“Despite evidence of growing public awareness of the impacts of air transport, there remains an alarming disconnection between attitudes and tourist behaviour.” – Scott Cohen et al.
What is low-impact tourism?
Low-impact tourism is about sustainable travel and leisure activities that directly benefit local communities and that are respectful of wildlife, local people and their cultures – including travel that minimises our negative impact on the environment and the places we visit.
OK, let’s get one thing out of the way first. You’ll see lots of advertising around ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ tourism. So, sustainable tourism has two components:
1. How you get there
2. What you do once you’re there
Almost all information on eco-tourism focuses on the second point and ignores the first. A lot of ‘eco’ holidays or tourism is on a different continent from where they’re advertised, with absolutely no mention of the need to fly to get there. A holiday that involves a flight can in no way be described as ‘eco’. So, to be clear, flying to Costa Rica to visit the cloud forest or to Africa to go on safari are definitely not examples of low-impact tourism. If that’s what you need to do, then do it, but don’t call it sustainable, because it isn’t. This video nails it:
Does aviation has a place in a low carbon world? [From Wikipedia: “The International Air Transport Association (IATA) considers an annual increase in aviation fuel efficiency of 2 percent per year through 2050 to be realistic. However, both Airbus and Boeing expect the passenger-kilometers of air transport to increase by about 5 percent yearly. Sustainable transportation is now established as the critical issue confronting a global tourism industry that is palpably unsustainable, and aviation lies at the heart of this issue.”]
Here are the main impacts that low-impact tourism aims to reduce:
Social & cultural impacts
The vast majority of tourism is a long way from responsible. It’s a huge, highly lucrative and completely unregulated global industry dominated by some big players that are very difficult to hold to account and who don’t lack for willing customers. The pressure and stresses of modern life, combined with the often bad British weather and the increased accessibility of air travel, have placed the foreign holiday within everyone’s reach and elevated it from a luxury to something approaching a right. Unfortunately, a kind of ethical blind spot often exists when it comes to travel: people who try to live sustainably throughout the year will think nothing of jetting halfway round the world for a couple of weeks of sunshine. The holiday represents an escape from daily life and people tend to adopt an ‘anything goes’ attitude as soon as they step on the plane, behaving in ways they would never dream of back home. From gawking at or snapping photos of strangers’ children or native tribespeople, to walking scantily-clad into a sacred place, or drunken revelry in the streets, cultural insensitivity is often to blame for growing resentment of tourists. Rowdy stag and hen parties have now become such a common irritant across Europe that a major resort in Crete recently banned large groups from its hotels.
More of us are travelling all the time and the uncontrolled growth of mass tourism is leading to overcrowding of popular destinations. In ‘must-see’ cities like Venice and Barcelona, locals are now so fed up with packed streets, noise, vomiting, drunkenness and even public nudity that a number of protests and even attacks on tourists have taken place in recent months. Barcelona, a relatively compact city of just 1.6 million inhabitants, welcomed 32 million tourists in 2016. The city council has recently taken measures to limit the number of beds on offer, has imposed a moratorium on building new hotels and introduced a ban on Segways or other motorised transport in the old town. Platforms like Airbnb, which have made it possible for anyone to rent out unlicensed accommodation to tourists, are being blamed worldwide for facilitating increasing numbers of visitors, driving up house prices and leading to a dearth of available rental property (owners make more money renting to tourists than locals). In some places residents are being priced out of neighbourhoods their families have lived in for generations. Mass tourism also leads to erosion of local culture as rising rents drive out local businesses and eateries, to be replaced by rows of uniform shops selling ubiquitous tourist tat and lukewarm slices of pizza until every city and beachfront becomes indistinguishable from the last. It’s a cruel irony that tourism often ends up destroying the very landscape and culture that attracted visitors in the first place.
Tourism can provide a much-needed boost to economies, but reliance on foreign visitors can be a double-edged sword. If too many people abandon traditional occupations to rush into more lucrative jobs in the tourist trade, it can lead to decline or loss of traditional skills to the detriment of other national industries. For example, Egypt sold itself so comprehensively to the tourist trade that its economy was devastated when the flow of visitors dried up in the wake of political instability and insecurity following the ‘Arab Spring’.
With some exceptions, tourists tend to be wealthier than local people, leaving the latter open to exploitation. In some poorer countries, people are routinely evicted from their land to make way for hotels, resorts or golf courses. Those who benefit from jobs usually have to accept low wages and poor working conditions. In places like Nepal or India, porters regularly struggle up mountains in flip flops alongside trekkers kitted out in the latest high-performance gear.
Worse still are all-inclusive resorts and hotels where money doesn’t even benefit the local community. With everything laid on, guests almost never leave the resort so they spend no money in local restaurants, bars or shops, and there’s none of the usual opportunities for locals to set up businesses. In the Caribbean, where this is the dominant form of tourism, resorts are often fenced off, with private beaches denying local people access to the sea. In countries like Haiti or Jamaica, cruise operators buy up large chunks of the islands, fencing them off and creating an artificial ‘Jamaican/Haitian experience’ which they control 100%. Guests jet in and out with little contact with local people unless it’s to demand their drink be refreshed. Profits fly out of the country with them and into the pockets of foreign corporations. In India, resorts have even been known to import their entire staff, denying locals even the chance of a job, creating tourist enclaves, an us-and-them culture and fuelling resentment.
Cruise liners are giant floating all-inclusive resorts that sail under a ‘flag of convenience’, allowing them to register the business in a country of their choosing. Companies must then adhere to the tax, safety, labour and environmental laws of that nation (no prizes for guessing they don’t tend to choose countries with the most rigorous ones). These behemoths of the sea are highly polluting, use very low grade fuel – thousands of times worse than car diesel – and are known to dump raw sewage at sea. Every day at ports around the world these floating cities disgorge thousands of passengers who flock straight to the main attractions, overwhelming them. As with all-in resorts, these ‘low value’ tourists contribute very little to the local economy – all their food and drink is provided on the ship and they don’t even pay the nominal tourist taxes levied on beds in the city.
If you’re jetting off for a couple of weeks in the sun or for a quick city break, the damage starts the minute you get on the plane. Flying uses huge quantities of fuel, produces a colossal amount of carbon and is recognised by experts as one of the main contributors to climate change. The cost of flights is kept artificially low since aviation fuel is heavily subsidised, making greener transport like train travel look astronomical by comparison. Something is definitely wrong when it’s cheaper to fly to Lisbon for the weekend than to take the train from London to the Lake District.
Once at your destination, your footprint just keeps growing. Construction of resorts and hotels may have involved bulldozing pristine landscapes and diverting essential resources like water away from the local community. The damage isn’t limited to accommodation, however. Ski runs and golf courses are responsible for some of the worst environmental destruction carried out in the name of sport and leisure – tree-felling, detroying habitats, displacing wildlife and guzzling huge amounts of water and energy.
Apart from trophy hunters, most people don’t actively want to hurt animals. However, a lot of harm occurs through ignorance. Awareness is rising of the cruelty involved in zoos, circuses and other animal shows, but how many people know that activities like elephant trekking involve stealing a baby from its family, keeping it chained up and repeatedly beating it with a sharp stick until it becomes ‘domesticated’? Events like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, have become highly popular with stag and hen parties, attracting thousands of young foreigners every year, keen to prove their mettle on the streets. What the tour brochures don’t show, however, is the bulls being poked with sharp sticks or cattle prods, kicked, punched, screamed at and having their tails pulled and twisted as they run in a blind panic towards a slow, agonising death in the bullring later that day. Supporters of so-called sports like bullfighting or canned hunting (breeding big game animals for release into the wild to be shot) argue that they bring in essential funds for the upkeep of nature reserves or game parks. However, there are other ways of finding this revenue without prolonging a cruel and unethical culture of breeding or keeping animals in captivity solely for the purposes of human entertainment.
Few things can beat the thrill of seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat. However, any contact needs to be very carefully managed. No activity should ever intrude on an animal’s territory to the extent that it disrupts its routines or causes distress, since this can lead to abandonment of habitat or young, failure to breed and even death. Reputable safaris or wildlife watching trips are sensitively managed but there are unscrupulous operators who will break all the rules to get their client that perfect selfie to post on Facebook. Alarm bells should start ringing if you’re allowed to interact with wildlife (feeding them or using food to attract them, touching or petting them, etc.). No wild animal, including one that’s being rehabilitated or bred for release into the wild, should ever become habituated to humans or depend on artificial sources of food.
What are the benefits of low-impact tourism?
Tourism represents an important source of income for many countries, particularly those where traditional industries are in decline. It can open up opportunities to members of the community traditionally excluded from the more lucrative occupations. For example, Nepal boasts the only all-female trekking company, while a women-owned coop in Tanzania ensures money from tourists gets spent in the community (rather than being drunk by the men!). Small-scale tourism of this kind, where travellers stay and eat in local businesses or directly employ local people, ensures money stays in the local community rather than disappearing into the pocket of some multinational tour operator.
Tourism can also be beneficial for wildlife and the environment. Money from sensitively-managed wildlife or nature tourism incentivises and pays for the creation and upkeep of protected natural areas. For example, gorilla trekking in countries like Rwanda has played an important part in ensuring protection of the animals and their habitat. Similarly, a number of developing countries have successfully retrained former poachers as rangers, protecting the animals they once hunted. It’s hard to convince people struggling to feed their families of the need to conserve wildlife or natural spaces without giving them a reason to do so, but if animals become more valuable to the local community alive than dead, then there’s a greater incentive to protect them.
Last but not least, travel provides an opportunity for cultural exchange, to engage with and learn about other people, something that’s ever more important in these times of rising nationalism and isolationism. Initiatives like Couchsurfing take this one step further and out of the hands of corporations, giving travellers across the world the chance to stay with local people in their homes for free and learn about their lives first-hand.
What can I do?
It goes without saying that the best thing you can do for the environment is not to fly. Rail travel should be the default choice in the UK and Europe. While it will obviously take longer, try seeing it as part of the holiday rather than scrambling to get there by the fastest possible route. Relax and enjoy the ride (easier to do when you can walk around and stretch your legs instead of having them rammed into the back of someone else’s seat). Check out sites like The Man in Seat 61 for advice on routes, connections and how to book multi-leg trips.
Think about holidaying or taking breaks closer to home. While the weather may not always be great, the UK has some spectacular landscapes and historic cities to visit and plenty to do under cover. If you want a low-key break, you could unwind and get back to nature in a yurt or tipi. Or how about staying in an eco-lodge in the countryside that uses only renewable energy, solar and wind power and rainwater systems? If you prefer active, WWOOFing-type holidays, there are plenty of opportunities to work for food and board on conservation projects or locally-owned organic farms and get an insight into rural living, learn about the land and pick up new skills. Kids particularly love this kind of messy, active holiday where they get to interact with farm animals and spend most of the day outdoors.
Don’t be fooled by ‘greenwash’ though. These days the term ‘eco’ has been co-opted by big business and slapped on anything with a low-energy light bulb. Even if a place runs on 100% renewables, it still isn’t low-impact if local people have been pushed out of their homes to build it or if the money’s all going to a large corporation. As a rule of thumb, try to work it backwards – if something is small-scale, locally-owned and built with local materials by local people then it will by nature be lower-impact than somewhere that focuses solely on energy or materials without taking the human factor into account.
Whether to travel abroad at all is the subject of some debate. While the ‘staycation’ has a lower carbon footprint, many counties rely heavily on tourism and to stop visiting altogether could seriously damage their economies. This is one for your conscience but if you really must fly, do it less often, go further, and stay for longer (if work etc. allows). Use local transport rather than taking internal flights once there. Planes use more fuel on take-off and landing so one direct, long-haul flight every two or three years for a month’s holiday is much better than several short-haul breaks per year. A longer holiday also means you’ll spend more money when you’re there and are more likely to linger in each place and actually engage with local people, which means a better experience for everyone.
Shun packages, large chains or all-inclusive establishments. Stay and eat with families or in small, locally-owned businesses and make sure your money benefits the local economy by spreading it around. Remember that many small places in other countries may not have the budget for a website or marketing so you may not find out about them until you’re there.
Do some research on your chosen destination, find out about cultural sensitivities and local customs and try to learn at least a few words of the local language. A good tour operator will have ethics and environmental policies available and good volunteer organisations will be honest about what you can expect to do on the project. You can find out a lot for yourself online too. For example, a quick search for “shark cage diving, issues” or “volunteering in an orphanage, concerns” will pull up as many hits exposing the darker side as it does glossy advertisements, enabling you to make an informed choice.
There are lots of low-impact activities that you can do on holiday, from wild swimming, hiking, cycling, kayaking, stargazing, wildlife watching, visiting alternative technology or nature centres and animal sanctuaries, to cookery courses, craft and bushcraft workshops and more.
Is it more expensive?
