Blissfully Ignorant: Environmental & Social Impacts of Travel

Environmental Impacts of Travel

You're Killing this Little Guy!

Travel is a selfish & environmentally destructive activity. Over 60% of US citizens do not have passports. Guess what? They are helping to protect the environment more than you are.

This post isn’t going to win me a lot of new friends. :)

But our dirty-little travel secret has to be exposed. It’s for your own good. Living in denial isn’t healthy.

While I certainly haven’t been traveling for very long, I’ve started to notice a trend in the backpackers circuit. Many from our group seem to consider themselves “above-average” when it comes to general environmental & social awareness.

A large percentage take pride in eating locally-grown organic food, volunteering in poor communities, and might make a scene if locals throw trash out a public bus window onto the street.

That’s great. I’m generally all for social & environmentally responsible behavior. But there’s one little fact many seem to be blissfully ignorant about:

Our personal travel addictions are creating more environmental & social destruction than our friends & family back home who don’t travel very much.

EXAMPLE #1

A round-the-world plane ticket consumes more fuel in one year than the same typical year of driving at home. This of course doesn’t even take into account all the taxis, buses, and trains you’ll still need to use for transportation at your foreign destinations.

Neither does it factor in the greater environmental impact of exhaust fumes getting released at 30,000 ft vs. on the highway.

“But I don’t use round-the-world tickets.”

It doesn’t matter. Even one round-trip flight is more harmfull. When you get to your destination, you will still use other forms of fossil-fuel based transportation. Rather than burn those extra gallons of jet fuel and expel the toxic exhaust into the atmosphere, you could have stayed home and taken a public bus (or walked) to a local park.

While maybe not quite as fun, it would’ve been far more environmentally responsible.


EXAMPLE #2

Antarctica & the Galapagos Islands are said by many to be some of the most incredible places to visit on Earth. Unfortunately they won’t be around for very long in their current state, and it’s all due to us…

Tourists.

As tourism to both these pristine areas increases at ridiculous rates, the danger & destruction to the environment increases as well. Not a little, but a lot. Shuttling thousands of people in ships & aircraft filled with more thousands of gallons of fuel over fragile ecosystems at an ever increasing rate has consequences. And that’s just the obvious danger.

Animals are dying off in both these places as we speak. Our actions are causing extinctions. No one will ever see those plants & animals alive again.

“But travel teaches us to respect and protect these environments”.

At what price? While you will certainly receive a better education on conservation by visting these sites first-hand, you’re still contributing to their destruction in far greater ways than if you didn’t go at all.

And guess what? When people back home see your photos and hear your stories, a greater percentage of them will selfishly want to have the same first-hand experience as you. While not nearly as rewarding, watching a Discovery Channel feature about the area will teach you all you need to know about how incredible & fragile these places are.

No Discovery show about the location you want to visit yet? There will be. Just wait. There always is eventually. :)


EXAMPLE #3

The Bedouin are a group of nomadic people that live in the deserts of the Middle East. They live off the land in caves and traditional tents made of goat hair. Many have used the caves around the famous Jordanian site of Petra for generations.

In the 1920’s, the Jordanian government tricked the Bedul into giving up ownership of their land in return for a guarantee of rights for their occupation & use. But the government knew the site had huge income potential as a tourist location. They eventually kicked the Bedul out of their traditional homes, breaking the previous agreement, and relocated them to densely-packed concrete settlements.

As a result, their traditional way of life was practically wiped out.

“But I can’t control what foreign governments do”.

Actually, yes you can. In theory.

The reason the Bedouin people were kicked out was because the government saw dollar signs. Tourism is incredibly profitable. If that means wrecking the lives of a small group of local people and destroying a bit of the environment, so be it. The reward is greater than the cost (in their eyes).

If all of us stopped traveling to sites like Petra to spend our money, there would be less incentive for governments to do this kind of thing. Is that realistically going to happen? No. But just be aware that your personal desire to visit places like Petra, (along with millions of people just like you) is what entices governments to wreck the lives of locals that live there.


Had Enough?

I could go on with these examples all day. The fact is, no tourism is truly environmentally or socially responsible. Are you really prepared to blindly believe what a country’s tourism marketing department tells you in it’s paid advertisements? What about the for-profit tour agency, organization, or hotel that is trying to sell you something?

If that lets you sleep better at night, well…

All these places would have been 1000x more eco-friendly if they hadn’t been built at all. Someone is profiting from the destruction of the environment, and YOU are helping them. If we were really learning to protect the environment as we traveled, we’d stop traveling.

What’s the Solution?

Sadly there isn’t a good one. People are not going to stop traveling. One argument that frequently comes up is that tourism helps save some places from destruction. The money goes to restoring & protecting these fragile sites.

