Sustainable Tourism: Travel Trend or Dire Future of Tourism?

Travellers who happen to end up on the small island of Bastimentos in northern Panamá can follow hand-painted signs up a cobble-stoned path surrounded by forest and eventually reach Up in the Hill, an organic farm, coffee shop and eco-lodge. With a scenic jungle view, close-to-the-equator temperatures and homemade banana bread, this off-the-grid experience is just another one of those joys that travel brings.

Travel may be the most enriching things that life can provide. Its appeal is obvious. In the 21st century, the destinations and types of trips are infinite. It’s exciting, rewarding, relaxing, and educational.

With a growth in the global middle-class, more people are spending their disposable income on travel. According to the International Air Transport Association, over 4 billion passengers flew on scheduled airline services in 2017. This number went up by 280 million from 2016. The masses are now moving farer and wider.

But  as one of the biggest global industries, tourism is also contributing to the destruction of the planet.

Air travel produces a significant carbon footprint. Tourism commodifies local traditions. It leads to the overcrowding of monuments and the destruction of ecological sites. Many “must-see” destinations have become overrun. Venice’s narrow streets are drowned by visitors, as cruise ships bring masses larger than the city’s own population. Thailand’s Maya Bay has  closed indefinitely to revive its ecosystem after years of overcrowding has destroyed the beautiful enclave.

Addressing this inconvenient truth in 2017, opinion writer Elizabeth Becker argued that only governments can abate the masses who are drowning the world’s most popular travel destinations. Becker points out that governments are responsible for who can obtain visas to visit and how many developers can build hotels, and how open sites are to the public. Yet, imposing certain regulations stem the question of who has the right to travel or not- and determining who has the privilege to travel should not be the debate.

In focusing on how to shift tourism practices, this could provide integral solutions to fostering a more sustainable industry, one that promotes travel experiences for all.

Finding solutions

“Sustainability”, the idea that current needs are met without compromising the future generation’s needs, has become central in current movements attempting to tackle the planet’s unquestionably dire climate situation. Although sustainability is often left undefined and simply thrown-around by organizations and businesses to promote more conscious practices, 21st century buzzword or no, sustainability is becoming imperative in the tourism industry.

Sustainable tourism is a form of travel where tourists make a conscious effort to minimize their impacts on the environment in which they are visiting. Both the facilitator and the visitor work to ensure hosting regions are meeting societal needs, preserving their cultural entities and protecting their ecosystems.

As a study done at the University of Vienna suggests, “Fostering alternative modes of tourism such as ecotourism or slow tourism has been promoted by researchers to overcome the negative impacts of mass tourism on the environment and on society.”

In part, focusing on smaller enterprises that consciously work to minimize their impacts offers solutions to some off-the-grid travellers looking to mitigate their environmental footprints in the region they are visiting.

Central America leading the way

While the initiatives are present worldwide, Central America has long championed bridging sustainable practices and tourism. With Costa Rica at the forefront, the nation’s policies work to maintain bio-diversity, involve local communities to benefit from tourism, and to integrate tourism into national and local planning frameworks, which includes environmental impact assessments. Its southern neighbour, Panamá has also come to embrace the sustainable tourism industry.

In the northern archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panamá initiatives scattered across the nine islands offer tours that promote environmental conservation and lodging options that consistently work to reduce their impacts.

Janette and her husband, the owners of Up in the Hill, bought the empty cow pasture on the island to start farming for themselves. Later, they began to sell cacao in town in the archipelago’s main town, Bocas. Now, the pair, with the help of their two young sons, run a farm, coffee shop, and eco-lodges for guests to stay.

The property runs entirely solar power and rain water. The food in their coffee shop comes from their garden and farm. They don’t sell plastic water bottles, but will happily refill reusable bottles.

“We’re trying to be as nice to the planet as possible, basically,” The couple said.  “Everything in its place, nature has its garden, we have our food.”

While Janette said that that costumers don’t come necessarily come for environmental purposes, those who visit the coffee shop and take the tour are often happy to see what the they are doing, and are enthusiastic to support.

In general, Janette said that tourists are happy there is a sustainable business working, and most leave wanting to learn more.

Another eco-friendly lodging option, La Loma Jungle Lodge, not only offers a take-and-give-back approach to lodging, they also participate in initiatives to empower the local community. Eight years ago, the owners, Margaret Ann and Henry Escudero, along with eager traveller Neil Christiansen, founded a small preschool program in the local community. Now a non-profit that works closely with the indigenous communities across the islands, showcasing an alternative approach to travel that focuses less on experiences catered to the masses, in exchange for meaningful and sustainable approach to being a tourist.

While the archipelago presents a contrast of hostels hosting large groups of tourists and smaller off-the-grid lodging, there is a hopeful undertone of environmentally-conscious policies and initiatives, like the banning of plastic and the promotion of tours that aim to respect both the islands and the oceans that surround them.  

These initiatives are an optimistic start. Unfortunately for the environment, small businesses and organizations operating in different regions cannot solve the destruction caused by mass tourism. Yet, empowering individuals to take responsibility for their personal travel choices is a start, at least.