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The Future of Tourism

Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G (formery Gap) Adventures. Photo courtesy of G Adventures.

An event in downtown Toronto Tuesday tackled the tiny question of the Future of Tourism. The event was sponsored by G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures; the name change was announced last night) and Planeterra, so the focus was primarily on sustainable tourism. Whatever that is.

The definition of “sustainable tourism” is, at best, murky. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has done a ton of research over the years to come up with some fairly detailed criteria, but on Tuesday executive director Erica Harms attempted to break it down as, essentially, tourism that allows local people to preserve their culture and remain where they are, employs local communities, and protects the local environment.

But even if we understand sustainability and its benefits (not ending up like the jerks on Terra Nova), in most cases we’ve already destroyed any hope of an entirely green vacation as soon as we step onto an airplane to get there.

Even a company entirely devoted to responsible tourism like G Adventures can’t be completely sustainable. In fact, founder Bruce Poon Tip said he thinks it’s impossible for any company to operate 100% ethically all of the time without running itself into the ground. Poking fun at the idea of “pristine” travel, he asked us “Are you an eco-green-sustainable-responsible-ethical tourist?”

We laughed. But that pretty much sums up the trouble with sustainable tourism. It sounds really…hard.

Poon Tip simplified it. It’s up to you, he said. You decide where your “line” is, and act accordingly. Do what you can.

So what can you do? A few tips gleaned from the presenters are:

  • Ask questions (of your tour company, travel agent, lodge) when you book: Who benefits from your tourism dollars? How does the company give back? What’s your sustainability plan?
  • Go local. Stay at a locally run hotel rather than a chain. Eat at a mom-and-pop restaurant. Buy souvenirs directly from the artisans.
  • Educate yourself about the local culture, politics, and social norms.
  • Talk to local people. Ask questions about how tourism affects them. Listen.

Today we have the luxury of deciding whether to care about sustainability and responsible travel. A few years from now, that might not be the case. A UN World Tourism Organization report estimates that by 2020 global tourism will nearly double, with close to 1.6 billion people travelling annually. This is going to put serious stress on popular holiday destinations. Will we still be able to see bears in the wilds of BC or icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland? I guess it’s up to us.

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