This is true. But if we all REALLY wanted to protect these areas, we’d insist on tourism caps and create insanely overpriced entry fees that would exclude all but the wealthiest 1% of the world from experiencing them.

Why not limit the number of visitors to the Galapagos Islands to 100 per year? Companies could charge $500,000 dollars per ticket. The resulting income could still go to preservation, only there would naturally be much less environmental impact…

Well, that’s not going to happen. We travelers are a selfish & destructive bunch. As much as we protest to care about socially and environmentally responsible behavior, it’s only true to a point. If said behavior happens to hinder our own ability to engage with these environments personally, well, that would be a deal-breaker.

Even if it’s truly better for the world around us.

Take Responsibility!

Personally, I believe I’m relatively aware of the destruction I’m causing to the environment. While I don’t necessarily like it, I’m prepared to continue traveling. I selfishly want to see these places in person before they are wiped out. Because eventually, they will be. Humankind has been destroying it’s own environment for many hundreds of years. To assume that suddenly our present generation will change all that, in my opinion, is pretty damn arrogant.

I admit it. I’m a selfish & environmentally destructive person. A traveler.

I’d just like to take a moment and suggest that my fellow travelers come out of the closet.

You are not an environmental superhero. In fact, you’re causing more problems by jet-setting around the world to see these places in person than your peers who either don’t care to, or can’t afford the luxury of world travel.

I’m not telling you to stop traveling. But if you decide to continue, at least admit to yourself that your travel lifestyle is selfish & destructive to the world around you. Please don’t hide behind a self-constructed wall of blissful ignorance. Most of all, if I catch you trying to pretend you are somehow better than others due to your so-called green way of life, I’m gonna call you out on it! Pound for pound (of carbon emissions), the locals throwing trash out their windows probably pollute less than you do…

To be completely frank: the whole situation is quite embarrassing. I thought ignorance was something we as travelers were looking to reverse!

If you really want a gold medal for your responsible travel practices,
try traveling the world by bicycle or walking. ;)

END RANT.

Discussion

What do you think? Despite the logo at the top of my site that says otherwise, I do not seriously consider myself an expert. I’m learning this stuff as I go. Don’t agree with me? Let me know why below. I’m more than willing to listen to intelligent debate. :)

Any Questions Or Comments?

Thanks for leaving a comment, I appreciate your feedback. However please use your real name only and treat everyone with respect. Lets have a meaningful conversation!

28 Comments

  1. hello, i just found your website because i pretty much have the same idea as you and googled for like-minded mind. i somehow saw the trend of backpacking somehow translated into ‘western’ (if i can generalise) lifestyle. example is bangkok, siem reap, bali, and lombok. i dont know why but backpacker hub almost always resulted in the rising of pubs and bars around it. in a very short years i saw a really significant changes in those places, and found it really disturbing. instead of backpackers learning and embracing the local culture, it seems that the local people look up much to traveler and found this nightlife lifestyle more appealing. dont forget that some of this clubs and pubs are also owned by some traveler seeing it as a bussiness oportunity.

  2. I found your article very intriguing, i currently live in Key West, which is a tourist hell, we have 3 cruise ships every day, tons of stupid people driving scooters after getting 5 minutes of teaching, taxis, pedicabs, shops, overpriced hotels, tons of tour boats and tour companies , and its all for the mighty dollar, no one cares about our reef, or our environment, they are all here to get stupid and drunk, (well stupider i found out) then go home, they throw their trash on our streets, they cut us off, dont use blinkers (or leave them on all the time) they clog up lines, they smell and overall we really dont want them here.

    I agree they wont stop coming and they are not likely to get smarter as long as we keep 140 bars open for them in a 1 mile stretch, they will continue gawking, continue taking photos, and continue occupying and consuming everything here until people cant take it anymore, i myself am leaving my island paradise because of it, there was a time when i could watch the sunset at this pier no one went to and avoid the crowds in Mallory Square, now i go there and there are 50 tourists with their damn cameras in my way, go home tourists go somewhere else or dont go at all, give our island a chance to breathe, we really dont want you here, we never did!

    Just my thoughts, FYI i travelled the USA on a scooter through 18 states with everything on my back, and i am preparing to do it again with just me and a mountain bike, i hope to gain some more wisdom and be a sensible traveler, ill take my membership card now LOL

  3. Don’t know how I missed this until now. Being blissfully ignorant is the problem. If we could all get past this stage then we can make progress. Each day I learn something that changes the way I think about something I have taken for granted my whole life. Air travel gets a lot of negative press, but I have been on cross channel car ferries with only half a dozen cars a perhaps a dozen lorries. I’d hate to think what my carbon footprint was for the journey. But as a travel consumer I’d like to know what the carbon footprint of my accommodation and food is. I’d like to know how the hotel’s water consumption compares to a permanent resident of that destination. At this moment in time information like this is not freely available. I have to ask myself why? What don’t they want us to know?

