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Unlike the world of 50 years ago, today nearly everyone travels, to destinations near and far. The world has truly become a much smaller place than it it was just a generation or two ago. Travel by its very nature has an impact - often negative - on the environment, on the cultures and on the economies of local people who play host to tourism throughout the world. This is why sustainable travel - travel that leaves the world a better place for us having been there - is essential to help maintain a healthy balance between providing a means to enjoy the journey while at the same time protecting the very resources that attract us to lands near and far in the first place.
Whether or not we like to think about it, the sheer process of travel depletes natural resources and causes pollution. Creating and maintaining the infrastructure for tourism often brings negative physical impacts on the environment such as deforestation, alteration of ecosystems and intensified or unsustainable use of land. Travel is also a major culprit of climate change, accounting for one-third of the world's climate damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
Tourism also alters the face of culture and society, not only for people in far away places such as tribal communities in the Amazon rain forest, but also in local communities throughout our more familiar North America. Host communities find themselves adapting their original culture and their societal structure in ways that will facilitate tourism, sometimes resulting in cultural deterioration and change or loss of indigenous identity and values. The basic physical influences of tourism can also cause social stress, such as resource use conflicts and traditional land-use conflicts. Cultural clashes can result.
Perhaps cultural and social changes are justified by economic benefits, we rationalize. But while many like to think of tourism as having a positive economic effect on the communities we visit, sometimes the opposite is true. Often little of the total tourism expenditures actually remain in the local communities after taxes. There is also the issue of enclave tourism, in which travelers spend all of their time and money in all-inclusive cruise ships or resorts rather than with merchants in the areas they visit. As a result, price inflation often occurs, contributing to less spending. Some communities also develop an economic dependence on tourism, which is completely unhealthy to their long-term well-being.
Wherever there are negative impacts, there is an opportunity for positive change. Travelers with a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity, living in a world where the environment, the culture and the economy are threatened, have an opportunity to protect our natural and cultural heritage so that everyone can benefit. We can do this by encouraging, supporting and participating in sustainable travel and tourism. By embracing this sense of awareness, and seeking to be an active participant in the growing world of "voluntourism", each of us can help change the industry by increasing demand for sustainable tourism and the creation of programs allowing the participants to give back to the local community. We like to consider this a win-win-win situation, sometimes referred to as the Triple Bottom Line - economic profitability, respect for the environment and social responsibility. The Triple Bottom Line means improvement in conservation of the natural environment, social benefit for local communities and profit for business owners and shareholders, which leads ultimately to gain for national or regional economies.
But, you ask, where do I start and how can I make a difference? The travel industry is huge, and often driven by bottom line profits and short term gains without regard to long term or even permanent impact. By choosing to step up and become an active "voluntourist", you can start today to make the world a better place. By voting with your time and travel dollars, choosing operators and programs that respect the cultures and environments we visit, that preserve delicate resources and work to un-do damage, then each trip you take, every move you make, can work towards achieving the sustainability mission. In fact, there is ample evidence and research available to support the case that the bottom-line to green is back. By pursuing and demanding sustainable practices from our selected operators, airlines, and resorts, we can help improve profitability and net lower costs through resource productivity and waste reduction, while positively contributing to environmental conservation and the well being of local people. Focusing on impact management helps to minimize the negative impacts of tourism and enhance its quality, ensuring the preservation of destinations and cultures for future generations and creating more attractive environments and better products.
Everyone benefits by choosing sustainable travel. Participants gain a true appreciation for and understanding of other cultures. Supporting local communities and environmental conservation makes each traveler feel better about themselves. The travelers social conscious and environmental awareness to play a more active role in the travel selection process, and will tend to align individual purchasing decisions - which are typically based on pricing, quality and convenience - with the participants core values. And in the end, everyone gains by expanding their global perspective.
Local communities benefit as well. Sustainable travel and tourism improve local employment opportunities and wages, enhance opportunities for local enterprise, create collective income sources through fees and revenue share, mitigate negative socio-cultural and environmental impacts, allow for capacity building, education and training, increase local stakeholder participation in decision making, build partnerships between local communities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, lay the groundwork for more supportive policy and planning frameworks and improve local infrastructure and services.
For the sustainable voluntourism movement to grow and support community development, biodiversity conservation and other environmental, socio-cultural and economic improvements, it needs to to incorporate a "buy-in" from leaders in all segments of the travel and tourism industry. However, as more and more travelers recognize and embrace the importance of sustainable practices, sustainable travel will grow to be the new industry norm, and appeal to a broader audience whose buying habits have been traditionally based on price, quality and convenience. Tour operators who want to benefit from sustainable tourism will adapt the policies and programs into their operations, and offer authentic and meaningful experiences that are experiential and educational as well as inspiring and rewarding. We, as adventure travelers and volunteers, have a huge opportunity to promote the inherit values of sustainability, preserving and protecting the places we visit and the planet at large.