For travelers, sustainability is the word—but there are many definitions of it


The word “overtourism” is so new it does not yet appear in most dictionaries (although it was shortlisted as a Word of the Year in 2018). But the novelty of the term has not diminished the impact of its meaning: “An excessive number of tourist visits to a popular destination or attraction, resulting in damage to the local environment and historical sites and in poorer quality of life for residents,” according to the Oxford Dictionary shortlist.

As travelers wake up, sometimes abruptly, to the challenges of joining some 1.4 billion other tourists to the world’s most enticing destinations, the threats—and consequences—of overtourism are becoming more visible each day. The UN World Tourism Organization, along with public and private sector partners, has declared September 27 as World Tourism Day and uses this platform to discuss tourism’s social, political, economic, and environmental impacts.

This day highlights the importance of sustainable tourism—a framework for engaging travelers and the travel industry at large in supporting goals that include protecting the environment, addressing climate change, minimizing plastic consumption, and expanding economic development in communities affected by tourism.

Getting the facts

A new National Geographic survey of 3,500 adults in the U.S. reveals strong support for sustainability. That’s the good news. The challenge will be helping travelers take meaningful actions. According to the survey, while 42 percent of U.S. travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future, only 15 percent of these travelers are sufficiently familiar with what sustainable travel actually means.

“One of the reasons we embarked on this study was to have a better understanding of what consumers really want and what sorts of sustainability practices matter to them,” says Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners. “Since three-fourths of Americans have taken a leisure trip in the past year, I would say it’s high time to begin a conversation around sustainable travel. Not because sustainability is a buzzword today, but because it will drive the future. In our survey, the consumers most familiar with sustainable travel are young: 50 percent are 18 to 34. Among travelers who understand the sustainable travel concept, 56 percent of them realize travel has an impact on local communities and that it’s important to protect natural sites and cultural places.”

The survey will inform National Geographic’s experiential travel and media businesses and spark conversations for creating solutions around sustainability. Our travel content [disclosure: I’m the editor of it] focuses on environmentally friendly practices, protecting cultural and natural heritage, providing social and economic benefit for local communities, and inspiring travelers to become conservation ambassadors. In short, we see every National Geographic traveler as a curious explorer who seeks to build an ethic of conserving what is special about places.

Building better practices

National Geographic Expeditions offers a range of group travel experiences, including land expeditions, cruises, and active adventures, many of which take place around a collection of eco-lodges that are rigorously vetted for their sustainability practices. Unique Lodges of the World are selected for commitment to incorporating innovative sustainability practices into their everyday operations, including supporting natural and cultural heritage, sourcing products locally, and giving back to the local community.

“From our perspective, the best properties in the world are built with a mission to help protect people and the environment,” says O’Shannon Burns, National Geographic Expeditions’ sustainability director. “When travelers have the opportunity to directly support these efforts during their stay, they come away wanting to help even more—to preserve and protect the places they visit.”

Supporting sustainable goals

A goal of the survey is to inform the travel and tourism industry about what sustainability issues are most important to travelers and how they are willing to support those initiatives. “The travel industry is more dependent than most industries on the health of local communities, environments, and cultures,” says Knell. “We are looking at a population of 10 billion by 2050 and that is going to take a massive toll on our resources. To continue to provide authentic travel experiences, we need to invest in the resiliency of places affected by overtourism and climate change.”

Storytelling can help by highlighting problems brought on by tourism and surfacing practices and technologies to mitigate negative impacts. “As storytellers, we at National Geographic believe it’s important to celebrate the beauty in the world—natural and cultural—so that people are keen to take the steps necessary to protect it,” says Knell.

In the coming months, National Geographic Travel will dig deeper into the topic of sustainable tourism and provide resources, practical tips, and destination advice for travelers who seek to explore the world in all its beauty—while leaving behind a lighter footprint.

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