    I try not to fly except in emergencies, not out of altruistic desires, but because I am a winter sports fan and can see the retreat of glaciers first hand and experienced unusually warm winters. Instead of feeling deprived I actually relish seeing the country I’m travelling through and being treated like an ordinary human being instead of someone not to be trusted.
    We can all point to other people and criticise their travel or lifestyle as being damaging. But we must start at Step 1 and look at the impact of our own lifestyle. When see that ignorance isn’t a problem for someone else, but affects us directly, then positive change will occur.

  4. I just read your post. I totally agree. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am much more destructive to the environment when I travel than when I stay home and I am quite aware of it. I have not owned a car for the last 9 years, have walked to work since 1990 and can’t even remember when I started recycling and composting. But when I travel, I use planes, trains, automobiles, produce more garbage than any other time, if I stay in hotels, I try to keep the same towel for a few days but somehow they always clean them daily. The only thing travellers can do is be aware and try and balance the destructiveness with positive impact elsewhere.
    It’s fine to say that you’ll be more educated if you see the Galapagos and Iceland first hand but unless you are a scientist what good can you do to stop the destruction?

  5. The other day I saw the flight travel plan over the eastern part of the US. Every “square inch” of the sky had a flight line to it enough to completely cover the sky with planes and jet vapors. Its kind of scary looking!

  6. Hey there, you make some interesting points. I recently did a 9 months trip covering about 8 countries. When visiting Jaisalmer in India, I decided to stay in the fort, despite the various warning I received form travel guides, and merchants outside the fort. The impact of tourism on the fort, is that the water system was not built to cope with the amount of water, waste and food stuff that is now receives. It’s is flooding and soaking the sandstone the fort is made of and effectively destroying it. T
    he other aspect of that, is that there are people who live inside the fort who quite literally survive on the few rupees that those who brave the fort for more than a day trip bring in. It’s a lose lose situation really. This gave me a lot of food for thought.

  7. A definite buzz kill.. haha. But true. One trait that we share as human beings is that we are flawed. We’ll find some way to screw things up no matter how good things are. But hey.. We live our lives to lessen those flaws, and I guess that is what counts. Would I rather see a National Geographic Special about Central/South America or actual see it first hand? Oh well. I am flawed. haha..

  8. Congratulations on this post. I admire your courage. As you said, I’m sure some people won’t like it.

    I just take issue with you on one thing. Even though you say it won’t happen – restricting access to, say, The Galapagos Islands to those who can afford to pay for their upkeep isn’t a morally viable solution. In my experience those who can afford to pay such sums are no more (in fact less) environmentally aware than those who can’t. It might take a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet to put some money behind creating a solution which can award access to those who “deserve” it? i.e. can prove a knowledge of environmental issues.

    Here, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, access to climb the El Teide volcano is restricted, I presume, thanks to it being a Unesco World Heritage Site – and I am assuming that Petra also gets Unesco money for its conservation. Perhaps more Unesco funding and control is one answer?

    A local municipality here also decided to control access to a ravine which is a popular hiking route. They charged a small amount to enter, which paid for the clearing out of non-indigenous flora, and generally keeping it in a safe condition for walkers. You would not believe the number of people who were angry about this and who refused to walk there…..including me initially. I used to like to go with my dog, and dogs are now forbidden. Once it was explained I understood.

    Another thing – reading blogs I often wonder how much some travellers contribute to local economies. I’m hoping to go to West Africa next year, and have lots of offers of accommodation, but how much am I “helping out” the economy if I do that do you think?

  9. Yes, yes. I work in the environmental field and have my WHOLE career. I read about climate change and all the other horrible things going on around the world day after day. My personal ethic is of conservation. And yet, I’m about to travel the world via airplane. I’ll try to go overland as much as possible but nothing is worse than flying in airplanes. BUT, I would like to see a comparison of a backpacker who owns very little and a normal consumer who lives in the US and just acts like a normal American. Honestly, consumption is the biggest problem this planet has, OVERconsumption, and backpackers consume very less. It’s just that damn flying… I’m not sure how to get around that. You’re right, there is no good way to look at it. Okay, rambling! Thanks for this post. I’ve wondered why more travlers don’t talk about the environmental impact of traveling.

