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Don't Spoil What You Came to See

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 19 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Tourism Ethical Environmental Policy

While tourism can bring enormous benefits paradoxically there are also times when it begins to threaten the existence of the very things which travellers first came to see. Despite the rise of eco-tourism and “ethical” travel, something in the region of 30 per cent of the world’s previously untouched habitats have vanished in roughly as many years. With so much having been trodden – quite literally – underfoot by successive waves of perfectly well-intentioned visitors and many indigenous peoples dispossessed of their traditional lands to create protected parks, tourism is clearly a two-edged sword and can cut both ways.

There is an old maxim that the responsible tourist should take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints – but how are we to make sure that we really are treading as lightly as we can?

Part of the answer lies in some good research at the outset, to find out as much as you can about your intended transport, hotel and destination. This should give you a good idea of how eco-friendly the companies and organisations involved really are – and it goes without saying that anyone who will not give you a copy of their environmental policy should be viewed with deep suspicion! Once you are there, common-sense ethical principles like buying local and trying to minimise your demands on resources can go along way too, but sometimes it is the simplest of things – what you take with you and what you bring home – which can make the biggest difference.

What You Take

What you have in your luggage says a lot about you. Disposable items and excess packaging are high on the list of things to leave out – particularly if you are heading for remoter parts of the world. Waste disposal is a major headache for most developing nations – so try to avoid making things worse.

Personal hygiene can also prove problematic, especially if you are planning to travel to unspoilt places, where your washing water is all someone downstream has to drink. Where conventional soaps and detergents cannot be used, biodegradable and eco-friendly cleaning agents such as Soapnuts – which contain the natural cleaning agent saponin – make a good, natural alternative.

Perhaps the most important thing to ditch from your luggage is your own “home” ways and preconceptions. While tourism is often an economic necessity, there is no escaping the fact that your presence is an intrusion into the everyday life of local people – whether you are visiting Carmarthen or Cambodia – so exercise a little sensitivity and consideration. In many parts of the world, for example, food, water and other resources are less plentiful than here in the UK, so be aware how much you use – and more importantly, how much you waste.

And What Comes Home

It is hard to think of anything which enjoys quite such a hand-in-glove fit with world travel as photography – and if you are lucky enough to take that dream trip, coming home with the photos assumes enormous importance. Whatever species you turn your lens on – human, furred, feathered or scaled – be aware of their needs too and act with consideration.

Disturbing a bird at its nest may signal an abandoned brood; upsetting a mother elephant – or the local police – will almost certainly have altogether more instantly personal consequences!Likewise, when it comes to souvenirs, although few things beat coming home with a set of unusual gifts for friends and family, this may be one of those occasions when buying some kinds of locally produced goods could end up being a bit of a problem. Purchasing natural materials from local craftsmen may seem like a great idea on the face of it – but it is essential to be absolutely sure exactly what you are getting. Some of the things which are sold openly in a number of parts of the world may fall foul of international law, which inevitably makes life very difficult for unsuspecting tourists. However tempting, it really is best to be safe rather than sorry – aside of the possible complications with HM Customs, buying souvenirs made from endangered species only feeds the trade and ultimately hastens their extinction.

The more popular any destination becomes, the greater the danger that its success will change it – and this applies every bit as much to the traditional fortnight’s package holiday on the beach as to specifically eco-tourist venues. Focusing on the details of stop-overs and carbon offsets – important issues though they are – can often make us forgetful of the simple things we can do on the ground to make sure we avoid spoiling the things which we came to see in the first place. With a little bit of thought, however, we really can make sure that the footprints we leave are no deeper than they need to be.

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