It turns out that travelling, like breathing and having a sh*t, is catastrophically damaging the planet. And sarcastic tone aside, this is something we humans need to stop and think about before we book our next plane ticket. I felt compelled to write this blogpost after perusing the news and coming across an article in The Guardian online. The report was on the indefinite closure of the beach made famous in the 2000 film “The Beach” (starring Leonardo Di Caprio). Like many a celebrity who crumbles under the strain of popularity, the beauty spot on Koh Phi Phi Leh Island has suffered the effects of up to 5000 visitors a day: its sands are choked with litter, the plant-life surrounding the beach all but trampled and the coral killed off by too many boats and too much sun cream in the water. The tragic price of stardom.
This story triggered lots of emotions in me. Sadness for the wildlife lost from this habitat. Anger that people can be so thoughtless in their behaviour and conduct in a place of natural beauty. Guilt that I have been one of those people. I’ve never visited Koh Phi Phi Leh’s famous beach. In fact, when I was in Thailand in 2011, holidaying at Krabi, Ao Nang and the island of Koh Lanta not far from this place, my then-partner and I deliberately avoided it because we’d heard how crowded and disgusting it was. But I still visited other beaches in Thailand, joining hordes of holiday makers in their quest for the perfect tropical Thai paradise. I never gave much thought to the impact of my travel choices back then. Short of re-using my towel at the hotel to save water or choosing the vegan option at a restaurant, the environmental costs of my vacation weren’t exactly at the forefront of my mind.
And this is the same sorry tale with most humans on holiday (and indeed, in life in general). With our wish to tick another must-see, must-do off our bucket-list of travel experiences, we have become a part of a global problem. We are travellers who have added our footprints (in every sense of the word) to yet another rapidly disintegrating, diminishing area of our planet.
So many places Nate and I have visited are suffering the same effects of mass tourism. I remember making a pilgrimage to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, joining throngs of tourists who were paying the Chinese authorities to see this once-proud seat of the Dalai Lama. By purchasing a ticket, rather than refusing to support the continued repression of Tibetan culture, we were contributing to the problem.
In New Zealand, Nate and I joined the queues of campervans, coaches and cars that snaked through the valleys to the Milford Sound. After months of journeying through empty, people-free landscape on the South Island, we were stunned by the volume of tourists gathering to see this natural wonder.
On a trip to Cinque Terre, a chain of gaily painted towns nestled on the cliff-sides near La Spezia, Italy, we disembarked with crowds of other day-trippers who’d come to see these once isolated streets (until a few decades ago, the five seaside towns of Cinque Terre were only accessible by boat).
I think I speak for a lot of people when I describe the feeling of wanting a place to myself wherever I visit. The sight of hordes of tourists invariably sets my teeth on edge. It’s like taking a trip to your favourite café to quietly sit and read a book, savour the coffee and listen to some chilled tunes, only to find a party of thirty children are rioting in the establishment, led by Koko the klaxon-wielding clown. In our globalised, hyper-connected, travel-hungry society, where anyplace is a plane ticket away, virtually nowhere is safe from tourism.
Like the Thai authorities who have closed Koh Phi Phi’s beach for the foreseeable future, organisations and governments can work to help protect our last remaining wild spaces and areas of natural beauty. But is that really what it takes? Are we facing a dystopian future of limited travel, with only the wealthy and privileged gaining access to iconic, awe-inspiring places? It’s an extreme concept, but as an increasing number of destinations suffer the pressures of tourism, we may see more restricted access to such places come into effect. A solution that’s often voiced is responsible tourism. It’s encouraging to discover that a high proportion of 21st century travellers rank sustainability as a number one priority when choosing tour operators. The next big challenge is to define what sustainability means, and how we can make tourism authorities accountable.
Sustainable tourism is a minefield, because it depends on who or what is being sustained, and why. The argument in many cases is the revenue that tourists bring to a country, particularly if that country is developing. But is that money worth it when historical architecture or the natural environment is being damaged by a constant stream of sightseers, or the indigenous residents are treated by tourists as commodities to be interacted with? Then there’s the problem of homogenization of culture. In layman’s terms, this is when you go to a tropical resort in search of exotic culture, but still expect a Starbucks with your sea view paradise. It seems that most people want a destination that’s different, but still feels like home. And thanks to global corporations and media, it’s not hard to find these places nowadays.
As someone who has experienced the value of travel, I still advocate hopping aboard a plane and going to see somewhere that widens the mind. But I also think that in this time of rising global population and prosperity we all need to travel consciously, considering our actions as individuals. Rather than thinking about what we can take from our travel experiences (photographs, tacky souvenirs, beach pebbles…) we should contemplate what we can add. Or in the very least, how we can tread more softly wherever we visit. If you’re a travel addict like Nate and I, there are many ways you can get your fix while minimising your impact on the Earth. Whether you want to support a native community, experience incredible nature while helping to protect it, or simply want a relaxing getaway that won’t trash the planet, I’ve listed some options: Book an adventure trip with an eco-conscious operator like Responsible Travel, Adventure Alternative or Earthchangers. You can embark on expeditions, adventure holidays and conservation quests while supporting their campaigns with environmental NGOs, encouraging independent businesses and avoiding animal exploitation.
If you’re one of those bonkers individuals (like we are) who actually enjoys working on holiday, voluntourism could be up your alley. With countless websites offering work-away experiences that benefit indigenous communities and threatened wildlife, you can find a vacation that truly gives back to the planet. Make a start with a site like https://govoluntouring.com/ to find something that suits you.
If you’re in need of a genuine holiday, help is at hand from websites like Kynder or EcoCompanion; these platforms seek and present the best eco-friendly hospitality from around the world. If you’re looking for a green hotel, an eco-lodge or an off-grid yurt, these companies can help. Kynder also lists the best eco-friendly cafes, bars and restaurants. My third option is to go local. Nowadays, social media encourages us to impress others with our travel experiences. Even if you’re not an Instagram show-off, the desire to seek out somewhere new and exotic blinds us to the wonderful things on our own doorstep. Take a road trip, cycle somewhere new or pay a visit to a national park on home turf. Book a self-catering cottage by the sea or a lodge in the wilderness. Go camping. You might gain a deeper appreciation for your homeland. And not only will you be reducing your carbon footprint by avoiding the air miles, you’ll be supporting local communities in your native country.
And if the lure of the exotic and luxurious still draws you, spare a thought for where you fly to. Aim for the less-beaten path and travel lightly and mindfully. And above all else, don’t try to take a sh*t on Koh Phi Phi beach.
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