Steps towards more sustainable tourism

'Travel the World' / CC
Photograph: 'Travel the World' / CC

With the holiday season underway, thousands of Brits will be travelling to a variety of foreign destinations; some heading to cities and resorts and some travelling to more remote destinations. Wherever we go, our role as tourists has the potential to impact and accentuate serious issues facing the countries we visit. Whilst travel offers a fantastic opportunity to switch off from the intensity of work and studying, are we staying switched on to the full impact of our actions abroad?

Whilst tourism has given a huge boost to local and global economies, there are small underlying issues that can’t be overlooked. A large part of the negative impact of tourism comes from a lack of adaptation and sensitivity to local cultures and a subconscious forcing of the standards and services in our home countries on the foreign communities that we visit. This has resulted in segregation of specific demographics of people, increased pressure on local infrastructures and overall ‘westernization’ occurring in many countries. Whilst this term is far from ideal as the ‘west’ is very ambiguous, it will be used for the purposes of this discussion to refer to the cultural and economic shift in less developed countries from their traditional cultures to meet the demands of individuals accustomed to more developed countries such as the UK and the USA.

The following arguments are given, not with the aim of making us see our impacts on holiday as solely good or bad, but simply to encourage any of us who are travelling abroad to offer the places we visit and the issues present within them a greater level of understanding, acceptance and sensitivity.

Firstly, to see the benefits of gaining a greater understanding and acceptance of local issues, we must look at the issues themselves. For many people, a large hindrance to their holiday enjoyment comes with immigrant informal street traders, often referred to under with the slang term ‘looky-looky men’, who sell counterfeit items from sheets on the sides of walkways in marketplaces.  For tourists, what could have been a peaceful walk through a thriving market becomes a slalom of avoiding and rejecting these street traders as they try to sell their goods. However, when the issue is delved into deeper, a different story emerges. Through conducting interviews with these informal street traders in Palma, Mallorca where this issue is particularly evident, it became clear that, as tourists, we had overlooked a very complex and significant geographical phenomenon.

The interviews showed that the street traders’ stories touched on issues of immigration, social outcasting and poverty. They said that they had originally come from Senegal. There had been no work there so they had taken overcrowded boats to come to the Mediterranean and settled in Mallorca. The journey alone was horrendous as several of the people who they travelled with had died whilst on the boats.  When in Mallorca, since they couldn’t work legally because of their status as refugees, they saw their only option to be selling illegally sourced fake designer goods from suppliers in Palma. This was no easy option as the conditions they lived and worked under were extreme. Long days would be spent exposed to the sun, trying to sell their goods to tourists in busy areas, constantly avoiding encountering the local police. Little respite could be found at home either as they said that they all live together in flats, where up to twelve people would share a two-bedroom apartment. Despite living in poverty, what little money they do make is sent home to Senegal to support their families back there.

This was a huge eye-opener, especially when interviewing tourists in the area about their perceptions of the informal traders. Many tourists said they actively avoided them and felt intimidated by them and some even expressed near-xenophobic views. Through all of this, we run the risk of severely dehumanising these people and pushing them yet further from being accepted by the local societies they work in. Despite the fact that, at a glance, this informal trade can detract from the tourist experience, the harsh truth is that, for tourists, it is only a short-lived annoyance and we can easily be back at the side of a pool sipping a pina colada within forty-five minutes. But for the informal street traders, there is no clear end to this cycle with a very unclear future ahead.

So, as tourists, is it possible that, instead of seeing issues such as this example as a negative to an otherwise perfect holiday, we could offer a greater understanding and acceptance to the issue? If we look at things like informal street trade with a more inquisitive mind, we would discover a fascinating chain of geographical phenomenon linking migration, economics and tourism that we are also part of ourselves.

Instead of complaining when things don’t go perfectly on our holidays, what if embracing our inner geographers just a little bit could open our minds to the big issues facing the world in an interactive way and enhance our holiday experience, as opposed to detracting from it?

As well as the attitudes we have as tourists that accentuate already present issues, there have been some issues created by the tourist industry over the last few decades, particularly in remote areas, that require sensitivity from tourists today. As tourists began to travel further afield in the second half of the 20th century, they were able to visit new, previously inaccessible areas. These areas consisted of remote isolated villages and communities living indigenous lifestyles. With the introduction of tourists to these areas, came the introduction of the needs and mindsets of the more developed ‘western’ world and this soon resulted in a shift from sustainable traditional cultures to cultures that emulated that of more developed countries and challenged the sustainability of the area.

One area in which this is particularly evident is in the Ladakh region of the northern Indian Himalayas where, since the introduction of tourism in the 1970s there has been a gradual evolution of culture from Indian/Tibetan to one which is heavily influenced by ‘western’ culture. Walking around the main business area of the town of Leh, this is very explicit. You might expect to see a variety of Tibetan-style shops with writing in Hindi and Tibetan scripts. However, what you actually see is a very English friendly area with signs for ‘The Pizza Hut’ and ‘German Bakery’. This influence is also evident as you leave the tourists bubble as products such as ‘Skin Whitening Cream’ are advertised to locals in the area.

This issue is also present in waste management in these areas. The infrastructure to deal with waste for post-indigenous and remote communities across the world, from the mountain regions to the poles, was built to suit a subsistence culture. Now with the addition of ‘western’ products containing non-biodegradable materials such as complex plastics, the waste processing systems are severely challenged. In the past burning waste which was mainly agricultural was suitable, but now complex waste piles up in these areas with no sustainable solution in sight.

Through considering these issues as a whole, it is impossible to call the impact of tourism in remote areas, simplistically, good or bad. It has brought huge economic growth but it has also worsened some issues and created others. As tourists, the best we can do is offer these areas and the impact we have on them a full understanding. This means understanding what our presence as ‘westerners’ in the area actually means to local people and acting sensitively on it.

At the very least, in order to support sustainable tourism in these areas that have captured the imaginations of tourists worldwide, we can buy local. When in remote communities, if we can suppress the urge for a pizza and let ourselves wonder a step or two out of our comfort zones to buy locally produced food and products, these areas will be able to accept this economic growth with a much more stable and sustainable infrastructure. This might mean going home with a bag of plastic rubbish in your suitcase, it might mean spending an hour a night for a week learning the basics of some obscure foreign language and it might mean going cold turkey on some of the home comforts and products that seem impossible to live without. However, if we can achieve this, we can rest assured that we have done all we can to support the tourist destinations that we love in staying sustainable for future generations to experience and enjoy, just as much as we have.

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