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Changing the world one vacation at a time

Have you ever heard about a vacation that is ‘sustainable’, ‘eco, ‘green’, ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’? These words are becoming buzz words in the national and international tourism industry to describe what is essentially the same thing – tourism that seeks to minimize its negative impacts on the environment and society. Let me explain why this is happening and why these buzz words could become important to you when planning your next vacation.

The world population is traveling more than ever before in history as an increased number of people have the resources and possibilities to travel to refresh the body and mind, learn about other destinations and cultures, meet new people, friends and families, be educated or do business. As a matter of fact with international tourist arrivals between 1950 and 2005 jumping from about 20.000 to 700.000 million a year, tourism is now considered as the biggest industry in the world.

The historical travel boom increased the pressure on popular tourist destination as well as cultural and environmental fragile destinations, which made it obvious that the presence of tourism in any destination always brings with it environmental and socio-cultural as well as economic impacts. On the very negative side, travel and tourism is arguably impacting destinations and the environment more than any other industry by increasing local living costs, inspire crime, harm nature, disturb animal habitats, change local values and end old traditions.
Tourism is also a big contributor to global warming, where our planet is heating up at an alarming rate and natural resources are disappearing fast. Humanity’s failure to clean up after itself has already placed millions of lives in peril, with Bangladesh being one of the most vulnerable countries. Scientists say the window of opportunity to reverse climate change is small and it is closing.

My dear reader, I hope by now you are thinking “Someone should do something!” – because this is exactly what I am thinking. World-wide politicians, industries, NGO’s, scientists are increasingly focusing on climate change and sustainable development solutions – but their work is just not enough!
When it comes to travel and tourism, a common stance taken in the offset debate is to suggest we just shouldn’t travel at all. While the reality of negative impact is hard to ignore, there is another side to the coin according to Sustainable Travel International (STI): “Travel can and does have an enormous positive impact on countries and communities across the globe. Seeing the world and how we fit into it also increases awareness on the individual level and makes philanthropy efforts possible in corners of the world that would otherwise be ignored. At this point in our cultural, spiritual and social development, not traveling is not really an option: we are too far gone, having been corrupted by the beauty and wonder of exploring our planet”.

The travel and tourism industry is furthermore intimately linked to the global economy and global ecology through increased national revenue, job creation, rural development, nature preservation, enriching cultural life and keeping handicraft traditions alive. If all travel stopped tomorrow, the global economy would collapse, and if only all tourism related travel stopped overnight, entire economies would collapse, as travel and tourism accounts for over 10% of the global economy and 11% of the global workforce, with significantly higher figures in many developing countries. The vast majority of the people in these regions would be immediately forced back to slash and burn agriculture, rapid deforestation, overfishing and other forms of unsustainable economic activities that would also result in major carbon emissions. This is a fact, and while strongly supporting an industry transition to alternative energy sources, some emissions are unavoidable.

Individual action is now recognized as one of the keys to tackling both global warming and the negative side effects from tourism. In other words you my reader can make a huge positive different through you actions and it is actually not that complicated. Just take a look at the information boxes to get you started.

Have a great, sustainable journey!

Information box on Bangladeshi tourism

Bangladesh is still one of the countries in South Asia with the fewest arrivals and the lowest revenue earned from the tourism industry. Nevertheless, tourism has since the 1990s been a small but rapidly growing sector of the national economy. Bangladeshi tourism includes many beautiful and interesting destinations, where the present and future development of this sector will have a major impact on the society, rural destinations and preservation of local nature and culture.
Responsible travel options are emerging in Bangladesh, some examples are Contic (traditional boat trip organizer with a luxurious service), Bangladesh Ecotours (tour operator with huge community commitment and extensive knowledge on Chittagong Hilltracts), Guide Tours (tours developed with a high consideration on local communities and environment – a good choice for Sundarbans) and Nishorgo nature tourism initiatives (support rural economy nearby important nature sites by using local eco-guides, cottages and shops) and Panigram (upcoming high-end eco-resort in Jessore).

Information box on responsible travel myths:

Myth: I have to sacrifice quality and luxury of accommodations.
Reality: Many lodges, hotels and Bed & Breakfasts have very high standards for quality and luxury. They bring nature and culture within your reach, while still assuring a high level of comfort.

Myth: It’s expensive!
Reality: Responsible tours and accommodations come in a range of prices, depending on the level of comfort and convenience you desire.

Myth: It means traveling to tropical jungles.
Reality: Responsible travel often brings to mind images of exotic tropical locations, but the reality is that destinations, accommodations and tour packages exist on every continent.

Myth: It’s for backpackers.
Reality: People of all interests, ages, incomes and backgrounds can travel responsibly, and there are plenty of family-friendly options.
Resource ‘The Rainforest Alliance’

Information box: Ecotourism Code of Conduct for Travelers

A. BEFORE (Before setting out on your journey)

Study before you travel: history, culture, environment, basic phrases, and health precautions.
Plan your itinerary to maximize enjoyment and minimize unnecessary transport.
Seek eco-friendly hotels, community-owned hotels, family-owned hotels and Ecotours online.
Discuss with fellow eco-enthusiasts who have been there or live there, online or offline.
Try booking direct so as to save money to spend at your destination.
Pack appropriate items for your destination, travel light.
House – check utilities, remove power plugs, cords, water the plants drip irrigation, empty fridge – foods to relatives, friends, and neighbors.
Consider bringing gifts for people you are planning to meet – gifts that promote cultural exchange, eco-products (organic, vegetarian, non-violent, and appropriate for destination). Do not bring items that may offend, such as clothes, unless you are visiting a really destitute area. Chances are that money is more useful.
Go to your airport, train or bus station using public transport. Travel economy, save money to spend locally.
Think twice before carbon-offsetting your journey. Consider if the off setter is a reputable one and investing in transparent, relevant social and environmental projects. Consider that you can pay this money directly to a cause or project of your choice in your destination, or by making an extra effort to use eco transport and eco accommodation.

