Tourism and environmental damage: How travellers are ruining the world

Some friends of mine have stopped travelling. Pretty much, anyway. They're refusing to fly anywhere, unless they're going to be staying in their destination for a very long time.

If they're travelling from Sydney to Melbourne, say, they'll drive. Same with anywhere else in Australia too. The only way they'd board a plane to fly, even to somewhere as close as New Zealand, is if they planned to stay there for a least a month, but probably more. Otherwise, to them, it's not worth the damage they're causing the environment.

Consider that: no three-week holidays in Europe. No budget flights to Thailand. No weekends away in Perth. That's the sacrifice they're making for what, in their minds, is the good of the planet. They're just one couple, but they're trying to make a difference.

You have to admire it. In this age of mass tourism, when more of us than ever are leaving home for more exciting climes, when airports are being jammed with passengers, when popular cities are being overrun with short-term visitors, when beautiful sites are becoming polluted, when land is being cleared for hotels, when ancient ruins are being pounded by Teva-clad feet, they're taking a stand. No more.

You have to admire it, because we travellers are ruining the planet – that's the inconvenient truth. We all know it deep down, too. Regardless of how often we tell ourselves that we're "travellers", not tourists, and that it's really everyone else who is ruining it for the likes of us, that's not true. Good intentions don't change the fact that we're all just a part of the huge number. We're all flying, we're all visiting, we're all trampling.

I got thinking about this recently not just because of the stand my friends are taking, but because of reported plans in Thailand to close Maya Bay, better known as the filming location for The Beach, on Koh Phi Phi, from June to September this year.

That closure, by the sounds of it, is not actually a complete closure, as was first mooted, but merely a banning of boats from landing at the beach – tourists will still be able to access Maya Bay on foot after landing at Loh Samah Bay, about 250 metres away. But the fact remains that environmental damage has been so great around Maya the Thai government has moved to restrict access to one of its most famous tourist attractions.

There are reports, too, that the Philippines government is considering a plan to shut down Boracay, the jewel in its beachy crown, for 60 days later this year to allow the area to recover from chronic over-touristing.

These closures are indicative of a wider problem. Tourism destroys. It's a fact driven by sheer weight of numbers. Cruise ships pollute. Aeroplanes pollute. Hotels pollute. Individual travellers add to the seas of plastic and waste the world over.

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It seems fitting to me that Maya Bay, home of "The Beach", is at the centre of this mess. Alex Garland's novel was always a perfect metaphor for modern tourism, but it might be taking on new meaning now, a meaning the writer hadn't planned.

Think about it: the story features a map to a promised land (not dissimilar to a blog or an Instagram post) where you would find only like-minded travellers, where you could do anything, where you could be anyone. And yet, the dream goes sour. Tourists, when left to their own devices, will destroy themselves, the story goes, will ruin the very thing they sought out and created. In the book it was social – now it's environmental.

Welcome to the world. We're destroying it. We're loving it to death.

The question is though: what can you do? I admire my friends' anti-travel stance, but I couldn't do it. I love travel too much. I gain too much from seeing the world, as I'm sure so many other travellers do. So how do we find a balance of loving the world without destroying it?

I had a chat a few months ago to Kris Tompkins, the former CEO of the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, who's now a full-time conservationist and who just completed the largest land donation in history, gifting a huge chunk of Northern Patagonia to the Chilean government. She was, to put it mildly, pretty scathing of travellers who make no attempt to give back or to protect the places they visit.

"People walk away and say, 'I had such a great time', and then they do nothing," Kris says. "To me that's wildly irresponsible. The point is to act. And if you don't act, then don't go anywhere, because you're worthless to that place.

"People who aren't doing anything should be ashamed of themselves. You can't love these places, you can't tour around and have a great time and then leave them behind and just think somebody else will take care of them."

Travellers who want to leave the world in a reasonable state have to act. But the difficulty is in knowing what to do, how to help. Do you give money? Do you give time? And to whom do you give it? Again, that's something everyone has to research and decide for themselves.

"There are a million different places and they all require different kinds of support," says Kris. "The point is that you do something, that you ask, that you make a commitment to yourself, that by the time you get home you have figured out how to contribute to that place that you loved."

You don't have to stop travelling – that's the good news. But if you want to be a responsible citizen who leaves the world in a state that's at least as good as the one you found it in, then you have to do something.

Are travellers loving the world to death? Is this something you think about when you travel? Have you ever attempted to give back to the places you visit? Post a comment below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Have tourists ruined 'the finest walk in the world'?

 

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