It’s hard to tell what the tipping point was; it might have been the footage of straws in the ocean on BBC’s Planet Earth; or the increasing prevalence and profile of the effects of climate change (from rising rivers to vanishing glaciers). It might be all of those things and more, but whatever the reasons, a sense of urgency has entered conversations about the environment.
This has extended to travel and tourism, as travellers and tour operators alike are keen to embrace sustainable travel.
Tourism is paradoxically a boon and a danger to countries; visitors enliven the local economy, and their visits can strengthen knowledge and appreciation for the environment. (Visiting Iceland has had a profound effect on our customers – more on that later.) However, reckless tourists and travel companies can lead to awful and sometimes irreparable damage to they places they visit.
So, here is a guide to reducing that footprint, whether you’re a visitor or a tour operator…
Take Nothing but Memories
A rock, a piece of soil or even a small plant might seem insignificant, but everything has a role to play in our ecosystem. Souvenirs are a part of travelling, but if photos aren’t enough, check with your guide as to whether it’s okay to pick that flower or take that stone. And if in doubt, leave it behind.
Don’t Leave Anything Behind
Just as the world is not your gift shop, it is also not your garbage can.
If you’ve ever been to a country that has a no-tolerance attitude to litter, you can see the difference. In Iceland, for instance, visitors often marvel at how clean and pristine our countryside is. It’s no coincidence that the country’s people take pride in keeping it clean.
Leave nothing behind – whether it’s litter, a tent (tragically, this happens) or anything else that might clutter or taint the environment.
Research Where You’re Going
One of the main reasons for going somewhere is to learn about the world outside your door. Naturally, this means visiting places that are new to you and that might have vulnerabilities you’re not aware of.
One hill might be okay for hiking; while another that looks just like it might be a fragile ecosystem, for instance. Take the time to look up the travel destination’s specific quirks, dos and do-nots. If in doubt, ask a local or tour guide.
Be Aware of Your Wheels, Hands and Feet
Off-road driving is not allowed in Iceland, and hiking is only allowed on specified paths and routes. This is because vegetation can be fragile and take many years to grow back.
It’s human nature to want to reach out to new things – to try the texture, softness or weight of an object. But our hands are warm, organic, living things that can have a fierce negative impact on delicate ecosystems.
Beyond Iceland, high-profile examples include the Great Barrier Reef, which has had thousands of tourists standing on fragile corals and touching the reef; and the Instagram trend of picking up and photographing starfish (which kills them).
Research Your Tour Provider
Not all tour providers are created equal. Thankfully, some are very environmentally conscious, with sustainable tours, conscientious tour guides and even some award or certificate recognition for their environmental work. Seek them out.
For Tour Companies
Offer Sustainable Options
We’re lucky to be based in Iceland, which has an embarrassment of natural riches. Consequently, many tours are based around our homegrown attractions: The incredible waterfall of Godafoss; natural springs like Myvatn and the humbling vistas of our national parks (among other sites) offer plenty to do without turning on a single machine.
In Iceland and beyond, some hands-on activities can have little to no carbon footprint, such as horse-riding, hiking, camping and rafting. (We started off as a rafting company before expanding to more diverse, country-wide activities.)
This applies both to the impact of your tours and to your customers.
Our survey of customers revealed some thought-provoking insights. We talked to over 250 Arctic Adventures customers and we found that the trip changed them, and that they are very environmentally aware – more so than we expected.
Most (81%) would be “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to visit an attraction if the visit had a negative effect on the environment; 69% would pay more for an environmentally friendly tour company and more than half (53%) of our customers said they were more concerned about their environment after taking our tours.
If you are concerned about the impact of the tours you provide – even if it’s something unavoidable like footprints, invest some of your profits in sustainability.
Tragically, there is no shortage of causes that need funding. Choose the one most appropriate and donate a percentage (even a small one) for every sale. If it’s possible to get a record of what your money is being used for so you can share the good news, that’s ideal.
You can educate on the tours; prior to visitors’ arrival; and in your marketing.
The tours are a great opportunity to let visitors know what’s happening, in real time. And you can encourage them to take litter with them if they see any on their travels. Ideally, your guests should head home with more awareness and urgency about the environment (as ours do).
If you’re investing in sustainability, let it be known. Not only will this share the importance of sustainability, but you’ll also put pressure on competing companies to up their game.
We have several sustainable initiatives, but our survey found that customers didn’t know the specifics of our actions or our profit share policy.
For Travellers and Tour Providers
Look, Listen, Act
Whether you’re a visitor or tour provider, the opportunities are there to reduce the footprint that tourism brings. Simple research and then conscientious action are the keys to minimizing your impact on this miraculous planet.