You can take measures to reduce the negative impact of tourism

What do you do if you love to travel, but realize all the negative effects it has on the places you visit?

It’s the ultimate conundrum in the realm of responsible tourism, and something I’ve struggled with often. (I wrote about this more in detail in the article “Does Tourism Do More Harm Than Good?”)

If you’re someone like me who can’t picture a life without travel, who truly yearns to float around the globe no matter the personal cost, at the very least, you have a responsibility to minimize damage to the places you’re visiting.

Don’t get me wrong — that’s not exactly a good track record. It’s sort of like the Hippocratic oath of travel, “Do no harm.” Unfortunately, sometimes even those efforts don’t mitigate the negative impacts of tourism.

As the Global Development Research Center has written, tourism can deplete natural resources including water, food, and cause land degradation. It can also contribute to additional air pollution and noise, deforestation, and additional sewage — just to name a few effects.

PS: I’ve written a blog post before on eco-friendly travel tips. This piece is more focused on tourism overcrowding and other residential impact.

Depressing statistics aside, not all is lost. Here are a few things you can do to minimize the negative aspects of tourism.

Recognize Your Privilege

Let’s look at this with clear eyes: the ability to travel freely around the world is an incredibly privileged position to be in. Many people either don’t have the money or political capability to do so. And then of course, there are refugees who are forced out of their homes and have to leave. No choice there.

So yes — understand that you are incredibly privileged to have the disposable income, visa privileges, and every other birth lottery situation that has worked in your favor to undertake this dream. With great power comes great responsibility.

Putting yourself in a more conscious mindset about those privileges is the first step to reduce the negative impacts of tourism…but it’s just the beginning of a very long (and really never-ending) journey.

Related article: Why Traveling as a White American is the Ultimate Form of Privilege

Research the Area

What are you walking into? Before you actually step foot on the soil, research the country to understand the political, cultural, or economic context. Read about whether the negative impacts of tourism have already hit a country hard, and where.

If you see that a place is already being destroyed due to mass tourism, reconsider whether or not you actually need check that spot off your bucket list. For example, Machu Picchu is being completely eroded by the onslaught of tourism. Is there somewhere else you could visit to cause less damage?

Don’t Ride Cruise Ships

Cruise ships are a big culprit of mass tourism woes. Cruise ships dump nearly one billion tons of sewage into the oceans each year. In fact, cruises emit three times the amount of C02 that airplanes do.

There are a million other things they do to negatively impact the environment, including killing off fish and coral reefs. But they also have a negative impact on the places people visit.

For example, in 2014, Venetian residents backed a ban on large cruise ships because these behemoths docking right in the heart of the fragile city risked actually destroying the sites completely.

And once the ship actually docks, mass amounts of tourists unloading onto a town all at the same time can have a devastating effect.

Cities like Dubrovnik, Croatia are struggling with massive hoards of cruise ship residents pouring out onto the streets all at once — creating an unpleasant environment where people can hardly walk.

That destroys not only the ambiance of a place, but also its everyday use for actual residents.

Long story short: cruise ships aren’t that great anyway. As Lia Ryerson put it, “You’re paying to spend your entire vacation trapped on a glorified shopping mall.” Don’t ride them.

Travel in Smaller Groups

Avoiding cruise ships is one way to do this. Another way? Don’t join giant tour groups if you can avoid them.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that solo travel isn’t for everyone. I also get that if you’re in a country that has a completely different language and not many people speak English, it’s intimidating to travel without a guide.

That said, there’s still usually a good way to get around the large group problem. Get a book or audio tour when you want to know the history of a place, or seek out tour guides that deliberately keep groups small and manageable.

This helps reduce the negative impacts of tourism because you won’t be clogging up and blocking spaces as often — which makes life very inconvenient for the residents who live there.

Avoid Volunteering

I used to be one of the naive souls who thought my volunteering abroad would really do the world some good. Beyond the argument that this is just white saviorism, the facts usually don’t line up with the rosy idea of making a positive difference.

Sadly, studies have shown that up to 80% of children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans. Many of them are children whose parents have been duped into giving them to these facilities because it’s such a profitable venture.

Think long and hard about how to reduce the negative impacts of tourism if you really want to volunteer abroad.

Is this a skill you could provide help for in your home country? (ie, Do you have the skills and training necessary that would qualify you?) Are you taking legitimate, potentially paying work away from local residents? Do you know exactly where your donation money is going towards?

If you can’t answer each of these questions with confidence, volunteering in your own community will probably have a much more positive net impact.

Related article: My Mixed Feelings on Volunteering with Sex Trafficking Survivors

Take a Trip off the Beaten Path

The more frequently you visit hyper-popular sites, the more you’ll contribute to the problem. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the most popular tourist spots and visit the crevices and corners that aren’t so well known.

Many of the famous sites I was “supposed” to visit when I was abroad didn’t feel worth the swarms of tourists to get through. Call me a heretic, but seeing the portrait of Mona Lisa behind inches-thick glass and surrounded by people taking selfies didn’t exactly stir my soul.

You can avoid these tourist traps by:

1) Skipping some of those overly-tourist spots that might not actually bring you much satisfaction.

2) Choosing lesser-known places and visiting there.

3) Walking around aimlessly and bumping into whatever comes your way.

Number three just so happens to be my favorite style of travel, because I get to enjoy the little eccentricities of a place and discover them in a leisurely and agenda-less way.