No. Apart from the (artificial) difference between rail and air fares, responsible travel doesn’t need to be more expensive. In fact, staying in small places with local people is likely to be much cheaper than a large hotel. There are ethical tour operators out there who might cost a bit more but, as with everything in life, you get what you pay for. If you’re employing people as part of an activity (i.e. porters etc.), make sure they are properly paid and taken care of. Even if it costs you a bit more it’s unlikely to make the trip unviable. If you spend a bit more to ensure everyone is taken care of, you’re much more likely to have a good interaction with people and a better experience, which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about.
A word about volunteering
Volunteering seems like the ultimate ethical holiday, a chance to ‘give something back’ while visiting a cool place. However, while organisations like VSO demand proven skills and experience in order to match volunteers to suitable projects, these days volunteering has mushroomed into a huge and very profitable package industry and not all operators are so scrupulous. Volunteers may arrive with the best intentions, but without proper controls they could be doing more harm than good. If you’re engaged in unskilled labour then you may be taking a job away from a local person who could do the same thing. Even teaching English can be unproductive at best and at worst detrimental when students are inexpertly taught by a series of rotating unqualified volunteers using different methods.
Working with orphans has become hugely popular and in many developing countries orphanages are private rather than state-run and depend on income from volunteers. However, there are actually very few genuine orphans with neither parent living, so children may be rented, bought or even stolen to meet demand. At best, children who are there for genuine reasons may be kept longer than necessary rather than efforts being made to reunite them with a parent or extended family who could better care for them. Apart from anything else, vulnerable or traumatised children require specialised care by experienced professionals, not inexperienced volunteers. Forming emotional attachments to visitors only to watch them walk away forever at the end of their stay can also be very damaging for lonely children.
There’s no denying a number of conservation projects would collapse without volunteers and some great work is done in this area. However, proper field biology research rarely involves actual contact with animals so it’s important to be wary of and very carefully check out any project that offers this. There are animal sanctuaries that are the exception to the rule, but you need to know whether it’s a genuine sanctuary or not; there have been examples of lion ‘sanctuaries’ where volunteers thought they were raising cubs for release to the wild only to find out they were being bred for canned hunting.
Here’s an idea
It’s absolutely unsustainable for everyone in the world to fly around the planet on holiday. Unsustainable means that it can’t be sustained, so it can’t continue. So what’s the alternative? Is it too idealistic to imagine a world where people live in beautiful places with strong communities and jobs that they enjoy, so there’s no need to ‘escape’ from anything?
So brace yourself – how about this? See the world when you’re young – overland. For example, a couple who used to work for Lowimpact.org in the UK travelled back to Australia overland, by train, bus, foot, hitch-hiking and boat, and blogged about it here. Overland travel for an extended period is something you’ll never forget. You could even do it by going WWOOFing. But then give up flying and focus on building a co-operative, strong, safe, fun, unique, interesting and beautiful community where you live instead. Let’s make all the places we live desirable places to be. Ask yourself whether two-week holidays or a series of city breaks really do broaden the mind, or whether, for most people:
Without stirring abroad, one can know the whole world
Without looking out of the window, one can see the way of heaven
The further one goes, the less one knows
– Tao Te Ching
Thanks to Mark Watson from Tourism Concern, Fran Blockley from Old Chapel Farm, Andy Reynolds from the Eco Lodge, and Saul Greenland from Responsible Travel.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Emanuele Dal Carlo is President of Fairbnb, a co-operative alternative to Airbnb, who are working “to connect conscious travellers with fair hosts to promote stronger, more sustainable and equitable communities all around the world”.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1tim mason November 12th, 2020
I am a member of a group in Bristol UK area that investigates and shares creative responses to climate change.
Clifton Climate Action
Early in the New Year (Jan/Feb) we would like to run a session on ‘Low Impact Travel – Sustainable Tourism’.
I am looking for tour operators, travel guides, travellers who would be willing to be one of 3-4 people making individual on-line 5-10 min presentations to stimulate discussion to a friendly, interactive group of around 30+ folk. The best way of getting a feel for our discussions is to see them on Youtube (accessible via Clifton Energy Action website above).
Do you know of anyone/ group who might be interested in making such a contribution? If so please get back to me with your suggestions?
Thank you for your work
2Dave Darby November 12th, 2020
Tim – thanks. Don’t know of anyone, but maybe someone will see this. You could also post something in our FB group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/livinglowimpact