How Sustainable Tourism Will Change the World of Travel
There is a beach off the coast of Cartagena called Playa Blanca or “White Beach.” It is on the shores of Isla Baru – just a short boat ride away – and is said to be one of the more popular and famously beautiful beaches in the area. Home to sugar-like sand, swaying palm trees and a spectrum of turquoise-blue waters; Playa Blanca is the type of beach you hope to find when flying south of the equator. There’s just one problem: tourism.
The Double Edge Sword of Tourism
Tourism has transformed what must have once been a pristine slice of nature to a cross between an amusement park and Spring Break party. Plastic bottles and empty cervezas litter the beach, bloated tourists lay like rotisserie chickens surrounded by discarded cigarettes, children bounce by on banana boats. Just behind the beach-facing restaurants that line the perimeter of the beach, there is an entirely darker and desperate side to Playa Blanca: dirt packed roads littered with piles of garbage, polluted lagoons with brown-murky waters and – by far the most heart breaking–local children and adults of the island wandering barefoot amidst piles of forgotten tourist trash, hoping to peddle coconuts to visitors for less than $2.
Tourism is a double edge sword on Playa Blanca – on one hand, it has helped bring money to the area and the impoverished islanders, but on the other hand it has almost decimated the beauty of the area. This devastating trend of tourists ruining destinations is unfortunately a trend seen around the world – such as the once untouched Haad Rin Beach that is now the site of the debauchery and drug-fueled Full Moon Party.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
Thankfully, there is a future of travel that promises to transform the way we see the world. By now you’ve heard the popular quote: “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” It is the Millennial mantra of the sustainable tourism movement, the idea that visiting a destination should leave it for the better rather than tear it apart. With tourism booming and over 1 billion projected travelers now globetrotting, the idea of redefining what it means to travel has never been more dire.
It’s said that sustainable tourism is absolutely critical to the travel industry. Think about it this way: if travel is a business, then a destination is the product. If people are visiting a destination and slowly ruining the experience and community then not only does the tourism industry there suffer but so too does the destination; what happens is a total breakdown: tourists will be less inclined to visit that destination and in turn the local community will be less welcoming to tourists, having suffered from the impact of their visits.
The Future of Travel
The efforts to push sustainable travel rests on both the individual travelers and the businesses within the travel industry that accommodate and guide them. Travel businesses are supporting the cause with Sustainable hotels now looking at how they handle waste, how they manage water and how they manage all the resources that go into accommodating travelers; making an effort to be conscientious of their environmental impact.
How can you travel responsibly? Simple things from being mindful of how you use resources while abroad (turning off electricity when not needed, being conservative with water usage, reducing carbon emissions, not littering, etc.) to eating locally, buying from local artisans and having a positive impact on the local economy without the negative effects. Avoid those paid photo opportunities provided by locals offering a pose with a wild animal, read up on the destination and culture and be respectful of local customs, stay at eco-conscious hotels and simply look to immerse yourself in the destination.
Small, locally-led tours are said to be another way to promote sustainable tourism as they have minimal environmental impact and – by virtue of being led by locals – respect the destination and often support local artisans with profits put towards the community.
When I think of Playa Blanca off Cartagena’s coast, it is with a mix of emotion. I am happy for the memories I’ve had there but am sad for the impact tourism has left on its once perfect beach. I hope it’s not too late for Playa Blanca, that perhaps sustainable tourism can clean up the garbage left by millions of travelers who have carelessly visited Isla Baru. Regardless, sustainable travel is the future of travel because it simply has to be. If travel is indeed a gift, then there is no excuse to leave the wrapping paper carelessly discarded.