Sustainable tourism: Why you might already be doing 'green travel' and not know it

I'm the first to admit that when someone says the word "sustainability" to me my eyes roll. It's one of those killjoy words that suggest it will be shortly followed by a lecture about what's good and not good for me.

Human nature responds better to being coaxed than told, as all parents learn when faced with a child who will not swallow their peas. (First lesson - poking their cheek does not help.)

Recognising this, many people in the travel industry have switched to using the word "regenerative" when talking about eco or green initiatives, highlighting the positive benefits of travelling in a way that's considerate of others and our increasingly fragile planet.

If you take something, you put something else back, like a kind of cosmic book swap.

Regenerative does sound a bit Gwyneth Paltrow, though, like a result you might achieve after a week at a wellness resort at the back of Byron Bay. "Eco" and "green", which I used in the preceding paragraph, are vague, often go unchallenged and are too regularly used as PR spin, like the fuel-guzzling bus emblazoned with the logo GREEN TOURS. Even though we sort of get what they mean.

Whatever the words we use, I do think people understand that unfettered mass tourism, while egalitarian, has reached the tipping point – and now negatively affects the communities and environments it might have once benefited.

In the big picture, the juggernaut of climate change is threatening our most beloved tourist attractions. They may no longer be there, at least not in the same form, if we don't give them some urgent attention.

UNESCO has proposed that the Great Barrier Reef be reclassified as endangered, threatening its removal from the coveted World Heritage List. That this could happen, and so rapidly, is unimaginable and yet there have been warnings since 2016 with the first mass coral bleaching.

The way things are going, the only chance our children and grandchildren will have to see corals will be in an aquarium. Actually, in a couple of decades, if we reach 2 degrees warming, it might be the only way we can experience them. Just one percent of the world's corals can survive that level of warming with massive implications for the planet's health.

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Research by the search engine Booking.com shows that many travellers feel anxious about climate change and are prepared to take more responsibility in their travel choices so future generations might enjoy the same pleasures of travel.

The 2021 Sustainable Travel Report discovered that 72 per cent of Australian travellers think sustainable travel is vital, with 63 per cent saying they will avoid popular destinations and attractions to disperse the benefits of travel, while 72 per cent  want to stay in sustainable accommodation and 69 per cent  would like to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport and 43 per cent  think there are not enough sustainable options.

So, it's not really that the intention to be a good traveller is lacking, but there are often roadblocks in the way. One is the perception that having a good time and being a good global citizen are mutually exclusive. As a friend said to me yesterday, "When I go on holiday, I want to have fun, I don't want to feel guilty about it."

Consider this - many of the most fun and rewarding travel experiences can also be planet-positive. Think camping, hiking, food tours with locals or indigenous guides, hanging out at cafes and spending money in communities, visiting artists, taking long train journeys, or helping scientists do research as part of a visit to the Great Barrier Reef.

Another roadblock is the perception that sustainable travel will cost more. It's true that some of the world's most environmentally responsible travel brands - Six Senses, Soneva, Aman, One&Only among them - are the big-ticket ones. The same can be said for small ship cruises and bespoke small group tours. Travellers pay a premium for space, access, less crowds and the service that goes with these.

Many of these brands invest heavily in the legacy of the natural world, the societies and the heritage buildings in which they exist, and they do it for future generations, not just those who can afford to visit now. But they do remain out of the reach for many travellers.

Still, they are just a tiny fraction of what's available in the world of travel.

The pandemic showed that experiencing nature and taking part in community are two things travellers desire most. While we're limited to journeys within Australia, we have 20 world heritage sites on the continent ripe for exploring and eight per cent of our landmass is national parks, all of which are inexpensive to access.

We can visit destinations ravaged by bushfire and loss of tourism due to closed borders. We can walk with Aboriginal elders and learn more about country. We can travel to rural towns and find out about life outside the cities. We can stay on farms, visit small wineries, go surfing on uncrowded breaks.

That is sustainable travel. And in many cases, we're already doing it.

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