Travel is a good thing. I’ve encouraged people to do it in countless blog posts. But, in the rush to get people to travel, we often overlook the negative impact of travel has on communities and the environment. We talk about how travel can be a force for good: breaking down social barriers, connecting people, teaching people about life, but we often overlook the bad. Is too much travel a bad thing? Is there an argument to be made for traveling less? Are we all, even with the best intentions, doing harm to the very thing we want the most?
Nothing is ever perfect but if I had to make an argument against travel, these are the points I would make:
Travel destroys local cultures – The globalization of food, travel, hotels, and language diminishes the very culture we traveled so far to see. Instead of going out to seek the unknown, most people stay in resorts and hotels, never experiencing the country they are in. We go to McDonald’s or eat food we can get at home. It’s as though we travel to never leave home. Wherever we go, we seem to bring our western culture with us.
Travel makes the world Disneyland – From the hill tribes of Thailand to the Andes to cowboys of America, travelers have a certain expectation of what a place is and how the people should act. We travel to see that expectation. We travel to see Crocodile Dundee, Mayans, Native Americans, and hill tribe cultures in Asia. Cultures around the world then put on a show to give us what we want and in the process “Disneyize” their culture. I hate seeing the little hill tribes in Thailand or Native American shows in America or “traditional” dance in Vietnam. It’s not how they really act. It’s how they act for tourists. Doesn’t that just cheapen the experience and, in the end, cause more harm than good?
Travel destroys local economies – All that travel in big hotels and global restaurants doesn’t help the local economy. Most of that money is removed by corporations to the head office. Travelers go with what they know and most will stay at the Marriott before they stay in some unknown place, never thinking about where the money is going. Travel can be a huge economic boon but only if the money stays local.
Travel hurts the environment – Traveling is not the most eco-friendly of activities. Flying, cruising, eating out, and driving around all have a negative impact on the environment. Most people when they travel constantly use towels in hotel rooms, leave the air conditioner going, or forget to turn off the lights. Jetsetting around the world in airplanes or driving around in an RV all contribute to global warming. Between waste, development, and pollution, we are doing exactly what The Beach said we would do- destroy the very paradise we seek.
Travel produces short-term profits – Everyone tries to grab that last dollar. Travel isn’t the only industry this happens with but it’s the most relevant to us. Instead of building for the long term, people overdevelop in the name of short-term gain. You see it in Thailand with its built up beaches, in Cambodia, in southern Spain, and in Las Vegas with all the casinos (where’s all that water going to come from?). It’s everywhere. Money now, forget later. Eventually, the tourists will stop coming because they will be so put off and so sad the beauty they came for is gone.
While there is a growing effort among people to mitigate these downsides, the truth is we can’t ignore the negative side of travel. Yet I don’t think these reasons should make us stop traveling. In fact, I’m just thinking out loud here. Simply letting the wheels turn. At the end of the day, these negatives come down to personal choice. You can easily travel the world and not do any of these things. I don’t fly much, I don’t stay in giant hotels, I avoid chain restaurants, I stay in local guesthouses, and I won’t do tours that exploit animals or the environment.
While many travelers are good at thinking about the environment and cultures, the majority aren’t. And so I do think there is a strong argument to be made that travel does cause a lot of problems that should make us rethink how and why we travel. There’s a downside to what we do and we should take it upon ourselves not to do those things so we can keep travel the benefit that it is.
Let’s be a force for good and change the way we travel by using our money to support better local environemntal intitiatives and companies. As they say, leave no trace behind.
Don’t stop now! Continue reading these articles on ecotourism: