not so visited. Your dollars can support more locals, and you can get a more auth experience.”

“Make sure you’re eating local food. Don’t eat Alaskan salmon when you’re in the Caribbean. If you’re going to buy a souvenir, look for something artisan.”

Slowing down and spending time in local communities not only supports their traditions and way of life but allows travelers to really experience the destination rather than hit a list of sights.

“It’s important for a traveler to enrich their own life and to learn about other cultures,” Ms. Zapata said. “You’re going to have a much better experience.”