Responsible tourism

Environmentally sustainable travel does not have a glamourous calfskin suitcase wrapped around it. Most people assume it means making compromises and sacrificing some pleasure and luxury – two of the things that many people especially seek on their holidays.

And it’s true that the most environmentally and socially responsible travel usually does involve a certain amount of discomfort and difficulty. We are travelling mostly by hot, cramped, awkward public transport. We stay in small, locally run budget guesthouses or family homes, where there is no air conditioning, sometimes no electricity or sporadic power, usually no hot water, frequently only a bucket shower, usually a non-flush toilet, we do our own laundry or have it done by a local person, we eat local food with local people [this is all sounding a bit League of Gentlemen] and so we hope that our impact on the place is positive in terms of the revenue we provide and that we don’t overuse resources. It means that we meet and interact with the people who live and work in each place and we get to experience the countries we visit in a different way to people who come on a package trip and stay in a big resort run and staffed by foreigners.

Most of the time we have no alternative anyway, and even if one existed we perhaps couldn’t afford it. But actually these are not the biggest problems for us in terms of inconvenience. Rather, it is the constant moving around that is draining. Public transport and lack of infrastructure like decent roads, telecomms and so on are probably the biggest pain for me. Everything takes soooo much longer and arranging anything is a tedious business.

Interestingly, the only person I have met who doesn’t share this view of sustainable travel is the travel editor at one of the UK’s biggest newspapers, who told me that readers assume that environmentally sustainable travel means luxury tourism. Which makes me wonder whether I made similarly bizarre assumptions about my readership during my years as an editor.

The CSR initiatives of large hotel chains are largely greenwash nonsense, such as asking guests to specify when they want their towels and bed linen changed – something that presumably saves the hotel in laundry bills but does little else.

There are some expensive boutique hotels and other luxury options that do try to make an effort (I am not counting things like including organic wines on the menu), by using a part of their profits to support local communities, or by using renewable energy, for example. But they are few.

One of the problems is that most people don’t want to come away on a holiday that they have spent their entire year saving the money and time for, only to discover that there is no aircon, that there is no generator providing 24hr power, that they can’t order a huge range of dishes and drinks – in short, they want the convenience of Western living but in a beautiful tropical location and with added luxury sprinkled on top.

A large and luxury hotel will never be as sustainable as low-key living in a small guesthouse. But, as such budget travelled areas become more popular, the number of guesthouses increases unsustainably – the infrastructure doesn’t keep pace (these are poor countries), so there is no garbage collection, poor sewerage and insufficient water supplied. Worse, an area’s popularity encourages larger hotels to come, frequented by package tourists who visit in large numbers for a week at a time, and can often disturb the cultural and social balance of a place completely.

We have visited some luxury hotels during our trip that are genuinely impressive with what they are trying to achieve. Dwarikas in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a beautifully run pace, which has single-handedly preserved a large portion of the nation’s heritage by conserving architecturally important woodcarvings from the eleventh century onwards, and setting up a carpentry school to train young Nepalis in the craft. The hotel has many more initiatives, including renewable energy production to power their hotel and local villages, literacy classes for local women held by the hotel’s owner and others, microfinance and microproduction for some of the country’s poorest people. Dwarikas is a fantastic example of
how tourism can lead development and environmental programmes in a failed state. (Nepal has recently emerged from more than 10 years of near-civil war and it is one of the ten poorest countries in the world.)

Banyan Tree resort in Maldives is also impressive. After the 2004 Asian tsunami, the resort’s head of conservation organised a rebuilding project on the neighbouring island that had been very badly impacted. Staff spent 6 months living there in 2-week shifts until the local people’s houses were rebuilt. Other resorts gave money, but this was the only one to offer direct, practical support.

Perhaps the closest thing I have seen to sustainable luxury tourism is at Soneva Fushi resort in Maldives, though. They aim to be carbon neutral by next year and have come up with a host of wonderfully inventive ways of achieving it. They are actively conserving the natural forest on the island, which keeps it cooler than others. They recycle their glass themselves using a crusher. They have banned plastic and imported water – the water is made in situ by desalination, which is currently from a diesel generator, but will be solar-powered next year. They convert all their agro waste to biochar and heat, which they use to fertilise the soil to grow the island’s vegetables and for some power. They are planning to install pyrolysis equipment to convert everything from plastic waste to paper into fuel and energy. They have installed a deep-sea heat exchange system that draws cool water from 300 metres below the ocean to circulate through the island’s air conditioning units. The entire resort has been built with sustainable materials and great care has been taken to ensure that everything from the architecture to the bathrooms enhances wastes as little resources as possible. For example, the bedrooms are constructed with plenty of natural ventilation options so that aircon doesn’t need to be used, and with copious natural light.

It was very impressive. There’s more, but it must wait because again this post is too long!

4 thoughts

  1. Hi Gaia,

    I find your work very valuable to make people more concerned and active in working towards planet conservation. Concerning your current post, I agree about greenwashing tourists about environmental sustainability of their travel. However, there is a problem with your current post about environmentally responsible tourism. First, if someone travels to Nepal by plane, there is no chance that such tourism can ever be environmentally sustainable unless planes are solar-powered. Initiatives to promote sustainability by hosts can only slightly change the negative environmental balance. Second, I would think that exploring nearby or your own countries is the most sustainable option especially if it is done by bike.


    1. You make a good point Sergey, air travel does produce a lot of carbon emissions. And many people, including friends of mine, make a decision not to fly at all and only to holiday in places near to where they live. The journey that I am making around the developing world would not be practical without some flying, but I fully understand the argument against my doing so.

  2. Gaia and Vince, you could offset your emissions. You could buy some carbon credits. Your efforts to save the planet may be taken more seriously if you were to reduce your carbon footprint.

    Those of us who believe the planet is under real threat should be the first to reduce our carbon emissions.

    1. We are contributing to carbon-offsetting schemes but actually I prefer not to think of our emissions being “offset” in that way.

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