  10. Since you can’t stop your addiction to trashing the planet [grin], please consider doing good in another way. My friend Nisha is a brave, smart young woman with Cerebral Palsy. She’s trying to make a better world for us all. Please help her to do amazing things. http://bit.ly/hC7vOu

    I used to want to see things, go places, and suck it up into my soul like a greedy pig. Now, less and less. Anything I do that’s cool becomes just another clod in an empire of dirt (ref to Johnny Cash doing the Hurt cover). And thanks to your blog post, I understand my vanities contributed to a greater and more unfortunate empire of dirt.

    There’s much to learn, do and experience at home. If we have the courage to climb the mountains and trek the deserts of our own souls and hearts. I’ve always known this but I also have ignored it with certain arrogance, foolishness, and, yes, self-deceit.

    What have you left undone, unrepaired, unhealed, un-used, and un-cherished in your own backyard?

    Me? Much…

  11. I think We have to blame our cruise industry for that. Though I boast about working on a cruise and the places passengers get to visit, at the end is a distraction to the environment.

    1. It isn’t just ocean voyages, any natural wonder that see’s a giant leap in tourism will get harmed. I’ve read of jungle areas that no longer have monkeys around because of all the people that visit (to see the monkeys).

      Humans leave a path of destruction where ever they go… however well-intentioned they might be.

  12. Reading your post felt like a huge slap to the face…ouch!!! Yet you are soo right!! Just like when I began to notice that the working conditions for workers in hostels are sometimes shitty and yet continued to use them, another reason I wanna go back to couchsurfing. Don’t get me started on the negative impacts of blogging…Hhmm…talk about guilty pleasures!! Oh yeah…THANKS ANYWAY =)

    1. As an ex-hostel employee, I can relate to shitty slavery working conditions.

      Have I told you I’m looking for volunteers to do my job for me? In exchange for working 40 hours a week with no pay, you get to sleep on the floor of my room for free. It’s an excellent opportunity to add “volunteering” to your professional resume, and you’ll even receive college credits too! ;)

  13. You won’t get any arguments from me. And you won’t ever hear me say anything about being an “environmentally conscious traveler.” Sure, I try not to use a ton of plastic bottles and bags, and I never throw trash on the street. But I am not perfect, nor am I trying to be.

  14. I just came back from Antarctica where I was a member of crew of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Our captain was the director of Galapagos Marine Conservation (SSCS). We discussed a lot of this issue when we were on board. What I think is that each human’s existence is destructive for this earth. So to make conscious effort of minimizing environmental impact is the only thing we can do. If I had stayed all my life in my native city in Japan, I wouldn’t have realized about the environmental problems of the earth at all and still believed “mass consumption would help the nations economy” like the majority of the people there.

    1. Wow! Great to hear your perspective Kuniko. I’m jealous of your experience! Sounds like an incredible group of people to discuss these issues with. :)

      I’m just afraid of what would happen if all 6 billion of us decided to visit the Galapagos Islands to get a lesson in conservation.
      (hypothetically of course…) ;)

      I find that many who visit certainly learn a lesson, then want to warn others about how frail these places are, but to no avail.

      We can’t insist on seeing these incredible places for ourselves and then tell other people they can’t do the same. Quite a paradox…

  15. I will admit that travel itself, especially in airplanes is environmentally destructive. Does that mean that I am willing to travel without the use of airplanes, trains, buses, etc? No. But no matter what we do at home or abroad, we have some kind of environmental impact. I think you are right that we need to admit that. I can admit that I want to travel to the Galapagos and Antarctica to see these natural wonders. Yes, that is selfish of me. I think if we are aware of that and are trying to minimize our impact, that is all we can do.

  16. So what you’re saying is that buying a plane ticket home is actually a BAD idea. I’ll forward this along to my mother :-D

    Great post. Interesting examples!

    1. Exactly. Tell her the environmentally responsible thing to do would be to bike home, and it may take you a few months longer than normal. But it’s all for the benefit of the environment, so she won’t be able to argue. :)

  17. You are right, you won’t make too many bff’s with this one. Nonetheless, it was an excellent post and quite thought provoking. I can be quoted saying “How can we protect what we don’t know?” – I guess that statement alone is a paradox. I agree with all the points that you made. Naturally, travel by its very nature is catch 22. We as travellers are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Yes – ‘we’ are selfish and destructive people. We love knowing that we have seen things and have had experiences that not many others have seen or felt. We want ‘unique’ – the real thing. Yet to your point, what’s unique today is mainstream tomorrow – thanks to us. HOWEVER, like you, I want to see the world before it is cut down, littered or nuked. I can only try to minimize the damage I do along the way.

    A famous quote comes to mind when I think about what you have written – “Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten”

    1. I agree. Minimizing the impact is the best option.

      But pretending we are not doing any harm is not healthy.

      Welcome to the selfish & destructive traveler’s club!
      Your membership card is in the mail. :)

      What a great quote too!