B. DURING (During your journey)

Prefer public transport. Share private transport with locals (rides) and other travelers. Be cautious but not hysteric with personal safety.
Instead of immersing yourself in your book, try interacting with other passengers, it may prove the most enjoyable and educational part of your journey.
Do not show-off expensive items (if you have taken with you) avoid generating jealousy.
Give up your seat on a bus – nothing more annoying for local people to see young foreigners taking up the seats for elderly people.

Conserve electricity and water.
Avoid chemicals to avoid mosquitoes and other bugs, opt for natural products and nets.
Try explain to your hosts why you picked their hotel (due to their endorsement of ecological principles) offer them realistic ideas on how to improve the guest experience, if they are eager to listen. Write polite but honest reviews in guest books.

Remain on trails, keep far from wildlife, be silent, wear natural colors, do not take or introduce anything to the environment.
In protected or archaeological areas, do not disrupt scientists at work.
Be appreciative and genuinely interested to learn new things, do not try to outsmart local guides or impress them with your vast knowledge and travel experience.
Stop your guide if they try to do something inappropriate to wildlife for your amusement, and politely explain why tourists are no longer interested in such gimmicks. Do not insist on watching wildlife in case your guides go overboard to satisfy you.
Do not constantly compare your country with your destination, relax!
Try to immerse and pace yourself – keep a balance between Museums, cultural events, meeting people, visiting protected areas, monuments.

Prefer the local family shop to the multinational chain.
Buy local products for necessities. Don’t carry everything with you.
Do not buy items made from endangered plants or animals.
If bargain is tolerated, do not bargain excessively
Support local publishers, buy local guides – offer detail.
Support traditional, locally-made crafts when buying gifts for loved ones back at home.

Prefer local food to international cuisine. Choose in season dishes, try vegetarianism.
Pay attention to hygienic conditions but do not overdo it, treat food as part of your exploration. Taste is one of the 5 senses through which you will perceive your destination.
Prefer fresh local juice to imported condensed one.
Respect alcohol-related laws.
Use a thermos (& purifying tablets if needed) rather than plastic water bottles.

Wear appropriate clothes at all times. Your target is to feel comfortable. When in Rome dress like the Romans!
Have nothing to do with the sex tourism industry. Avoid sleazy areas and opt for high quality, genuine cultural events.
Avoid insulting local sensitivities relating to morals, politics or traditions.
Share experiences, information and rides with fellow travelers but not only with them, interact with local people, seek ecological organizations and movements.
Pay a visit (and money…) to local projects that support local society, environment, and economy.
Observe violations of environmental laws, human rights (abuse to women, children, and minorities), animal rights (cruelty to animals). Speak up only when it will not put you in an unsafe situation, or better report to an appropriate local or international organization. Take a picture if possible to substantiate your claims.
Do not correct locals when using your own language incorrectly unless they ask you to do so.
Similarly do not barge into the homes of locals in tourist sites, respect their privacy.
Do not photograph locals without asking, and don’t overdo it when they accept. Offer to delete a photo you have taken if the person was for some reason offended or changed his/her mind. Be sensitive about religious, cultural or security sites.
If the destination you are visiting does not have suitable recycling facilities, take your rubbish (plastic, batteries) with you. For the same purpose prefer reusable items – razors, rechargeable batteries, thermos instead of plastic bottles.
Do not encourage children to expect sweets, money or presents from foreigners, nor their parents to use the children so as to sell products or services to tourists. Child labor in Tourism is not a sacred local tradition or custom that you necessarily need to respect.
If you promise something to people you meet (sending a picture, a letter), make sure you can keep your word!

C. AFTER (At Home, remembering, not forgetting)

Consider organizing a slide-show for good friends and relatives to increase interest knowledge and dispel misconceptions about the wonderful place you have just been to.
Keep your promises to people you have met.
Send a thank you note by email or a postcard to your hosts.
If you were satisfied, recommend these hosts to your friends.
Try linking up with people from the country you have just visited and happen to live in your city. Visit an ethnic restaurant, a cultural centre, a shop. Tell them how much you liked their home, and they will love yours.
Keep up to date with news developments in that country and check to see if news reports in your country correspond to what you have just observed. If not, protest!
Re-read the guidebooks and contact authors to correct errors, especially those about cultural and environmental issues.
At home, keep reducing, reusing, recycling, using public transport, and being as kind to your fellow citizens and neighbors, as to exotic strangers. Ecotourism starts at home!

Resource: EcoClub

Writer Majbritt Thomsen was a Danish expat in Bangladesh from 2007 to 2010. After writing a report on the Bangladeshi tourism status for The Royal Danish Embassy in Dhaka she initiated ‘The Views On Tourism Project’, which aims to encourage a sustainable tourism movement in Bangladesh through professional knowledge and network.

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