The social cost of global tourism

The social cost of global tourism

Look after the world as you enjoy it, writes Leila George

Planes pollute. So do cruise ships, tour buses and rental cars. And let’s not start on what people do to their own planet and their fellow residents, both human and animal.

More people are travelling every year. The UN’s World Tourism Organisation estimated the numbers at 1.235b last year, up 3.9 per cent on 2015. That was the seventh consecutive year of growth following the 2009 global economic and financial crisis, and the experts are predicting another 3-4 per cent increase this year.

The wide open spaces aren’t so wide or open any more. Visitors bring and leave more rubbish; tourism is responsible for one third of all waste in the Caribbean, for instance.

The social costs of global tourism can be particularly hard on indigenous groups and vulnerable children.

But don’t fret: before you feel too guilty to book your next trip, be assured you don’t need to become a lime green ecowarrior to lessen the cost of your holiday to the world and its citizens.

Simply pay attention to what you’re doing and where your money is going by doing your homework and making conscious, informed decisions.


Start by checking out Ethical Travel and its Best Ethical Destinations list of developing nations that look after their people, society, environment and tourism industry.

Or simply change your mode of transport. Steer clear of those diesel-belching tour buses squeezing through narrow cobbled streets and instead walk, bike, or trade the whistle-stop, nine-countries-in-12-days tour for staying put in one location to live like a local. In other words, become an ecotourist.

Ecotourism is about linking environmental conservation, community well-being and sustainable travel. It involves education, cultural awareness, and minimising any physical, social, behavioural and psychological impact from tourism.

Done properly, it’s a win-win situation for locals and tourists alike; a sustainable economy for the former and positive experiences for the latter.


To inhabit rather than visit a place, visit G Adventures’ Local Living tours online. The Canada-based, socially motivated tourism company can guide you to locations that are the stuff of dreams: Mongolian gers, Icelandic homes, and Masai campsites, where you live with a local host and become part of the family.

While the arguable downside is that you pretty much stay put, the benefit is you can do as much or as little as you like during your stay, be it pressing olives with Italian locals, walking the hills of Thailand or hunting with a blowgun in the Amazon. These are travel experiences worth writing home about.

For more responsible tourism practices that benefit conservation and communities, TIES – The International Ecotourism Society – is a non-profit organisation with a global network of more than 190 countries. Join online for free tips and advice on how to make a difference, or be inspired by the great collection of ecotraveller stories.

This thinking isn’t limited to the tree-hugging branch of society – sections of the global travel industry have embraced it, too. The Travel Corporation, a multinational operating 24 major brands including Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations, Contiki Tours and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, some years ago established a non-profit affiliate, the TreadRight Foundation, to oversee projects to support sustainable tourism and help the preservation of popular tourist sites.

Its 40 sustainable tourism projects worldwide include Wilderness Foundation Africa and the Sustainable River Cruising Project in Europe and Egypt.

If you don’t want to leave home before seeing the country, there are Kiwi eco tours to put the awe in awesome. Think: whale-watching, swimming with dolphins and spotting unique birdlife to national parks, forests and reserves covering more than 20 per cent of the country, 18,000km of coast with islands scattered around its edges, clear, open skies to view the Milky Way. The aim of local ecotourism is to reduce any negative impact on our environment and give back through things like volunteer work.

Photo / 123RF


Combine volunteering with tourism and you have voluntourism – a way to help communities and environments you visit by working for free. The price of a voluntour is usually a little more than a standard tour because it generally includes activities, accommodation, transport and a donation.

Most volunteers live with local host families to experience a depth of cultural immersion other tourists never do. Hosts want to help you feel part of their community, sharing their daily lives and customs.

In return, you’re helping their local economy and using your skills, time and energy to engender lasting development. You may help a teacher with their English or classroom skills, get a local business off the ground through micro-finance, or build a family home through Habitat for Humanity.

As with so many aspects of ethical tourism, be aware: if you’re considering volunteering in an orphanage, many charity organisations now believe this detrimentally affects children and their families.

In New Zealand voluntourism generally means the good old Kiwi working bee: getting your hands dirty by planting native trees, monitoring pests or surveying flora and fauna.

This often includes access to off-the-tourist-trail locations, or activities such as surfing then planting a tree, kayaking then monitoring fish species or, if on a Blue Voluntours trip, standup paddleboarding before a beach clean-up.

One of the downsides of voluntouring is that it may not feel like a holiday. Be sure to allow yourself some free time to see the sights, or add a few extra leisure days to your trip before heading home.

If you prefer working with animals, ethical animal tourism can combine your love of fauna with saving them from a life of misery. Exotic animal encounters may be a highlight for many, but a recent study by World Animal Protection found 75 per cent of wildlife tourist attractions have a negative effect on the animals used – and abused – in them.

Whether it’s riding an elephant that’s been “broken in”, holding sea turtles or getting your photo taken with a lion or chained monkey, this type of tourism contributes to a sustained cycle of poor animal welfare and cruelty. Sadly, many tourists are either unaware or simply turn a blind eye to this abuse.

Photo / 123RF

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Wildlife Alliance, a community-based tourism project in Chi Phat, Cambodia, is using tourism to help protect the Cardamom Mountains. They’ve successfully reduced deforestation since 2002, and stopped elephant poaching.

In Phuket, volunteers can work with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project to rescue, rehabilitate, release and repopulate these small apes. World Animal Protection has convinced more than 160 travel companies worldwide, including First Travel Group and House of Travel, to stop offering packages that include cruel elephant entertainment; STA Travel ended unethical animal trips in 2014. To help plan your next trip, download Intrepid Travel’s guide to ethical animal tourism.

Call it virtue tourism. Or as Jack Kerouac put it, “Shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry.”

Ethical Travel:
G Adventures Local Living:
The International Ecotourism Society:
The TreadRight Foundation:
Blue Voluntours:
Habitat for Humanity:
Intrepid Travel: