Is there a more sustainable way to travel?

19 Agustus 2019

One of the world’s leading polar explorers has sounded the alarm over the dramatic increase in cruise ship tourism in the Arctic. Arved Fuchs, who was the first person to venture on foot to both poles in a single year, believes that the incursion of large cruise ships is threatening to damage one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, claiming that the vessels – and their passengers – are exploiting so-called ‘last-chance’ tourism.

Sailings to the Arctic are part of a strategy by tour operators to offer trips to less commercial destinations, spurred by the rise elsewhere – in Venice, for example – of stricter rules governing cruise ships. Passengers on these Arctic excursions are tempted by the chance to experience an adventure off the beaten track, often with the promise of witnessing seldom-seen wildlife and scenery – including the fast-vanishing ice caps.

However, not only does the prevalence of hulking cruise ships do little to help local Inuit communities, but the large vessels can have a drastic environmental impact. In addition to leaving a wake of “grey water”—drainage from laundries and showers—experts worry that the sudden proliferation of traffic significantly increases the chance of a potentially catastrophic oil spill or sewage leak in the Arctic.

Nevertheless, the global cruising trend appears unstoppable; annual passenger numbers have almost tripled since 2009 and show little sign of slowing.

A growing problem

The largely unspoiled Arctic is a particularly drastic example – but concerns are mounting all over the world about the environmental cost of tourism. In a peculiar paradox, while personally experiencing beautiful locales endangered by climate change can inspire people to work harder to preserve those places, the very act of visiting can endanger them still further.

So, while some tour operators are promoting destinations that are under threat from the effects of climate change, ostensibly as a way of highlighting the pressing dangers to our world, critics see this as a cynical and highly opportunist marketing ploy, taking into account the scale of impact from the travel sector on greenhouse gases. It’s thought that tourism is responsible for around eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

The ‘greenwashing’ of long-haul trips to endangered locations is causing concern among environmental groups who fear that travel companies have simply found another way to promote sales. Would-be travellers are being urged to investigate the sustainable credentials of tour providers before booking to ensure that companies have a responsible approach to the environment and wildlife of the region and that local communities are benefiting from tourism.

A move towards responsible tourism

Against this backdrop, a growing number of companies and resorts are adopting innovative practices to provide luxury adventures in some of the world’s most remarkable locations while positively impacting the environment. The Meridian Adventure Resort in Raja Ampat, an area of Indonesia which is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, is one such example. The resort, funded by Hong-Kong based investment firm Meridian Capital Limited, has implemented a zero-plastic policy, using reusable bags, water bottles and steel straws rather than single-use plastics. Meridian Adventure makes a concerted effort to involve both its staff and guests in protecting the environment, by hosting regular ‘Dive Against Debris’ events and mangrove clean-ups.

Meridian is not alone in promoting sustainable tourism with a limited footprint. Three new luxury eco resorts, one designed by famous architect Jean Nouvel, are set to open by 2023 in Saudi Arabia as part of the kingdom’s broader push to increase tourism. Each of the resorts is located in the Al-‘Ula region—home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, which has archaeological remains that date back more than two millennia. With the hotel group having committed to adhere to the Royal Commission’s stringent eco-tourism standards, the final bill is expected to total more than $20bn.

Turning the tide

Even some cruise lines are trying to clean up their act – especially with estimates placing the carbon footprint of each cruise passenger at around three times its corresponding impact on land.

Celebrity Cruises has rolled out a new ship, the Flora, which operates in the Galapagos and is designed head-to-toe with sustainability in mind. The Flora incorporates a range of technological innovations and green policies, including reverse osmosis filtration equipment to convert seawater into freshwater and the recycling of air-conditioning condensation to provide water to the ship’s laundry, as well as a commitment to food waste reduction. The vessel is part of a research project, too, with intake and outtake valves used by university scientists to monitor water temperatures, CO2 concentrations, and salinity.

Figures prove that sustainable travel is good for business, as well as for the environment. A study last year showed that millennials in particular are considering environmental factors when planning holidays, with more than three-quarters of respondents considering the ethical impacts of their trips before booking. Added to which, if your business model relies on ferrying passengers to a fragile wilderness, it makes sense to protect and preserve it.

These projects, from Meridian Adventure to Flora, are raising hopes that a new era of tourism is beginning—one which simultaneously allows visitors to appreciate and safeguard the world’s natural wonders.

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