A little under a year ago, Greta Thunberg, a popular climate change activist, spoke passionately and strongly about the need for change, urgently and sustainably. Although this brought a lot of publicity to the massive youth movements against global warming, it did little in terms of real change that can be created and implemented. Greta would even refuse to travel by air when she was invited to different countries due to the large carbon footprint left behind by air travel and instead relied on a small boat with a small crew.
The effects of travel on the environment are far and wide, but also relatively unknown or ignored. Not only does travel speed up global warming, but it also causes harm to ecosystems, communities, and the use of finite resources. This issue is pressing, important, and something that needs to be understood and addressed before its too late.
We know that as a travel company, it may come across as odd that we speak about this. But awareness is important, and so is the promotion of sustainable ways to live and travel. At The Tarzan Way, all our experiences are targeted towards sustainable change in communities, small societies and villages, and individuals such as farmers and fishermen. But we still have a long way to go - and understanding and accepting the problem is the first step to making a change towards and for it. There are some really great blogs too that we were inspired by and recommend reading, such as this one on sustainable travel and how to do it.
Here are the main effects of Travel on the environment, that you can change and work towards fixing because even small steps matter in every way.
Global warming and Travel - the humungous carbon footprint
It is estimated that around 6-7% of total year-on-year global warming is caused by travel by flight, and a few points less than this number is the share of cruises in the same. The two methods of travel use up huge amounts of fuel, and not much is really going to change because fuel usage is convenient and cheap, although incredibly harmful for the environment. One average round trip from a place and back in a flight can cause the same amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution as 50 cars in a year, per person.
It takes a lot of fuel for flights to fly and land safely, and many companies get close to bankruptcy due to the expense of running planes that use so much fuel on a daily basis. Although some American airlines like Delta have pledged to use more sustainable fuel and change the way fuel is used by planes, long term change won't start until companies are pressurized into it and realize the cost of their actions. Fuel used to power flights is dangerous not just because of the carbon footprint but also the consequences of exhaust emitting carbon molecules into the stratosphere. Oil is a scarce resource - and the cost at which we guzzle it every day in all our activities is simply not worth the convenience it brings. There needs to be a shift towards green energy, and it needs to be fast. There are various resources you can read on sustainable travel and sustainable flying in specific, which is a less developed idea and movement at this stage.
What you can do - as much as possible, pick alternative modes of transport when you're traveling for short distances. For longer distances, flights are pretty much a necessity - what you can do is chose wisely. Research on which companies have implemented change, which are investing in low fuel planes, etc. These factors are important and will help the money you spend on flights go to a good place, even if it's for years onwards. Don't put for cruises - they're an unnecessary luxury, generate a lot of waste, use up too much fuel, and are especially dangerous due to the risk the COVID-19 pandemic brings.
Reduction in Biodiversity
We know you see it on the news every day, read about it frequently - some species or the other is endangered or extinct and this is increasing at a rapid rate. You may wonder, how does it really matter or impact me? It's a good question, and something to address first. Biodiversity is extremely important because of the ecosystems dependent on them - each and every species has a relation with multiple others and their existence, no matter where their position is in a food web or triangle. When one species reduces in number or goes extinct, it threatens the entire ecosystem - this is bad for us because we're dependent on a number of them for more things than you'd guess. Each species has its role and place - disturbing that can have devastating impacts. For example, take bees - their threatened existence is something to worry about not just in terms of our honey supply, but also for the essential process of pollination that bees carry out. Without them, seeds wouldn't get from one plant to another, our agricultural systems would collapse, and the ecosystem dependant on them (they control the population of small worms, pests, etc) would face the same fate.
So what does travel have to do with this? We bet you've visited a park or two in your travels, or seen the interactive zones in large ecosystems. More often than not, human encroachment actually results in reduced populations and a disturbance in their systems. Some parks do follow proper procedures, but many don't too. Moreover, those deep jungle resorts and hotels in forests mean clearing the land completely, damaging the ecosystems in the area, and draining the area of its natural resources. Again, climate change also plays a part in this - many animals face extinction due to global warming that we are speeding up, specifically in the extreme edges of the world, where new tourism combined with global warming is destroying less protected species and ecosystems. Green global travel is a sustainable travel blog that publishes a lot of content on traveling in a nurturing instead of destructive way, such as this amazing documentation of the best natural parks and reserves in South India that you can read and see more of their content!
What you can do: Small changes make small dents, but they are a place to start. Be conscious of where you're visiting, if it protects biodiversity, how do they use and discard used resources, etc. Most of all, stop seeking out exotic untouched places and luxurious vacations in them - this is doing extreme damage at the cost of essential land and marine ecosystems.
Increase in Waste Disposal - especially single-use plastics
Think back to the last time you traveled - how many cartons and plastic/paper cups had you used and disposed of at the airport and flight? How many plastic food containers did you use? What number of towels did you throw for the wash in your hotel? How much did you litter? You'd be surprised at the answers you'll find. When it comes to travel, the purpose of companies is to bring leisure at low rates, find easy ways to make travelers comfortable. And the stark truth is also that we're just not as careful in different, new places as we would be at home. A lot of tourism is purposefully wasteful - those giant hotel napkins, the easily disposable and convenient plastic wraps, etc. The UN estimates that around 14% of the total waste generated annually is because of the tourism industry, and this isn't a one-time case. Every form of travel is designed to be convenient, and even if the materials used are biodegradable, they aren't recycled as often as they should be.
