Sustainable Travel and Study Abroad
By Astrid Jirka
|Biking almost anywhere, including the Swiss Alps, is easy on the environment, and good for your body and soul.
As you hop aboard your plane to land at your study abroad destination you will be joining the millions of other people in the world who travel every year for business or pleasure. You will become, yes, it’s hard to hear but true, a tourist. Of course, you won’t be like just any tourist, set free in a new land to relax or do whatever you please. You will be a study abroad student—one of over 300,000 students from the U.S. studying, living, and traveling in another country.
While we can be certain that when you are abroad as a student you will be spending time being a serious book worm, we have no doubt, that you will be out and about getting to know a new and interesting land. After all, this is what studying abroad is all about—being in a new place, getting to know people who have different ways of living, and becoming familiar with new natural and urban environments. While you may concentrate on studying and gaining new perspectives on a particular subject (such as your major), you will certainly also be learning about the different ways that people in the world shape their lives and make a living.
During your explorations and travel you will, at times, be acting as a tourist. The typical tourist’s interaction with local people is a one-time interaction with little opportunity for in-depth dialogue or for gaining an understanding of that person and his or her culture. As a study abroad student you will have the fortunate opportunity to have interactions with local people that will be more meaningful than a typical tourist interaction, but as you set off to engage in tourist activities you are a tourist like any other. Depending on where you are, this will have significant but different implications for both you and your hosts. You should be aware of your impact as you travel.
Tourism has become the world’s largest industry. Tourists now spend $8.3 trillion per year on tourist related activities. All of this direct and indirect spending creates 313 million jobs, or 10% of all of the jobs in the world. Clearly this is big business. Some countries rely on tourism as their main source of revenue and employment. Small island nations in particular, such as in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia, are often largely dependant on tourism to generate income. Oftentimes there are more tourists in these countries than actual residents. Many other countries such as Spain, Italy, France, Belize, Kenya, Botswana, China, and Indonesia generate billions of dollars a year in tourism revenue. And even in countries where tourism does not weigh heavily on a national scale, there are regions and communities that cater solely to tourism without which their economies would fail.
Jobs are created as new airports, hotels, and restaurants are built; tour operators, car rental agencies, and bus lines are established, and local people with skills—such as farmers, artisans, cooks, or naturalists—have opportunities to sell their goods and services to visitors. In its initial stages of development, a tourist destination might be catered to primarily by the locals who live there as they begin to develop businesses to serve the new visitors. But as a destination continues to grow, the entire community, region, or country must get involved. Gradually, building contractors and real estate developers will become interested in the opportunities to make money.
The Good and The Bad
All of this is good. People who are no longer self-sufficient (e.g. living in agrarian societies) need jobs for food, to build homes, to send their children to school, for healthcare, and to increase their standards of living, just like we all do. Thanks to tourism, they may have an opportunity to do so when other means for generating income are not available. Tourism is, therefore, a potential tool for development.
But all of this can also be bad. As more and more people flock to tourist destinations, tourism can have negative side affects. Foreign owned resorts are built on beaches where turtles used to lay their eggs. People who were once self-sufficient are now dependent on others for jobs. Parks are created to protect animals for people to see, thereby marginalizing groups of people who have lived on those lands for years and are now seen as illegal occupants. Prostitution can increase. Rivers become overfished. Natural and culturally significant areas become worn and deteriorate with overuse and lack of regulations. Artisans are underpaid as tourists haggle for the lowest possible price. Litter and sewage becomes unmanageable as growth occurs too quickly. In this manner, tourism can become a means to cultural and environmental destruction.
Due to the positive potential that tourism has to bring employment to areas and due to the negative affects from a lack of awareness and planning, there has been a movement in recent years to assist the tourism industry to find ways to encourage the positive and decrease the negative. This movement has many variations and labels: ecotourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism, voluntourism, fair-trade tourism, pro-poor tourism, traveler’s philanthropy. … While each stresses particular themes, their core philosophy is the same.
One way that this tourism movement can be defined is “responsible travel that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” As such, the movement seeks to address the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of travel and tourism in the hopes that it will contribute to sustainable development.
What Can You Do
The sustainable travel movement is strong and growing and multiple organizations around the world are seeking to educate people about what they can do to contribute. Many of the suggestions are simple and can be easily instituted. The sidebars list the myriad things that you can do to make a difference. No matter where you are going—to an urban or rural setting in a more or less developed country—you will have opportunities to confront the realities of people and cultures coming together around tourism. As a responsible tourist you should, above all, be knowledgeable about your destination, seek awareness of the impact that your presence has on the local population and environment, and attempt to minimize negative impacts.
Safe and sustainable travels to you!
Learn about current environmental issues in the places you are visiting. Different regions will have different situations based on their ecosystems. Learn about the effects of mass tourism on beaches, mountains, wetlands, deserts, etc. and then seek to counter those effects.
