Why the Tourism Industry Is an Environmental Disaster and a Hothouse of Worker Exploitation: The Future Is Responsible Travel

Every year, more than a billion people take an international trip, contributing more than $2 trillion to the global economy. But the booming travel and tourism industry doesn’t just have a positive economic impact; it also has significant negative impacts on the environment and society. According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), “The negative impacts of tourism development can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends.” Tourism relies on the environment and on local people, and evidence suggests that sustainable destinations are more competitive.

Despite this, the tourism industry is slow to reduce its colossal impacts. One of the experts pushing for more responsible travel—on the part of businesses and consumers—is Rachel Dodds, a professor at Ryerson University in Canada and director of Sustaining Tourism, a boutique consultancy that helps destinations, hotels and NGOs become more sustainable. I had a chance to speak with her about the state of sustainable tourism and what travelers can do to help reduce the impact of tourism.

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten: What is ecotourism?

Rachel Dodds: Ecotourism is travel to natural areas in small groups that usually focuses on conservation of the area. Any tourism can be more sustainable, but not all forms of tourism can be ecotourism. The word sometimes gets strewn around, but the industry usually talks about "responsible tourism." I generally stick to responsible or sustainable tourism. It's more encompassing and it makes sense to more people.

LG: To set the scene, what are the main sustainability impacts of mass tourism?

RD: Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries. It keeps growing at a rate of 3 to 5 percent a year, no matter what. (The only year it didn’t grow was 2001, after 9/11.) Airlines are getting more efficient, but more people are flying; we're still creating huge carbon emissions. Airlines and cruise ships have been immune so far from any of the carbon talks that have been going on—they keep wiggling their way out of it.

That's a big problem, since more and more people are cruising. A passenger generates 3.8 kilograms (8.4 pounds) of garbage per day on a cruise ship. That's more than an average American household produces in a week and three times more than a European household produces in a week.

LG: That's astonishing.

RD: It's disgusting. On a 2,000-person cruise ship, the average person eats 12 pounds of food per day. Whatever doesn't get eaten just goes out the back as fish food, which then unbalances the natural marine ecosystem.

People working on cruise ships have been known to live in two inches of water because they're on the bottom of the ship. Lots of people make under a dollar a day in the tourism industry at these big resorts, where we sip our cocktails—most people are working 16-hour days, sometimes with 10-minute breaks, sometimes for two weeks on without a day off.

Then there’s water usage. Many of the places that have huge water shortages are where the majority of the tourists go. The average hotel uses 350 liters (92 gallons) of water per person per night; that's the same as an entire village does in rural Thailand. If you go to a 4 star hotel, it goes up to 800 liters (211 gallons) of water per person per night. The average luxury hotel—the Shangri-La in Singapore, for example, which is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world—uses 1,800 liters (475 gallons) of water per person per night.

LG: Do you think people are less aware of their impacts when they're on vacation? Is that one of the problems?

RD: I think we're a bit hedonistic when we go on holiday. We've worked really hard, we've saved up and we just want to sit on a beach for a week and forget about the world as we know it. We're not thinking about whether the person serving us our piña colada is making a fair wage. We're not thinking about how much water we're using.

LG: Do you think the industry should be regulated?

RD: I don't think you can regulate tourism, that's part of the problem. Ninety percent of tourism businesses are mom-and-pop organizations; how do you regulate them? How would you regulate every bed and breakfast, especially now with Airbnb?

I think there's probably a need for it and there have been a lot of attempts to work with certification. The problem in our industry is that there are over 200 labels. The consumer is massively confused and there just isn’t enough critical mass. It's also very difficult to regulate tourism because it's so global and fragmented.

I think there's definitely consumer push, but consumers need to ask to see change. Consumers don't ask because they're not thinking about that when they go on holiday.

LG: What do you think is holding people back from sustainable travel? Is it more expensive?

RD: Not always, but sometimes it can be. Say you want to go to a trip to the Maasai Mara and make it super responsible. Yes, it's more expensive if you go with credible, ethical operators rather than the ones that don't even have legally employed guides and use cheap hotels. The industry has made a bit of a fatal error: we've become a last-minute industry.

On the luxury side, where people are willing to plan and pay higher prices, the level of sustainability has increased. But the lower end of the industry, people aren’t thinking about sustainability, they’re thinking about a cheap holiday.

LG: What about the criticism that there really is no such thing as sustainable travel because air travel is so unsustainable?

RD: It's true. As soon as you get on a plane, your carbon footprint is higher than most people's back-and-forth travel by car to work in a year. Then you have to think, without tourism, many countries would not survive; one in 10 jobs in the world is provided by the tourism industry. If people stop flying, is that going to solve the problem? Probably not. You're just going to create another kind of chaos. I don't think the question is just about cutting carbon, it's about a holistic picture.

LG: What kind of trends are you seeing?

RD: With the advent of technology and smartphones, you can check into your hotel room with a button on your smartphone, so your air conditioning and your lights will come on when you activate that rather than being left on all the time. All the new builds and retrofits are becoming much more environmentally friendly. I think labor standards are improving too.

The tourism industry has had a real copycat approach: one place has a golf course, and then everywhere gets a golf course, with no heed to the fact that they're so water and energy intensive. I think this approach is finally starting to slow down as a trend. Destinations are realizing that it’s what's truly authentic and unique about their destination that is going to get people to come, not the spa or the golf course.

LG: What do you hope this industry looks like five or 10 years in the future?

RD: I would hope that you would never have to use the words “sustainable” or “responsible” in front of the word “tourism.” We just wouldn't need that phrase; we wouldn't need to have that conversation.

LG: That's not yet the case, so what tips do you have for people looking to be sustainable when they travel?

RD: There’s lots of advice on my website. There's a bunch of things you can do as an individual, like bring your own water bottle and take off the packaging before you travel because many places in the world don't have the same kind of waste disposal systems that we do. For example, walk up one of the trails in Nepal and look down, you just see an entire side of a mountain littered with plastic water bottles and pink toilet paper. It just breaks your heart.

The main thing is to ask. If you're aware enough to ask, "Do you have an environmental policy? Do you pay your staff fair wages?" it does make tourism businesses think about it.

LG: Is there one main message you would like to share?

RD: If you wouldn't do it at home, don't do it when you're away. I think that really applies to all sorts of things from an environmental, social and economic perspective.


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