Single-use plastics in particular are harmful, wasteful, and used excessively. The usage of petroleum and other chemicals in the making of plastics make the materials harmful and use finite resources excessively. Plastics take thousands of years to disintegrate, and tourism uses this material more than should be necessary. Take the Everest for example - it is the highest mountain in the world but is also the most polluted one. Littered with plastics, jackets, nylon implements, etc. it is polluted to an alarming extent, and is an ode to the fact that we leave our trail wherever we go as humans.
There's an interesting blog written by Around The World in 80 Years that talks about who makes the payment for climate disasters - and who ultimately pays for them. Check it out for an interesting take on climate change, environmental destruction, and its consequences.
What you can do: Reduce your use of harmful, toxic materials and learn how to properly dispose of them, in particular single-use plastics! When you travel, take care to carry your own implements that not only save you money but also save the environment. For example, use reusable cutlery, carry your own cloth bags, carry towels and pillowcases (for hygiene and water wastage purposes), etc. For more details on this topic, check out our previous blog on traveling sustainably!
The destruction of Indigenous Tribes
Many places you travel to can have scars that most don't know about and cannot see. These are the scars borne by the original tribes and people of lands who either get kicked out of their own land or get the bad end of the deal when corporates decide to set up shop for tourism in their villages and forests. Various fishing communities along beaches have been displaced by wide scaled luxurious beach resorts in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. In Burma, low wage workers are forced to work long hours for less on tourism projects for the apparent development of their communities, while the tourists who visit view these tribes much like zoo animals are through literal sightseeing of their territories. The sex tourism industry is a widely growing phenomenon in many countries.
All these examples illustrate one thing - the tourism industry that encroaches upon natural habitats and takes away isolated territories from the indigenous people is much like the modern-day colonization effort, except even worse because it is cloaked by claims of helping communities instead of the reality. Hotels, resorts, adventure parks and recreational areas built for tourists looking for the next exotic location destroy ages-old respected land, philander the natural resources of the people, take extreme advantage of these tribes and their culture passed down for generations and disrespect the indigenous tribes in a shameful and humanely degrading way.
What you can do: Research before you go anywhere, both about the location and about the places you'll be staying in. If you are visiting a place that was once untouched and still has pockets of dying tribal villages, stay in sustainable and aptly constructed/placed hotels and, most of all, don't tour the villages or tribal communities as if they are recreational activities to be enjoyed. Observe the culture and respect it, observe their territories but be friendly and respectful, and support local businesses to every extent that you can. Read this blog on recognizing and supporting a sustainable tourism business to know more!
The relation between construction, agriculture, and travel
We've established so far that the tourism industry is more wasteful than anyone can really see from the surface - and there are many indirect effects of travel as well, that we don't see or acknowledge because we don't know how harmful they are.
Take construction and agriculture, for example, the two industries that use the most water. Agriculture uses 60% of a community's freshwater on average, and construction uses 30%. Not only does construction absorb so much freshwater, but it also gives out some of the highest rates of toxic waste and effluents. Hotels, resorts, and recreational spaces for tourism involve a lot of construction, a lot of waste regularly generated that isn't disposed of properly either, and a lot of resource usage (hotels use up thousands of liters of water a day in wasteful ways). Agriculture, on the other hand, is a complex issue. Although it uses up a lot of resources, food security is a still-growing threat in the world. Agriculture includes livestock, in particular, beef, which is the highest contributor to global warming in agriculture and one of the highest in general. As beef consumption increases, more and more communities that previously didn't consume it have started buying livestock and crops for beef for the purpose of exports and tourism. Agriculture and livestock have to be done at an increased rate for tourism purposes in many countries (like Thailand), and construction too now takes place at increased rates.
What you can do: Again, research a lot about where you're going and where you're staying. Although you can't make tourism change its ways, you can do your part - stay at hotels that are naturally built (not harming the environment around it) and have sustainable practices, eat and shop locally, don't waste limited resources, and reduce your meat (in particular beef) consumption both while traveling and at home. It makes a very, very big difference if you just cut down, not even omit completely. Check out Every Steph's great blog on the best ecotourism destinations if you want help choosing an eco-friendly vacation!
If you like this content and want to read more about ecotourism and travel in an eco-friendly manner, check out Softback Travel and Tammy and Chris On the Move for some well written and informative articles on conservation, protection, and sustainability. Both blog pedestals are excellent places to start and educate yourself about many important issues.
As a travel company, The Tarzan Way has taken many steps to help communities, support them, and find a sustainable source of income for isolated and low-income communities. We provide eco-friendly experiences, eco-friendly merchandise/travel implements, and do our best to make a change to every extent we can. Check out our experiences to see what we do, why we do it, and how we support many local communities.