Written by Astrid Jirka
As you hop aboard your plane to land at your study abroad destination you will be joining the millions of other people in the world who travel every year for business or pleasure. You will become, yes, it’s hard to hear but true, a tourist. Of course, you won’t be like just any tourist, set free in a new land to relax or do whatever you please. You will be a study abroad student—one of nearly 200,000 students from the U.S. studying, living, and traveling in another country.
While we can be certain that when you are abroad as a student you will be spending time being a serious book worm, we have no doubt, that you will be out and about getting to know a new and interesting land. After all, this is what studying abroad is all about—being in a new place, getting to know people who have different ways of living, and becoming familiar with new natural and urban environments. While you may concentrate on studying and gaining new perspectives on a particular subject (such as your major), you will certainly also be learning about the different ways that people in the world shape their lives and make a living.
During your explorations and travel you will, at times, be acting as a tourist. The typical tourist’s interaction with local people is a one-time interaction with little opportunity for in-depth dialogue or for gaining an understanding of that person and his or her culture. As a study abroad student you will have the fortunate opportunity to have interactions with local people that will be more meaningful than a typical tourist interaction, but as you set off to engage in tourist activities you are a tourist like any other. Depending on where you are, this will have significant but different implications for both you and your hosts. You should be aware of your impact as you travel.
Tourism has become the world’s largest industry. Tourists now spend $1.6 trillion per year on tourist related activities. All of this spending creates 240 million jobs, or 9 percent of all of the jobs in the world. Clearly this is big business. Some countries rely on tourism as their main source of revenue and employment. Small island nations in particular, such as in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia, are often largely dependant on tourism to generate income. Oftentimes there are more tourists in these countries than actual residents. Many other countries such as Spain, Italy, France, Belize, Kenya, Botswana, China, and Indonesia generate billions of dollars a year in tourism revenue. And even in countries where tourism does not weigh heavily on a national scale, there are regions and communities that cater solely to tourism without which their economies would fail.
Jobs are created as new airports, hotels, and restaurants are built; tour operators, car rental agencies, and bus lines are established, and local people with skills—such as farmers, artisans, cooks, or naturalists—have opportunities to sell their goods and services to visitors. In its initial stages of development, a tourist destination might be catered to primarily by the locals who live there as they begin to develop businesses to serve the new visitors. But as a destination continues to grow, the entire community, region, or country must get involved. Gradually, building contractors and real estate developers will become interested in the opportunities to make money.
All of this is good. People who are no longer self-sufficient (e.g. living in agrarian societies) need jobs for food, to build homes, to send their children to school, for healthcare, and to increase their standards of living, just like we all do. Thanks to tourism, they may have an opportunity to do so when other means for generating income are not available. Tourism is, therefore, a potential tool for development.
But all of this can also be bad. As more and more people flock to tourist destinations, tourism can have negative side affects. Foreign owned resorts are built on beaches where turtles used to lay their eggs. People who were once self-sufficient are now dependent on others for jobs. Parks are created to protect animals for people to see, thereby marginalizing groups of people who have lived on those lands for years and are now seen as illegal occupants. Prostitution can increase. Rivers become overfished. Natural and culturally significant areas become worn and deteriorate with overuse and lack of regulations. Artisans are underpaid as tourists haggle for the lowest possible price. Litter and sewage becomes unmanageable as growth occurs too quickly. In this manner, tourism can become a means to cultural and environmental destruction.
Due to the positive potential that tourism has to bring employment to areas and due to the negative affects from a lack of awareness and planning, there has been a movement in recent years to assist the tourism industry to find ways to encourage the positive and decrease the negative. This movement has many variations and labels: ecotourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism, voluntourism, fair-trade tourism, pro-poor tourism, traveler’s philanthropy. … While each stresses particular themes, their core philosophy is the same.
One way that this tourism movement can be defined is “responsible travel that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” As such, the movement seeks to address the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of travel and tourism in the hopes that it will contribute to sustainable development.
What Can You Do
The sustainable travel movement is strong and growing and multiple organizations around the world are seeking to educate people about what they can do to contribute. Many of the suggestions are simple and can be easily instituted. The sidebars below list the myriad things that you can do to make a difference. No matter where you are going—to an urban or rural setting in a more or less developed country—you will have opportunities to confront the realities of people and cultures coming together around tourism. As a responsible tourist you should, above all, be knowledgeable about your destination, seek awareness of the impact that your presence has on the local population and environment, and attempt to minimize negative impacts.
Safe and sustainable travels to you!