Millions of people will travel the world this year. What kind of impact will they leave behind?
What happens when travel companies overwork their employees in order to spoil their clients with some privileges? What is at stake when tourists are unaware of the poor working conditions and widespread greenwashing that tour operators hide from them? In the travel and hiking industry of Machu Picchu, Peru, this is the norm. The fact is that “greenwashing” occurs in other parts of the world too, and so the questions are: Could “sustainable” ever be Sustainable? And, who can make that possible?
UNESCO’S World Tourism Organization has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. More than one billion tourists will travel the world trying to visit the many attractions of our beautiful and threatened world. Billions of dollars will be made from these activities by the travel industry, but how much of it will go towards making the world a better place?
In another piece I wrote, I made two points; firstly, profit wins over sustainability and preservation. Secondly, only the conscious and active participation of travelers can counter that. I stated that only tourists, acting as guarantors, could hold businesses accountable for their sustainable practices. These actions would catapult the travel industry to a higher and more sustainable level, which would also provide the impetus to make changes that are urgently necessary for our planet.
Travelers across the world take different forms of transport, hire travel services, stay at hotels, take tours and eat at all kinds of restaurants. Their impact on the country in which they have traveled is powerful. Travel companies cater to the needs and tastes of their clients. They focus on the effectiveness and quality of their services, offer luxury products and compete for the money. Some companies brand themselves as sustainable and provide green products and eco-friendly practices referring to them as organic and environmentally friendly. Their websites display beautiful pictures of almost pristine mountains and lakes, exhibit amazing photos of exotic yet almost extinct animals, such as the Andean condor or the spectacled bear. But we can agree on this; sometimes what we are told is not what we see.
A recent article published in the New York Times states that sustainable tourism is in its infancy and while some companies try to be sustainable, they lack the essential involvement of tourists. The question is, why is it that this is the case? Why is it that travelers do not get involved in this process and only a few companies try to be sustainable?
On the one hand, there is a lack of education and general interest by some people, a problem of which can be solved in the long term. On the other hand, there is the usual suspect: profit making is in command. This problem will persist for as long as the system is in place and a fundamental change is not in sight; a problem that at this moment needs a different approach. What is needed is an approach that seeks to improve the current situation by continuing to move toward the path of sustainability.
Sustainability is about transparency, transparency over the working conditions of employees, transparency of eco-practices, and more importantly transparency of the money that companies invest in protecting habitats and their contribution to local communities vs. the profits they make. Here is where sustainability meets morality. Either they choose to be sustainable or they go under. Why is it that some companies are branded sustainable when less than 10% of their profits are dedicated to peoples and the planet? The answer is on you.
Travelers are like bees and hummingbirds, they pollinate. Travelers take the pollen of information everywhere they go. The pollen becomes visible to thousands on social media in the form of pictures, trends, comments, and hashtags. What is often missing in the pollen is the information about sustainability. I am convinced that we as travelers have the responsibility to ensure that wherever we go, wherever we stay, whatever service we take, and whatever tour company we hire is practicing sustainability. But, can we do this alone?
The answer is no; Sustainability is about education and honesty. Companies that are transparent about their sustainable practices and educate their customers about such things can contribute significantly to the process. A good dynamic partnership between businesses and clients would be set in motion, of these two, travelers are the most important factor. By choosing sustainability and spreading the pollen of information, travelers can make the travel industry more sustainable.
Miguel is a Peruvian professional tour guide from Cusco, he has been leading tours throughout Peru for almost 20 years. Graduated from the Antonio Lorena Institute School of Tourism in Cusco, Peru, he has a vast knowledge of the rich cultural and ecological diversity of his beautiful country. Miguel specializes in leading tours to the Inca Trail and other alternative routes to Machu Picchu, such as the Choquequirao and Salkantay treks. Since 2003, he has traveled to the US and other countries to lecture about cultural appropriation and sustainable tourism. Miguel is a strong advocate of ecotourism and science. He values the role that tourists play in the development and protection of sensitive cultures and ecosystems and dedicates his work to raise the awareness of such players with the aim of furthering such a powerful tool. Also, he is the co-founder of Evolution Treks Peru a worker-owned travel company based in Cusco.