How travel trashes the planet

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.

Maya Bay - image courtesy of Mike Clegg Photogra

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.

Outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet

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.

Nate watching the kea at Milford Sound

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).