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A Travel Junkie's Guide to Responsible Tourism

By Mike Hower

Travel junkies (including yours truly) all know there is nothing quite like the rush of adrenaline that jump-starts the heart when you first step foot in a foreign land. New sights, sounds and smells flood the senses. Elation, apprehension and, more often than not, exasperation make up the emotional soup of the day.

At 9 percent of global GDP, the tourism industry is one of the largest in the world, contributing $6.6 trillion to the world economy and generating more than 260 million jobs. Despite continuing economic challenges, international tourist arrivals grew by 5 percent in 2013, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) forecasts a 4 to 4.5 percent growth in 2014.

As rewarding as traveling may be for the traveler, this is not always the case for the communities where the traveler treads. There is a common misconception that simply spending money in a country benefits local communities -- but there indeed are profound, adverse social and environmental consequences.

With continuing growth in travel, there is increasing recognition among both travel professionals and consumers of the importance of responsible travel – travel that minimizes negative impacts, brings economic benefits to host communities, and preserves the cultural and natural resources of the destinations. Responsible travel also can be good for the bottom line.

According to the World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) 2012 Tourism in the Green Economy Report, tourist choices are increasingly influenced by sustainability considerations. Eco-tourism, nature, heritage, cultural and “soft adventure” tourism are predicted to grow rapidly over the next two decades, and global spending on ecotourism is expected to increase at a higher rate than the tourism industry as a whole.

So, what are the primary problems associated with travel? What are some solutions?

The problem: Adverse effects on local cultures

Interest in unique cultures often leads to communities being overrun by large numbers of visitors, commercialization of traditions and threats to cultural survival. Tourism destinations sometimes are constructed by outsiders in areas that indigenous communities consider to be theirs, and where the “development” was unwanted or not validated. The animosities this creates in the local community make it almost impossible to achieve cooperation and mutual benefits.

The solution: Authenticity

This is a tricky one. Similar to the observer effect in science (which refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed), the mere act of visiting an indigenous community is almost always going to have some kind of effect on it -- but these effects don’t always need to be negative. All-inclusive resorts typically strive to transform local environments to conform to tourists' comforts and tastes. What is the point of traveling to another country only to live like you would at home? Rather than buy into this traditional tourist paradigm, it’s better to strive for the most authentic travel experience. Embrace local culture, food and locally-run accommodations. A great place to start is to look into sustainable tourism agencies such as G Adventures.

The problem: Overwhelming waste and water systems, diminishing biodiversity

Tourists also put strains on local infrastructure and utilities, creating waste management and water consumption problems. In some locales, tourism puts pressure on already-diminished water resources and competes with other sectors, as well as subsistence needs of local populations. The discharge of untreated sewage or freshwater abstraction can harm water quality. Tourism also threatens biodiversity in many regions. Coral reefs, rainforests, coastal wetlands and mountain areas can all be harmed by large-scale tourism.

The solution: Sustainable development

Tourism companies and resorts should invest in the local communities in which they operate, working to improve local infrastructure and utilities. In doing this, they not only will improve quality of life for locals, but also protect their chief tourism draw: the environment. If the tourism industry allows pristine waters and lush forests to disappear, so will their customers.

The problem: Exacerbating climate change

The tourism industry’s reliance on fossil fuels has grave implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change, especially as energy consumption grows in transport and accommodation. In tropical or arid regions, tourist accommodations suck up disproportionate quantities of energy for heating or cooling, lighting, cleaning, cooking and more; this simply is not sustainable.

The solution: Renewable energy, innovation

Travelers have a tendency to consume more energy per capita than an average person. International travel typically means jumping on a jet plane, which are some of the biggest GHG offenders. Hopefully, this will change as airlines look into alternative forms of jet fuel. Solar, wind and other forms of alternative energy, when combined with breakthroughs in energy efficiency, can also help reduce travelers’ carbon footprints.

An emerging form of travel called “experiential” tourism holds promise for solving many of the above ills. This type of travel encompasses eco-tourism, nature, heritage, cultural, soft adventure tourism, rural and community tourism. It also is one of the areas in the tourism sector expected to grow the most in the coming years, according to UNWTO.

Experiential tourism involves active participation by travelers in the experience and promotes activities that draw people outdoors, and into cultures and communities. It is personal and individual; experiential tourists seek memorable experiences above all else.

After all, isn’t that what travel is all about?

Photo Credit: Flickr Cuba Gallery

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower)

Mike Hower headshot

Currently based in Washington, D.C, <strong>Mike Hower</strong> is a new media journalist and strategic communication professional focused on helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. To learn more about Mike, visit his blog,<a href="http://climatalk.com/&quot; > ClimaTalk</a>.

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