Is Sustainable Tourism Impossible?
The Last Tourist film looks at what we did before, why it wasn’t working and what is working and how we can do more of that!
Sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, even wellness tourism, whatever you like to call it, when we travel I like to think about the power of exchange. It’s about connecting with another culture, and other travellers and even finding ways to cultivate a deeper relationship with ourselves and the planet (which, if you want to go really deep, are essentially the same thing!). Travel has the potential to heal us so that we can find more in common than what sets us apart.
I recently had the opportunity to watch a new documentary, The Last Tourist that Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures is the executive producer for. As soon as I heard about the launch, I signed straight up and invited everyone I could think of! I’d also had the privilege of seeing it in 2022 before it was officially released in Australia.
Many little breadcrumbs in my life have led me to believe that we can do better in tourism. From my university studies that opened my eyes to manufactured cultural experiences that were harming a local population, to hearing Bruce speak about his vision, a presentation in Adelaide at least a decade ago. Plus, of course, the time I’ve spent living in Cambodia understanding up close and firsthand the implications of travel on a destination and its people.
There are so many relatable stories in this film that reflect my own journey in sustainable tourism. From working at ConCERT to advise travellers on how they can make a positive impact when they’re visiting Siem Reap, to being aware of where I should travel and what I shouldn’t do. I didn’t always get it right, but I researched and sense checked and through living in Siem Reap was able to connect with the local ChildSafe staff working there and understand more deeply how the proximity of world-famous Angkor Wat and one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia exist in a challenging ecosystem.
The thing is, when you live somewhere, you have a bigger opportunity to find out what’s helping and what’s hurting the local environment.
But when you’re visiting, and in the case of Siem Reap an average of 3 nights is all that people stay (and miss out on so much of that connection and other wonderful cultural immersion that’s available!), it’s so hard to navigate and know what’s helping and what’s detrimental to the local community.
As a traveller in Siem Reap, bottled water seems like the only option and it’s ‘only a couple of days even if you wouldn’t drink from a plastic bottle at home. The problem is, with millions of tourists visiting every year (more than 6 million people arrived in Siem Reap in 20191), 3 days’ worth of plastic bottles turns into more than 40 million plastic bottles of waste (based on a conservative figure of 2 bottles per person per day). That’s a huge problem for the small community and town of Siem Reap, Cambodia. And it’s not just bottles.
This is why I believe that in the industry, we’re in a special position to play a part in connecting guests with nature, and community and show them how to support local businesses in our area as well. The example that G Adventures have been setting for decades… as well as other tour companies that are focused on how they can contribute more to the local communities they operate in, Easia Travel, Intrepid and EXO Travel are some of the first that comes to mind.
It’s why I love working with hotels. The power hotels have to influence guests and protect the local environment and communities is immense. And the potential is huge. Yet, there’s a reluctance to do things differently. Like so much of the sustainability work, the onus is largely placed on the individuals and that puts immense pressure on those trying to make a change. Creating a feeling that they’ve got to be 100% perfect at: veganism, zero waste, woke travel, or whatever label is trending at the time. And that’s not sustainable. It’s also not going to make an impact in a way that addresses the urgency in which we need to change.
In the words of Anne-Marie Bonneau “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly we need millions of people doing it imperfectly!”
Ask yourself: How long do visitors stay in your town? Wouldn’t it be great if they stayed longer? What cultural experiences or things do people miss out on because they’ve only come to see the local “icons” and not truly immerse themselves in the local culture and the people?
After the initial impact of Covid on the world, humanity and travel, I hope and I’m pushing for us to do things differently. To slow down, to take in wellness in all of its aspects. For the industry to be the hero in this tale. For us to connect, to support the amazing impact businesses that are adding to the local environment and community and we can truly feel good about our work, our travel and the wider global society in which we live.
The Last Tourist Film is now available to watch in Australia (and NZ, the US, Canada and more places soon!). It’s a heartfelt look at what we can learn from past behaviour and how we can move into a more positive and healing future.
Go to thelasttouristfilm.com to watch it online.
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