The phrase “sustainable tourism” has received a lot of attention in the last couple of years, as concerns over climate change increase and travelers become more aware of their contributions to that change.
But in 2017, the buzzword will gain even more visibility, thanks to the United Nation’s decision to deem this the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
Tourism is a powerful industry with an enormous impact on the global economy. It employs one out of eleven people worldwide and accounts for 9.8% of the world’s GDP, or “gross domestic product.” That kind of reach and impact puts the travel industry in a unique position to promote responsible, environmentally-friendly practices all over the world.
By calling attention to this potential for a positive (or negative) impact, the United Nations is encouraging everyone involved in the industry– from tour operators to travelers themselves– to demonstrate sustainable travel practices with minimal or beneficial impacts on the ecosystems and communities they travel through.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
Sustainable tourism encourages the positive potential of travel while also seeking to minimize negative impact.
Travel can be a wonderful experience for both visitors and destinations alike, but it can also result in increased carbon emissions, unbalanced economic growth that favors large corporations over small communities, disregard for unfamiliar cultures, animal abuse, and worse. Sustainable tourism raises awareness of the negative potential, while encouraging travelers to be more responsible and purposeful in how they spend their money and their time on the road.
Travelers can act more sustainably with simple practices like recycling, walking instead of driving, and buying locally-made products. Sustainable travel may also include volunteering, which allows for cultural exchange and important work to be done. By implementing sustainable travel practices like these, travel can benefit us all.
Why is Sustainable Tourism important now?
The world is becoming an increasingly contentious place these days. Whether it’s the latest terrorist attack, civil unrest, or the steadily rising increase in our planet’s temperature, the news has become terribly stressful. It doesn’t help matters that many of us consume so much of it– often without knowing if it’s trustworthy– through social media.
But it’s not all bad news out there. People are still traveling to foreign countries and educating themselves on nature/wildlife in unique ecosystems, embracing different cultures, trying new cuisines, sharing kindness with strangers, and having life-changing travel experiences. Each of these activities shows us that, despite the news, the world is a generally beautiful place.
Sustainable tourism encourages more people to travel more, while approaching their travel with a deeper mindfulness about their impact on the places they’re visiting.
Ecotourism and other forms of sustainable travel provide an opportunity for people to responsibly exchange experiences and ideas. It also discourages xenophobia while demonstrating the value of cultures that may otherwise seem distant, or possibly even scary.
As Donald Trump prepares to take office as the President of the United States, with a cabinet that includes an unsettling number of climate change deniers, it’s more important than ever for citizens to take responsibility for protecting our environment and practicing responsible, sustainable interaction with nature, wildlife, and people.
The United Nations has recognized the importance of promoting cultural exchange and protecting the planet. They’ll do both by encouraging travel that’s eco-friendly and sustainable.
What Does the “Year of Sustainable Tourism” Entail?
The UN has identified 17 goals for sustainable development, which they hope to accomplish by 2030. Three of those goals are directly related to sustainable tourism. They include:
- Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
- Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
The UN focuses on pressing issues like poverty, clean water, and access to healthcare for people around the globe. But sustainable tourism has a surprisingly powerful impact on vital human needs like these. When tourism boosts local economies and protects the environment, issues of poverty can be alleviated by providing sustainable revenue streams that offer an alternative to exploitative industries.
The UN will specifically focus on using tourism to promote three pillars of sustainability– economic, social, and environmental. By collaborating with local governments and travel-related organizations, they will promote travel as a way to bring cultures together while protecting our environment and helping local communities.
How You Can Support Sustainable Tourism
Travel is so important in helping us to better understand the people and places that make our world so fascinating and diverse. It exposes us to new ideas and new cultures, and fosters better relationships between nations worldwide.
You can take part in the year of sustainable tourism by exploring the world while being conscious of the ways your travel impacts the planet and local communities.
To ensure that your travel dollars go towards sustainable tourism, buy local and support tour operators that are based in the communities you wish to explore, while employing local people.
Taking a volunteer trip is an excellent way to promote sustainability while you see the world. You can pair an exciting trip to a new place with contributing to important causes, like helping in a clinic for women and children in The Dominican Republic, or cleaning up beaches in Costa Rica. Not only will you be participating in important work, you’ll be interacting with locals and experiencing their culture in ways that are unavailable to average travelers.
No matter where you travel in 2017, please remember the potential impact of your choices, both positive and negative. By choosing sustainable tourism practices– even simple ones like carrying a reusable water bottle and eating at local restaurants– can make a big difference in the destinations you visit. Let’s all resolve to see more of the world in 2017, while promoting peace and love for people and the environment as we move through it! -Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, Green Global Travel, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.