Opinion | Tourism is good, but sustainable tourism is better

Traveling sustainably is something we should consider more because conventional methods of tourism are bad for the environment.


Samuel O’Connor, Opinions Columnist

I was in Olympic National Park, walking the short, wet distance from our tent to the garbage drop-off, when I started thinking about sustainable tourism last month.

The bear-proof dumpster is a funny contraption in that it requires opposable thumbs to operate. I’ve always found humor in devices such as this — devices which make one imagine animals doing people things — because they take my mind off of people doing people things, like trashing the planet.

Tourism, whether it’s hiking in a national park or taking the family to Disney, is terrific for the economy. In pre-pandemic times, one in 10 jobs worldwide were in travel and tourism, while the industry itself made up 10 percent of the global economy. Though these figures plummeted in 2020, it is in the wake of their imminent rebound that we should start considering the noneconomic consequences of our travels.

The fiscal prowess of tourism as an industry often overshadows its environmental detriments, and these detriments are anything but small. Billions of tons of waste and carbon dioxide are produced by the industry while it sucks up trillions of tons of freshwater every year. The overuse of these resources puts tremendous stress on the land, which trades its health for money.

Nearly all of the carbon footprint of tourism comes from methods of travel. Tourism makes up about 5 percent of global emissions, while 90 percent of those emissions come from travel. Airplanes and cruise ships leak poison into the atmosphere every second of the day, and by flying and going on cruises, we drastically increase our carbon footprint. So, what’s the solution?

Sustainable tourism is defined by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) as “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”. That, I think, is the answer.

But we don’t need to keep track of statistics or weigh out our waste when we hike or camp — that would be silly — as simply being mindful of our impact can help make a positive difference. Statistics can bog us down, while simple decisions like packing your food in Tupperware or bringing your own water can be enough to increase most people’s sustainability. Or at least clear our environmental consciences, at any rate.

If you’re worried about your carbon footprint, then traveling more sustainably will make the biggest difference. For example — going across the country? Maybe consider driving. That way you can dump your money into local economies that need it along the way. Plus, traveling this way allows one to uncover the many hidden gems of America. Going on a cruise? Maybe reconsider, as cruise ships are notoriously harmful for the environment.

The main idea behind sustainable tourism is being accountable. If our country — for all its many flaws — has the foresight to preserve its best features through the national park system, the least we can do is take stock of our actions as participants.

We don’t have to buy a Tesla, hug trees, or refuse showers when they are there. But we can buy local, hike instead of going on a cruise, and try our best to not over encumber the bear-proof dumpsters.


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.


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