- Use accommodations that have a reputation for being sustainable (they recycle, use alternative forms of energy, are owned by or employ locals, contribute to local causes). Increasingly, there are regional and national certification systems that accommodations can obtain if they are sustainably operated, much like the organic labeling system. Check to see if there are any local certification labels that can help you to determine where to stay. Search the Internet to do this (country name + tourism certification) or inquire with the visitors bureau or local tourism offices.
- Use water sparingly. Many communities face water shortages and water usage costs money. Take quick showers.
- Save electricity. Turn off lights, air conditioners, and heaters when you are not in the room.
- Don’t litter! Even if you notice the locals doing so, try to find a container to dispose of your litter. Always recycle if possible.
- Don’t buy products made from endangered species or valuable, historical, or cultural artifacts. Ask about where a product comes from. Many of these products are illegal to export. Report incidences to local or national conservation organizations.
- Don’t disturb the wildlife. Maintain a proper distance at all times. Don’t use loud, motorized equipment among small communities of people or in areas where there is wildlife.
- Don’t pick up and take home natural resources such as shells, plants, animal bones, etc.
- If you go camping, make sure you have any necessary permits and follow local park rules. Pack out what you pack in. Stay on trails.
- Choose your recreational activities wisely. Low impact sports that don’t involve a lot of equipment or fossil fuels and that don’t disturb the environment or local communities are preferable.
- Use local and public transport whenever possible. Take a train or bus. Bike or walk. Try to fly less—airplanes produce massive amounts of ozone-depleting carbon dioxide.
- Carbon Offsetting. If it is within your budget contribute money to an organization involved in carbon offsetting every time you fly. They will, in turn, contribute money to worthy organizations that are involved in projects that seek alternative energy sources, plant trees, etc. in order to reduce the amount of ozone-depleting carbon in the atmosphere, largely caused by air traffic. They will determine how much you need to spend based on the amount of miles you have flown. Check with Sustainable Travel International for more information about what you can do.
- Research your destination. Learn about its history, political situation, current events, cultural groups and intercultural dynamics, religion, geography, cuisine, transportation, etc.
- Learn at least a few basic phrases in your host community’s language. Learn how people greet each other and practice that greeting. Body language is also important. Be astute and adapt your body language appropriately.
- Find out about local taboos and customs by asking people who have traveled before you, by consulting guidebooks etc., and then respect them.
- Dress appropriately. Respecting the dress code where you are is very important, especially around religious sites.
- Be snapshot savvy. Don’t experience your entire trip through the lens of a camera. Ask locals before taking photographs of them or activities they are involved in.
- Learn about something you’re interested in while you travel. Do you have a passion or hobby? Find out how people in another culture approach or deal with the same theme.
- Get off the beaten path. Look for events going on that are not mentioned in guidebooks and seek places that are not overcrowded with like-minded tourists. Go where the locals go; however, use your discretion and don’t infringe on people’s private activities and spaces.
- Bring small, thoughtful gifts from home if you know that you are going to be spending time with a local family or in a community.
- Beggars. In many cities in the world you will encounter both children and adults begging. Generally speaking, giving money to children is not a good idea. Depending on you where you are, the implications for giving to beggars are different. Search the Internet and local travel guides for local rules and recommendations.
- Buy locally produced products and services. Don’t bargain too much over an extra dollar or two that will go a lot farther for your seller than for you.
- Go Local. Stay in locally owned accommodations, eat at locally owned restaurants, and hire local guides. Usually, smaller equals better. If you decide to go on a guided tour through a tour agency, ask about their sustainability practices (e.g. what do they do with garbage generated, who do they employ, who is the agency owned by?)
- Contribute something to the place or community you are visiting, beyond just the money you are spending to get what you want. Donate some money to a good and relevant cause either before, during, or after your visit. Plan ahead to contribute some time, and volunteer at an organization that you deem worthy. It would be wise to research what organizations exist and contact them to inquire whether they receive volunteers before you leave.
- Choose destinations based on their demonstrated commitment to sustainable practices including their human rights record, environmental conservation record, commitment to peace, etc. Check with Ethical Traveler about this in website list below.
Sustainable Travel Tips
- Be Safe! Never compromise your safety. Be aware and use good common sense. Whenever possible, travel with someone else.
- Be flexible, patient, open-minded, and light-hearted. Learn to see the humor in your mistakes and in moments when you feel frustrated.
- Be mindful of others by keeping your voice down and practicing your listening skills. Learn to be quiet.
- Ask for help and you’ll probably get it.
- When you return home, donate money, volunteer, or get a job working with worthwhile causes in the regions you have visited or with the issues you have witnessed.
Astrid Jirka is an outreach coordinator at Ithaca College’s Office of International Programs. Research for this article was supported by a National Science Foundation grant.