Unfortunately, too many tourists treat amazing destinations like their personal toilet. You see it time and time again, from zoo-like visits to indigenous villages to the killing of starfish by taking them out of the water to Instagram. There’s an “I’m paying, therefore I can do what I want” mentality, or worse, the “I’ll never see these people again so it doesn’t matter what I do.” Unfortunately, many business owners develop the same money-centric way of thinking. Instead of protecting the sanctity of their product, they’re destroying it to make a quick buck.
All too often corporations choose to run profit-first, rather than ethics-first operations. So why should we expect more from tourism?
Tourism is an industry that is based on celebrating the beauty, culture and uniqueness of the places we love. If we ruin those special qualities in the effort to bring more wallets into our shop, we’re essentially fucking our own business.
It’s time to do better.
Sustainable tourism is more than just putting up some solar panels and composting. It goes down to the very soul of the business – sustainable tourism operations have a ton of boxes to tick, so half-asses approaches won’t really cut it. In order to not destroy the earth and still make money, follow these tips to build a true sustainable tourism business.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE TOURISM
A large number of hotels are built by foreigners. Foreigners travel, find a special place and decide they want to share it. That’s seems alright. So, they build their dream business and bring their friends in to run it. Everybody makes money and lives in paradise. All good?
If you’re going to move out of your home country and invest in another, an essential part is actually investing in that country – not just bleeding it dry so you and your buds can make a buck while living in the tropics.
What is sustainable tourism? Sustainable tourism is hiring locally. If you’re building a hotel in a small town in Cambodia, then your employees need to be front said small town.
Don’t think the local residents have what it takes to run your business? Here’s where the investment comes in. It’s call training. You, as a responsible, sustainable tourism business owner, invest in language and hospitality training for local residents. You do not to expect the Cambodians to magically become European overnight. You moved to their country, so it’s your job to adapt to their culture. Learn the local language and business practices. Teach people what you know. And for the love of god have some patience. You’re building your dream, and that shit doesn’t happen overnight. Take some time and try to get it right.
Support the Community
You have moved across the world and are opening a business. To your friends back home, you’re this cool adventurer! To your new neighbors, you’re just another a local business owner, so try not to be a shitty one.
Respect the community you have chosen to share with the world and help it grow and flourish.
This might include setting up a local recycling programs, or teaching school kids about composting (yea, it’s cool). Organize donation drives when the winter rains flood local homes. Basically, be a part of the place you’re living in.
A few years ago, I met an amazing couple of diving enthusiasts from South Africa. They fell in love with a small town on the coast that happened to be an untouched mecca for diving. It also happened to be on tribal land. After two years of living there, this couple wanted to buy land and open a dive shop. They couldn’t without approval from the local tribal council. So, they went to the chief and asked for permission to by some land.
Turns out it’s wasn’t as simple as buying and selling. You see, this tribe cared about their community more than they cared about money, and would only accept this couple once they proved that they truly wanted to be part of the tribe.
Between participating in local festivals and midnight hospital runs, the couple dove in headfirst. It took them two years and a lot of ceremonial meetings before they were finally given a plot of land to build their dream.
They’re some of the only foreign landowners in the area, but they’re not seen as outsiders, because they give back to their new home. As some of the only owners of reliable automobiles, it could mean driving a sick person six hours to the nearest hospital. It’s part of being a part of somewhere. You can’t fake being a member of a community.
When we were living in the Dominican Republic, I fell in love with a small surf beach called Encuentros. Throughout one of the most difficult years of my life, I spent every single morning surfing some of the most beautiful waves I’ve ever surfed. On an island where concrete constructions had too frequently destroyed the natural beauty of the coastline, Encuentros was a veritable paradise, with little more than a few crooked wooden shacks that served and surf schools marking the coastline.
One day, I was chatting with a woman whom I greatly respected. Excitedly, she told me about a development project to build concrete block condominiums and store fronts along the shores of Encuentros.
I was crushed.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a natural paradise I loved destroyed by uneducated or uninterested developers. What was so unfortunate was that this woman, an internationally educated local business owner and resident of the town for several decades, could only list off positive points of the project. She wasn’t a bad person, she just literally had no idea the destruction this project would wreck on the natural ecosystem.
If you plop a concrete block ten meters from the shoreline, you’re subject to beach erosion, ocean pollution and habitat extinction, just to name a few. Add to that the immense human traffic you’re bringing to an area that can’t support those numbers, and you’re going to see coral, fish and wildlife death. The construction erosion might even change the ocean floor topography, which could, in a worst case scenario, stop the waves. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the list of potential consequences that came into my head.
Why do developers build concrete boxes, instead of sustainable developments? Money, is the main reason, but its not going to be a good enough reason when we’ve destroyed all of our natural paradises to make it. So let’s start with some forward thinking.
Do you want to build in paradise? Use local materials. Contact local architects who know traditional building methods and can integrate into the unique environment in which they live. While you’re at it, throw in some passive solar design and energy sustainability so we’re not wasting precious resources, but for god sakes please stop building concrete boxes in paradise.
CONSIDER RESOURCE USE
Washing linens daily is one of the biggest resource wastes in the hotel industry, and it needs to be addressed. We’ve created this ridiculous standard that says when you are on holiday, you must have new sheets and towels every day, even though you only change the ones at your own house once a month.
It’s simply unsustainable, and it’s time to stop.
Many hotels have opted to allow guests to choose when they need fresh linens. This is a great step in the right direction, and it also helps to change perceptions. While we’re at it, lets think of a few more ways we can stop wasting natural resources unnecessarily.
For example, Is there any reason NOT to reuse your gray water?
If a 25 bedroom hotel is washing sheets and towels daily, they’re probably going through a heap of water to do so. Lets say they’ve also got a huge garden that’s watered automatically through an irrigation system. Why not choose an ecological detergent and hook up those washing machines to the irrigation lines. Voilá – you’ve done the washing and watered the plants with the same water. Not terrible.
Now add a rain catchment systems, some solar panels or mini wind turbines and a great passive energy design and you’re well on your way to not killing the natural paradise you’re trying to share with your guests. Good for you!
DON’T RUN A HUMAN ZOO
There is an understandable attraction to traditional societies, and truly we can learn a lot from people whose way of life hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. However, it’s high time we stop treating them like zoo animals. Tours into indigenous villages, or even into favelas for that matter, have the unfortunate tendency to parade around people who are different as one might a giraffe or a white tiger. They do little to try to bridge understanding between both parties.
Of all the things on this list, I think this one is the most difficult to solve. How do we interact with cultures that are inherently different from our own without having a negative effect on the preservation of their way of life? If anyone has any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them.
OFFSETTING YOUR FOOTPRINT
This last point is one I feel like isn’t talked about quite enough. In the travel industry, I’d definitely call it our elephant in the room. Travel is inherently an industry that promotes dislocation, which – until transportation catches up to the 21st century – means burning a lot of fossil fuels to get your guests to you.
Everyone who works in travel has a huge carbon footprint on their conscience that we need to work to offset. Travel businesses need to start thinking about that during day-to-day functions. You can never go wrong planting some trees. Think about donating some of your profits to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Or call up Carbfix and send them some money so they can bury more CO2 and turn it into stone.
Now go off and share the beauty of your corner of the world without destroying it.