The importance of sustainable travel

It should be no surprise that the quality of our environment is essential to the tourism industry. Millions of tourists visit each year to visit some of Australia’s biggest attractions; our pristine beaches, our wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef, unspoilt natural wilderness, natural and protected areas including Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and National parks  including rainforests and other forests. It goes without saying, then, that efforts to protect the environment from the negative effects of tourism should be front of mind both from an economic and traveller perspective.

The tourism industry is one of the fastest growing industries in Australia. In 2019, it was estimated that 9.4 million international tourists travelled to Australia from overseas, an increase of 2.4% from 2018. With projections that international visitors will increase to 15 million by 2026, such rapid growth of travellers undoubtedly affects the environmental health of key travel destinations and the tourism infrastructure required to support this increase.

The relationship of tourism with the environment is complex. While tourism brings many benefits to a region and countries economy, the activities tourism and travel incites can have adverse environmental effects. Tourism – if not conducted thoughtfully and sustainably – can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends. 

Transitioning the shift over from conventional travel to sustainable travel requires constant consideration and innovation. Globally, we are at the tipping point of long term and irrecoverable damage and it is more important now than ever to be more conscious of the consequences that over-tourism has on our natural and protected areas including Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and National parks and ecosystems.

The good news is that 72% of travellers surveyed in 2019 believe that we need to make more sustainable travel choices to protect our planet. But to practice sustainable travel, it is important to understand what it is and why it is needed – especially in the adventure travel space as it directly affects the natural experience and cultural exchange we get from it. And the question remains, that although travellers are generally appreciative of the need for sustainable travel, how many can genuinely say that they plan for, assess, and mange the impacts of their travel?

In this article, we describe the negative effects of conventional tourism with regards to environmental pollution and degradation, and the importance that sustainable tourism has on contributing to overall environmental conservation.

Firstly, what is sustainable travel?

The term sustainable travel is often linked to the natural environment and its preservation. It’s not as simple as not littering on beaches or reducing plastic usage when travelling – sustainable travel takes into full account of the destination’s current and future economic, social and environmental impact so that it will be accessible for generations to come. It is a growing movement that encourages all travellers to be more conscious of tourism’s negative impacts and to make better decisions that create a positive impact instead.

Why do we need sustainable travel?

To truly understand why sustainable travel is required, it’s important to understand the negative impacts from conventional travel and how they occur. The degradation of the environment occurs when visitor use of an area exceeds the environment’s ability to cope with the level of use. If left uncontrolled, conventional tourism poses many potential threats to natural areas, impacting soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. It often puts a strain on water resources, and it can force local populations to compete for the use of critical resources.

One of the most widely publicised negative impacts of travel is the carbon emissions from air travel, which has an enormous impact on our environment on a global scale. Consider this:

  • in 2019, the world’s airlines carried 4.5 billion passengers
  • Worldwide, flights produced 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019. 
  • Globally, humans produced over 43 billion tonnes of CO2.
  • 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions were produced by the global aviation industry

Large increases in CO2 emissions cause climate change which can take years to reverse the damage caused. Making conscious travel decisions for our environment helps travellers do their part to ensure the beautiful rivers or lush forests filled with greenery remain in pristine condition for future generations. 

The degradation of an environments biodiversity is also an immensely important area influenced by travel and tourism. Many areas in Australia have fragile ecosystems where vegetation, wildlife, mountain, marine and coastal environments and water resources are heavily impacted by tourism and travel related activities. Take trampling, for example, which is a common problem in newly created routes or tracks that are not officially cleared for the purpose of trekking and hiking. 

When trekkers use the same trail over and over again, damage occurs which can destroy the biodiversity of an area. This is quite a common issue in Tasmania, where studies found it could take between 2-3 years for vegetation to recover from even minimal trampling (between 30-100 passes in a year). For areas that had over 500 passes, there was no evidence of recovery at all in the 3 years post trampling. The table below demonstrates the various stages of trampling and the effects on both vegetation and soil.

Trampling impacts on vegetationTrampling impacts on soil 
Breakage and bruising of stems Loss of organic matter 
Reduced plant vigor Reduction in soil macro porosity
Reduced regeneration Decrease in air and water permeability
Loss of ground cover Increase in run off 
Change in species composition Accelerated erosion

One key area of sustainable travel which deserves deep consideration and implementation now more than ever is biosecurity. Biosecurity is protecting the economy, environment and people’s health from pests and disease. It includes trying to prevent new pests and diseases from arriving, and helping to control outbreaks when they do occur. What the world has experienced in 2020 with Covid-19 simply emphasises the enormous and increasing risks of not taking biosecurity seriously, and ultimately highlights that all people (not just travellers) need to adopt attitudes and behaviours to reduce risk of pest and disease outbreaks.

