On an open jeep safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, we sighted a gaunt-looking lioness stalking a herd of impala from a stony outcrop. Lions only hunt in the daylight when they are extremely hungry. The lioness’ location was radioed through by our ranger to other safari jeeps in our vicinity, despite our protest. A large convoy of excited spectators soon made their noisy way down the road, thereby blocking the lioness’ direct access to the herd of impala grazing across the road.

The lioness disappeared from view, and its herd of intended prey scattered soon after, lessening its chances of capturing a meal. Although it is important to satisfy paying visitors’ expectation of sighting a Big Cat so that they will return to the park, I was concerned that the lioness (and its cubs) faced potential starvation in serving our urgent need to see them in the wild. Should we have kept the sighting to ourselves, then quietly leave the lioness to a likely more successful hunt?

 Both in zoos and the wild, the commotion of insensitive viewing stresses animals, alters their natural behaviour, reduces hunting success and survival, contributing to neglect of their young and failure to mate. This is a rarely encountered ethical dilemma for the few of us lucky enough to be able to embark on a wildlife safari. But what of high volume global travel?

Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries. As well as funding environmental protection and conservation to ensure visitors continue to engage in sustainable travel, recreational travel entails many activities that have adverse impact on the ecology of the planet. Although tourism confers economic and sociocultural advantages, global tourism has reached an unprecedented level. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, the number of tourists crossing international borders in a single year reached over one billion in 2012. Although half of tourist arrivals were from Europe, a large slice of this demand is being fuelled by rising household incomes in emerging economies.

This is compounded by the burden of domestic travel by six billion residents within their own country each year. As tourism accounts for 6% of world trade, the UN Environment Program considers this burgeoning industry to pose enormous threat in terms of climate change, habitat loss, local resource and water use, increased pollution, waste management and pressure on animal species.

Recreational travel leads to 5% of global carbon emissions, 1% of which is related to accommodation and 4% generated by transportation (40% air; 30% car). Commercial jets are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases, with international travellers expected to increase from 594 million in 1996 to 1.6 billion by 2020. A return transatlantic flight generates half the emission as that produced by an adult in the developed world in a year.

These adverse ecological sequelae are countermanded by economic benefits to local communities that incentivises the preservation of the environment and encourages greater connection to the natural world. Responsible sustainable travel requires an ecoconscious approach from both the service provider and consumer; judicious transport, accommodation, food and beverage habits; as well as thoughtful energy, water and waste management.

Tourism services are designed to be delivered in the least environmentally deleterious and most sustainable way. Responsible tourism is a critical to sustainability. Its pillars are environmental integrity, social justice and economic development. However the time is ripe for individual travellers to take responsibility for their actions and its deleterious impact. Mapping the visitor’s travel life cycle with responsible travel in mind before you go, while there and when you return will help you and the places you visit create a more gentle and beneficial mode of tourism.

Avoid the generation of waste in the first place

Reduce the amount of waste that you produce

Reuse materials so they do not turn into waste

Recycle as much as you can

[the mantra could be distilled to reduce, reuse, recycle towards zero waste.]

Choosing travel operators and destinations aligned to one’s environmental values, minimising impact to the visited place, and seeking to preserve local socio-cultural authenticity will enhance benefit to local communities. If potential improvements are identified, the traveller could achieve systematic change by giving constructive feedback to regulatory authorities, travel agents, airlines, tour companies, hotels and excursion operators. Consumer pressure could force tourism regulators and businesses to meet the needs of the more conscientous traveller.

Travel accommodation generates 1% of global carbon emissions and is likely the factor most able to be influenced by the traveller at a personal level. Ecological impact encompasses:

  • Technical services-heating, hot water, air conditioning, lighting, swimming pools, green areas, repairs and maintenance
  • Restaurant-food waste, packaging waste; energy, raw materials and water consumption; organic waste; refrigeration
  • Room -guest use of products, energy, water, tolietries; generation of waste packaging; unnecessary housekeeping
  • Laundry-washing and ironing of linen, towels, using hazardous cleaning products, generation of waste water

Australians per capita are the world’ biggest waste producers, with one tonne of waste per Australian going into landfill each year. Up to 1 kg of waste per guest per night is generated in our hotels. Minimising hotel waste is an important priority to protect the environment, reduce cost of waste disposal including transport to landfill, meet customer expectation that the hotel cares for the environment in a practical manner, as well as improving brand reputation from heightened corporate social responsibility.

80% of hotel waste is potentially recyclable, reusable or compostible. Increasing number of properties choose to reduce their environmental footprint by improved energy and water use, recycling, composting food, buying from local food producers and being less wasteful. Other measures include installing energy efficient lighting, appliances, heating and cooling systems; waterless urinals and toilets using vacuum flush mechanisms and water saving initiatives. As most single use items like miniature guest bathroom amenities and small pieces of soap are used only once, with the rest including non-degradable packaging consigned to waste, refillable hygiene product dispensers are a better option than individually wrapped items.

Hotel guests who choose to ease their environmental conscience prefer ecologically inclined hotels that adopt serious sustainability measures. Goods and services produced, provided and consumed in the least environmentally deleterious and most sustainable way could have enormous impact on the planet’s environment. Engaging consumers is hindered by the challenge of encouraging ecologically sound home habits that are adopted when on holidays.

At the individual level, “Making the Stay in Your Room Green” measures include:

  • Asking for sheets and towels to be changed infrequently,
  • Using the same number towels and linen you would at home,
  • Hanging towels back on racks for reuse,
  • Packing own tolietries,
  • Declining house keeping services,
  • Turning appliances off when out of the room,
  • Using reusable glass bottles rather than plastic water bottles

A quarter of total waste generated by commercial kitchens and food retail outlets is food, of which hotel food waste is a major contributor. This is an avoidable loss of animals bred-for-food and plant matter, waste of water, fertilisers and pesticides. 7% of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with growing, transporting and the disposal of food that is buried in landfill. According to Planet Ark, 3.28 million tonnes of food worth more than $5.2 billion are thrown out of Australian homes and businesses each year. Importantly, hotel guests could order only what they can eat and hotels could donate safe food to charities, compost food or paper serviettes and cultivate worm farms.

Successes

Melbourne’s Savings in the City program, launched in July 2005, assists hotels to develop environmentally beneficial and cost-effective initiatives in waste, energy, water, purchasing and transportation management. This led to the diversion of a 1300 tonnes (20 000 full wheelie bins) from landfill each year. Waste Wise (an initiative of Sustainability Victoria) and the International Hotels Environment Initiative have been similarly successful. Hilton Worldwide saved US$253 million 2009-2013 on utilities by adopting sustainability measures, with a 10-25% reduction in energy use, carbon and waste output as well as water use.

Recommendation:

Instead of adhering to organisational prescriptions that reduce ecological impact of tourism, the individual traveller can pledge to and practice simple measures that can make a difference if carried out at their accommodation.

 

Joseph was a member of the Advisory Council of Australia’s Special Broadcasting Services, is adjunct associate professor for clinical research methods and prehospital care at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Public Health and Social Work, and clinical senior lecturer in the Division of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Queensland Medical School. Joseph has travelled to all the world’s continents and was a volunteer collecting waste and plastic bags carried by transpolar currents from northern Siberia to Norwegian Arctic whaling stations whilst working as an expedition physician on the Shokalskiy. He is the author of “Plastic, like diamonds, is forever,” accessible on The Conversation, here: