After eighteen months of lockdown it was finally time to book a family holiday. I began throwing destinations out, but my daughter looked gloomy. Finally, I asked what the problem was.
“Can you not find a destination we can get to without flying? I feel guilty about the carbon footprint.”
That’s the modern teen for you, but there is a serious point. Many people are making their holiday decisions based on factors that weren’t even on the radar a decade ago. And if you are in the travel business you need to understand this.
There are two sides to sustainable tourism. The first is the experience of the traveller. How do you see the world without leaving a big sooty footprint.
The second side is from the tourist trade itself; how do you provide an experience that is green, eco-friendly and sustainable?
Why is sustainable tourism important?
To answer that, we need to ask what is sustainable tourism?
The UN Environment Program, and the World Tourism Organisation, say it is: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
The impacts can be both positive and negative. The negative impacts can include damage to the natural environment, overcrowding, cultural contamination, and economic leakage. But these are balanced by the positive impacts, such as job creation, cultural heritage preservation, wildlife protection, landscape restoration, and an injection of needed finances to a disadvantaged area.
Once we understand what it is, we can see why the concept is important.
By its nature tourism values the things we celebrate in our world – the stunning landscapes, the wildlife, history, culture, and the art and music of the local people. Tourism sparks growth in the local economy, providing jobs, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and money for preservation. But if that is not managed well, tourism can destroy what it relies upon.
Ephesus in Turkey is one of the major historical sites of the world. But as you approach you have to wade through a small town of huckster stalls, cheap plastic souvenirs, and knock-off watches and sunglasses. The ancient streets are littered with sweet wrappers, ice-cream sticks, and other junk. That is not sustainable tourism.
It gets worse. Some tourism not only negatively impacts the environment, it destroys it. Big game hunting is the classic example. Wealthy hunters pay large sums to hunt the big five African animals. There are all the positive tourist benefits. Money flows into the economy, guides get well paid, and local services are used.
But rare and endangered animals are destroyed. If big game hunting is allowed to continue the time will come when it will end because the thing the tourism celebrates – big game – will be gone forever. That is the antithesis of sustainable tourism.
An Irish example is the Cliffs of Moher. For years people parked on the sides of the road leading to the cliffs, then tramped along the top. It was dangerous and the path was badly worn. Then they built an interpretive centre on the site which blends beautifully with the hillside. A large car park controlled access, and the paths were restored. Now huge crowds can visit one of Ireland’s most popular sites. They gain a deep insight into the geology and the mythology of the region, and they leave without eroding or impacting the landscape.
That is sustainable tourism.
In fifty years time big game hunting will be gone, and the cliffs will still be drawing hundreds of thousands to Ireland. That is why sustainability is so important.
How to achieve sustainable tourism.
It starts with identifying the problems and deciding what you want to achieve. What is your tourism product? Is it the people, the culture, the landscape or the historic artifacts? To be sustainable tourism must support the product being promoted.
Ireland is not one of the gourmet countries, like France, northern Spain, or Cambodia. But we are recognised worldwide for the quality of our raw ingredients. Very few nations can match what we produce.
So if a region is coming up with a tourism plan, it needs to emphasise that. Allowing six fast food outlets in the heart of a historic town does nothing to emphasise our strong points, and eventually turns Ireland into any suburb of Europe. But facilitating a farmers market will have the opposite effect. County Cork has been great at building up local farmers markets, which provides a great experience for tourists, while also supporting local producers, and encouraging local food outlets. Limerick followed the Rebel’s example with their Milk Market, which has gone from strength to strength, drawing huge crowds every weekend.
Because the attraction is based on local produce, the money generated remains within the region. That is sustainable tourism.
Ecotourism involves responsible travel (hopefully using sustainable transport) to areas of natural significance, with an emphasis on conserving the environment and improving the condition of the local people. It often focuses on personal growth and environmental sustainability. Flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attractions. Ecotourism can offer tourists an insight into the impact of humanity on the environment, and foster a greater appreciation of natural habitats.
Sounds good, right?
It is an area that Ireland needs to emphasise, and the best thing is that we seem to be good at it. In 2017 Lonely Planet – the bible for independent travellers – named the Burren Ecotourism Network in County Clare as the world’s best community tourism project. They described it as: “An impressive community collaboration of local enterprises which has transformed Ireland’s Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark into a global leader for sustainable tourism.”
Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, said: “It is a well-deserved accolade, recognising all of their hard work to become a global leader for sustainable tourism.”
We need to take this as a beacon, showing the way Irish tourism needs to go.