From an environmental perspective, pests and diseases that are introduced to Australia can have a severe threat on our unique flora and fauna, and have already contributed to the high rate of Australia’s rate of species extinction. Studies show that of Australia’s 273 endemic species of land mammal, almost half are now extinct (30 species, 11%), threatened (56 species, 21%) or near threatened (52 species, 15%). In comparison to the global rate of extinctions, Australian mammal extinctions comprise 35% of recent global mammal extinctions.

Not only this, but introduced weeds and pathogens (such as myrtle rust, phytophthora dieback), have proliferated and spread slowly across parts of the country, having ineradicable impacts on our native species and ecosystems.

The benefits of tourism

That being said, sustainable tourism and travel can have many beneficial effects through contributing to environmental protection and conservation. Sustainable tourism raises awareness and appreciation of the environment, and as the quality, attractiveness and pristine natural areas are considered as valuable from an economic perspective, the income generated can finance the protection of natural areas and increase their economic importance to land management and national park managers.

Travel can also bring attention to issues affecting the environment such as global warming, which can heighten awareness of the value of nature and thus stimulate environmentally conscious behaviour – both in travel and day-to-day life.

Moving forward with sustainable travel

Preserving the environment is crucial for the survival of adventure tourism businesses, as well as travellers themselves. As an adventure community, there are steps that we can take as well to make our adventure travel more sustainable:

  1. Opt to fly less and if you have to fly, do it wisely. Travelling using public transportation or in cases where trains and buses are not available, driving is the next best option. If you do have to fly, look into direct flights where possible, as taking off and landing with multiple stopovers generates more carbon emissions than cruising up in the altitude.
  2. Consider it your responsibility to buy carbon offset units to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases released as a result of your air travel. These units support projects that work towards reducing and removing emissions from the atmosphere, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation.
  3. Slow travel reduces your environmental footprint, so try to stay longer at your destination and spend more time with the people and the community around you.
  4. Eating more plant based meals or locally seasonal ingredients can greatly reduce carbon emissions as the animal agriculture industry contributes towards 13-18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally, and eating imported non local or non seasonal ingredients means that you are contributing towards more carbon emissions as well.
  5. Support the local communities which means buying your food and supplies from locals, choosing local adventure tour operators and staying in locally owned accommodations to minimize economic leakage.
  6. Respect the environment around you by minimizing your trash and not littering, in addition to respecting the traditions and culture surrounding your destination.
  7. If driving your vehicle in natural and protected areas including Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and National parks, ensure your vehicle is free of mud, soil, seeds and plant material. It is generally recommended wash the wheels and underneath the vehicle with a high pressure, high temperature washer before entering or leaving national parks, however using cold water to remove dirt will also work. 
  8. Help prevent the spread of invasive plant diseases and weeds threatening our native plants, animals and ecosystems by ensuring you “Arrive Clean Leave Clean” Before entering or leaving a vulnerable ecosystem, check your shoes, clothing, hair and hats for any seeds or plant material. Phytophthora cinnamomi, is rampant in the West ecosystem of WA and Tasmania, and kills native plants. Many national parks and waking trails have shoe cleaning stations at the start of the track to help you clean your shoes, gaiters, trowel beforehand.
  9. If you see a plant pest or disease symptom that you think is unusual, report it to the National Park or land manager for further assessment and review.

Your role in creating a healthier environment: become a steward or citizen-traveller

We strongly encourage all travellers to think of themselves as citizen-travellers or stewards, as opposed to consumers. This simple mindset change can have an enormous impact on our subconscious behaviour in the communities we visit. By definition, to ‘consume’ something means to do away with complete; to destroy or to spend wastefully. Hence, a ‘consumerist experiential’ travel experience, no matter how it is packaged, essentially implies the expectation that destruction or squandering will ensue. This is unsustainable, and detrimental to the overall health of our planet, its people and its ecosystems.

Instead, consider yourself as a citizen-traveller or steward of the locations you visit. That is, an “inhabitant of a city or town, with rights and responsibilities” (citizen) or as “one employed to a place to responsibly manage affairs” (steward). This change of mindset allows us to take on the responsibility to care and consider the communities we visit, without sense of ownership, but with respect and appreciation.

So long as travellers see themselves with no direct responsibility to the places they visit, tension will mount between their presence and the protection of natural resources. The sooner this concept is integrated into both traveller thought and actions, the sooner we can change course to correct the negative impacts of conventional travel and work together towards sustainable travel.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve the planet we live in, and to keep the wonders and experience of travelling alive for future generations to come.