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Tread lightly upon this earth – How to travel the world without destroying it

2018 was the year of overtourism. From Fodor’s new “No Go List” to protests in Barcelona to the Peruvian government’s ongoing battle to limit visitor numbers to Machu Picchu, popular destinations are feeling the strain. In 2016, over a billion people took a tourist trip abroad – more than double the number of just 20 years ago.

It’s not just about numbers. Travel can perpetuate global inequalities by exploiting local people, livelihoods and ecosystems. In diverse destinations, from India to Italy, people are being displaced to make way for tourism developments and infrastructure.

Taking an ‘ethical’ vacation is not necessarily enough to ensure you tread lightly during your travels. Ecotourism, for example, has been shown to encourage damaging development and evictions, and negatively affect wildlife by making animals more comfortable around humans.

Likewise, paying more for your trip does not always equate to a positive outcome for the destination. In the so-called ‘developing’ world, luxury tourism has been shown to divert water and energy away from host communities, while generating additional waste. What’s more, money generated is often extracted by multinational tourism companies rather than reinvested in the local economy.

Yet we all want to travel, to appreciate the diverse wonders of our only home – arguably more so as we confront the realities of its destruction. So how can we exercise our right to enjoy the Earth while respecting the environment and our fellow inhabitants – human and otherwise, alive and not-yet-born?

  1.  Be aware of your impact

Understanding the issues around travel and associated power inequalities is the first step to moving mindfully in the world. According to Paul Hanna of the University of Surrey, “while ‘ethical tourists’ might think that they are helping cultures develop through their tourist expenditure, perhaps we must ask what is the ‘good life’ – and is financial capital really the route to it? Indeed, are we simply engaging in a new form of colonialism by which Western ideologies are being forced upon cultures through the guise of helping them to ‘develop’?”

Beach in winter My Good Planet

  1. Explore closer to home

White sand beaches and turquoise swimming pools are an Instagram staple, but it’s worth remembering that there’s a whole universe on your doorstep just waiting to be discovered. What about a camping trip to the forest, a hike in the hills, or a cooking class in the local community? Why not wander into hidden courtyards at the edge of your own city or take a train to a nearby town you’ve never been to? If travel today is all about authentic, immersive, transformative experiences, then surely close to home is the best place to start searching.

  1. Find alternatives to ‘at risk’ places

With a little research, it’s easy to find out which places it’s best to avoid for your next holiday. A number of destinations, such as Scotland’s Isle of Skye and Italy’s Cinque Terre, are actively discouraging visitors, and many more are grappling publicly with overcrowding. Get creative with your trip planning and find somewhere that’s more likely to benefit from your visit. If you like restorative getaways (and let’s face it, who doesn’t), the good news is that wellness travel is helping spread tourism to less-visited areas.

Tread Lightly Upon This Earth

  1.  Travel in the off season

Not everyone has the option to travel outside of the school holidays and other peak times,  but if you do have that flexibility, there are lots of advantages to doing so. A number of destinations are now promoting tourism during the off-season, to limit overcrowding, and spread the burden on ecosystems and livelihoods. As well as offering visitors more availability and better value for money, off-season travel lets you experience a place without the rush and stress of the crowds.

  1. Don’t fly!

When it comes to sustainable tourism, air travel is the elephant in the room. Aside from the financial and practical benefits of vacationing close to home, avoiding flying is obviously huge in terms of environmental impact. At the same time, airlines offer some of the most affordable ways to get from A to B, so it’s not always feasible to opt for more expensive options, such as the train. For those fortunate enough to have the choice, however, it’s something worth keeping in mind.

Balancing sustainability and quality of life is a process, and every decision is an opportunity.

Natalie Holmes
Natalie Holmes

A Berlin-based writer and editor, Natalie Holmes tells stories about science, cities, sustainability, responsible travel and the intersection of technology and society. She is an editor of Science Seeker, a curated science blog newsletter and feed; and communications officer for the Post Growth Institute, an organisation exploring how to thrive within ecological limits.