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The ethics of travel

December 21, 2010

It's long known that mass tourism poses a serious threat to the environment. An increasing number of holidaymakers are opting for eco-tourism which aims to protect travel destinations and their natural surroundings.

Tourists on a boat sailing along a river
Responsible tourism doesn't mean it has to be boringImage: CC/bloodless

It's a scene emblematic of global mass tourism. At 8 in the morning, the early risers have already spread out their towels on the sun loungers by the pool. By 11, the first jug of sangria has been ordered and the all-you-can-eat buffet is getting ready to open.

And even though the hotel is on the sunny Spanish island of Mallorca, the staff all speak German, and are ready to cater to the every need of holidaymakers who've spent 287 euros ($378) a head for a week-long package tour, flights and cocktails included.

It might seem like a low-cost way of escaping the grim German winter, but the environmental cost is high. Mass tourism often takes a heavy toll on nature. On the island of Mallorca, the consequences of five decades of unchecked tourism include a water shortage and a concrete jungle along the coastline. Even the once unspoilt beaches of the Balearic island are now lined with yacht harbors.

Traveling with a good conscience

A beach full of people on Mallorca
Mallorca is no longer an insider tipImage: picture alliance/dpa

But the situation doesn't need to get any worse. The alternative to mass tourism is ‘soft' or green tourism – also known as environmentally-friendly tourism, gentle tourism, sustainable tourism and ecotourism. Essentially, the aim is to leave travel destinations unspoiled or unchanged by tourism.

"Ecotourism is a responsible form of travel that contributes to environmental protection and the wellbeing of local communities,” explains Ayako Ezaki from the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). "Both the environment and the populations visited should benefit in cultural, economic and environmental terms from tourism."

So, why isn't everyone doing it? Mainly, because ecotourism is considerably more expensive than a package trip – and to many, snagging a bargain still matters more than having a clear conscience.

Responsible travel is a concept that has yet to sink in on a broader scale, despite the galloping pace of climate change. Not so very long ago, international travel was prohibitively costly, so only a privileged few could afford to see the world.

But recent decades have seen low-cost tourism boom – at least for the developed world. Some 900 million people a year take advantage of no-frills travel options every year, and the knock-on effect is a rapid rise in CO2 levels.

Growing awareness

A tourist 'zips' through a rainforest, about 45 meters above the ground, in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos
In Laos, tourists can stay overnight high up in centuries-old treesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Nevertheless, increasing numbers of travellers are realizing that it's not okay to use liters of water every time they take a shower when locals lack access to a clean drinking water supply.

According to TIES, the ecotourism sector has been growing by 34 percent each year since 1990.

Jonathan Tourtellot from the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations attributes the trend to increased awareness of environmental issues and the need to curb climate change. "Moreover, there's also a growing interest in 'authentic' destinations," he says.

This means that tourists don't just hole up in sterile hotels but get to actually explore their environment in all its natural beauty.

But even ecotourists tend to fly to their destinations, thereby adding to global CO2 emissions. And with their swimming pools, air conditioning, restaurants and cafés that remain lit up into the early hours of the morning, tourist centres all over the world consume high levels of energy. By switching to renewable energies, hotels can also do their bit to make sustainable tourism a viable alternative.

One hotel on the island Kho Khao in Thailnd has done just that. The Kho Khao Beach Resort now meets most of its energy needs through a combination of solar and wind power units. The hotel owners hope to cut the island's carbon emissions by 20 percent, and in the long run, they hope that Kho Khao will provide a model for sustainable tourism in Thailand.

Putting the brakes on climate change is one aspect of green travel, and protecting natural habitats from the ravages of mass tourism is another. Kho Khao is home to ocean turtles, dolphins and rare birds, and these will only survive if the local tourism industry develops at a gentle pace.

The economics of tourism

Indigenous Carib Indians on a balcony in the Carib Territory, Dominica.
Getting to know the local population is one aspect of ecotourismImage: AP

Yet another aspect of responsible tourism is the role it plays in the economies of developing nations. Ayako Ekazi from TIES explains that ecotourism should ideally help tackle local poverty and promote growth. Moreover, tourists can talk to locals and learn something about the country they are visiting –exchange of information and communication is inevitably constructive and educational.

"Ecotourism is not a one-way street,” says Ezaki. "These days it is often cited as an opportunity for growth in developing nations, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist in the richer nations.”

The National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, for example, is currently working on an initiative in the Douro Valley in Portugal to promote gentle tourism.

And even Mallorca is not yet a lost cause: It's home to numerous projects aimed at preserving the island's countryside. And after the Spanish property crash of 2007, the government put a stop to further hotel construction in many regions.

Author: Nele Jensch (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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