Buy Locally-Made Souvenirs

You didn’t really come all the way to Brazil to buy a souvenir from China, did you? Besides the negative environmental impact of shipping souvenirs from afar, it takes money out of the pockets of local artisans.

Reduce the negative impacts of tourism by putting money in local producer’s pockets. There’s always someone selling their craft who can offer something genuine to buy — an actual keepsake that will have real meaning.

For example, in Ljubljana, it’s easy to visit markets that dispense of locally produced honey, schnapps, or jam. That’s much better than some throwaway snow globe.

Use Couchsurfing

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll write about it again: Couchsurfing is my favorite way to travel.

Not familiar with Couchsurfing? Here’s how it works: you meet people on the Couchsurfing app and stay at their place for free.

In exchange, you may buy them some groceries or enjoy a cultural exchange. (Also, you don’t always sleep on a couch — some people get their own bedrooms.)

Couchsurfing reduces the negative impacts of tourism threefold:

1) It allows you to participate in the sharing economy.

2) It doesn’t displace residents or increase their rent.

3) It’s a great medium to know the local people and culture.

Oh yeah, and it saves you money, too!

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not always an angel in this respect. Sometimes I get an Airbnb because I need a more stable internet connection and place for work. In that case, I often try to rent out a room instead of entire places. This helps keep rent in the town lower and it’s a nice way to forge connections with people from the area.

Maybe you’re too much of a planner and don’t like the idea of not having a place set in stone. Even if that’s the case, you can still join Couchsurfing meetups. Many towns host them on a weekly basis. It’s a great way to get to know local people and understand the town from their eyes. In my opinion, that’s the best part about traveling.

Travel in Smaller Groups

Avoiding cruise ships is one way to do this. Another way? Don’t join giant tour groups if you can avoid them.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that solo travel isn’t for everyone. I also get that if you’re in a country that has a completely different language and not many people speak English, it’s intimidating to travel without a guide.

That said, there’s still usually a good way to get around the large group problem. Get a book or audio tour when you want to know the history of a place, or seek out tour guides that deliberately keep groups small and manageable.

This helps reduce the negative impacts of tourism because you won’t be clogging up and blocking spaces as often — which makes life very inconvenient for the residents who live there.

Avoid Volunteering

I used to be one of the naive souls who thought my volunteering abroad would really do the world some good. Beyond the argument that this is just white saviorism, the facts usually don’t line up with the rosy idea of making a positive difference.

Sadly, studies have shown that up to 80% of children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans. Many of them are children whose parents have been duped into giving them to these facilities because it’s such a profitable venture.

Think long and hard about how to reduce the negative impacts of tourism if you really want to volunteer abroad.

Is this a skill you could provide help for in your home country? (ie, Do you have the skills and training necessary that would qualify you?) Are you taking legitimate, potentially paying work away from local residents? Do you know exactly where your donation money is going towards?

If you can’t answer each of these questions with confidence, volunteering in your own community will probably have a much more positive net impact.

Related article: My Mixed Feelings on Volunteering with Sex Trafficking Survivors

Take a Trip off the Beaten Path

The more frequently you visit hyper-popular sites, the more you’ll contribute to the problem. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the most popular tourist spots and visit the crevices and corners that aren’t so well known.

Many of the famous sites I was “supposed” to visit when I was abroad didn’t feel worth the swarms of tourists to get through. Call me a heretic, but seeing the portrait of Mona Lisa behind inches-thick glass and surrounded by people taking selfies didn’t exactly stir my soul.

You can avoid these tourist traps by:

1) Skipping some of those overly-tourist spots that might not actually bring you much satisfaction.

2) Choosing lesser-known places and visiting there.

3) Walking around aimlessly and bumping into whatever comes your way.

Number three just so happens to be my favorite style of travel, because I get to enjoy the little eccentricities of a place and discover them in a leisurely and agenda-less way.

Buy Locally-Made Souvenir

Reduce the negative impacts of tourism by putting money in local producer’s pockets. There’s always someone selling their craft who can offer something genuine to buy — an actual keepsake that will have real meaning.

For example, in Ljubljana, it’s easy to visit markets that dispense of locally produced honey, schnapps, or jam. That’s much better than some throwaway snow globe.

Use Couchsurfing

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll write about it again: Couchsurfing is my favorite way to travel.

Not familiar with Couchsurfing? Here’s how it works: you meet people on the Couchsurfing app and stay at their place for free.

In exchange, you may buy them some groceries or enjoy a cultural exchange. (Also, you don’t always sleep on a couch — some people get their own bedrooms.)

Couchsurfing reduces the negative impacts of tourism threefold:

1) It allows you to participate in the sharing economy.

2) It doesn’t displace residents or increase their rent.

3) It’s a great medium to know the local people and culture.

Oh yeah, and it saves you money, too!

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not always an angel in this respect. Sometimes I get an Airbnb because I need a more stable internet connection and place for work. In that case, I often try to rent out a room instead of entire places. This helps keep rent in the town lower and it’s a nice way to forge connections with people from the area.

Maybe you’re too much of a planner and don’t like the idea of not having a place set in stone. Even if that’s the case, you can still join Couchsurfing meetups. Many towns host them on a weekly basis. It’s a great way to get to know local people and understand the town from their eyes. In my opinion, that’s the best part about traveling.

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