Tourism & Sustainability

I think I called myself a traveler somewhere. But I don’t like to be qualified with such an elitist term. The elitism of this word is showed by the abused distinction between traveler and tourist. In the XIX century there were just tourists, a limited part of the population, an élite indeed, that belonged to an aristocracy, so characterized by richness and a lot of free time. In that period, but most of all after the second World War, because of various social and economic reasons, more or less everybody could become a tourist. So that old élite, defrauded of her exclusivity, was pushed to create the concept of “traveler”, separated from the one of the “tourist”; in this way the élite could distinguish herself from the crowd and feel risen above it. The fact that this new élite doesn’t have that aristocratic nature of the tourists of the Grand Tour anymore doesn’t matter: for the common sense this difference does exists. As a matter of fact, nobody likes to be defined as a tourist, because this is considered a degrading term for all of those who travel and think to be travelers for this reason.

But who’s the traveler and who’s the tourist? I can’t answer. Maybe we need to ask ourselves what a traveler does and what a tourist does. Does the traveler spend less? Often it’s the contrary. Is the traveler free from the schemes and stereotypes of the touristic trip? Yes… but then he/she incurs in other schemes, such as the one of the hostels, the travelers’ typical symbol. Maybe the traveler goes to far and unexplored lands? Even the tourist could go far (from what, then?), and I think there aren’t so many unexplored places left nowadays. Does the traveler eat local food and be careful about local traditions and cultures? Even a tourist can do all of these things and, vice versa, it’s not so sure that the traveler does it. If we reflect on these things we can see that the difference tends to disappear from a practical point of view. Clearly a difference does exists in the mental attitude, and this means that a person who stays in a tourist village during all the journey can be more traveler and less tourist then the one who organizes his/her trip on his/her own. For these reasons I think we all are tourist in a way or another. To consider oneself a traveler, feeling superior from the classical tourists, is something arrogant and potentially dangerous.

In the present world, where every place has been explored, and many regions tend to loose their peculiarities to be more and more like a globalized model, where it’s quite impossible to unbind the knots of standardization, we can be nothing but tourists. We all are part of that huge global industry that tourism is. And it’s impossible to be free from all the infinite branches of this sector. Despite that, I believe we can also be travelers (concept that’s not separated from the one of “tourist”, but that’s included in it). The decisive factor is awareness.

First of all, I’m talking about the awareness of one’s own role of being a tourist: you can never, ever consider yourself part of the population you meet, even if the time you spend with the “other” is quite long. Your personal background doesn’t allow you to catch all the aspects of a different culture; and, above all, for those populations you’ll always be a stranger, no matter how much you’ve travelled or what attitude you have toward them.

I’m also talking about the awareness of the negative effects you bring over your trip, both for an environmental point of view (pollution, environmental changes,…) and a social and cultural point of view (e.g. westernization of the cultures). Furthermore, for the common sense, “tourism” is a synonym of consumption, damage of the environmental resources and social and cultural disasters.

And the awareness of one’s own potentialities and ability to delete the negative effects and create a positivity thanks to some touristic actions that are directed to environmental, social and cultural sustainability. When someone goes in a place, every time he/she leaves a footprint, but not necessarily it’s always bad or negative. A travel can also be an incredible powerful tool not only for the traveler’s own enrichment and experiences, but also for the place itself, because it can contribute to the biodiversity conservation, to the protection of cultural and social heritages, for the social and economic development of the visited places and their populations. If we understand that we are a fundamental part of the touristic industry we also understand that we have the big power and the huge responsibility to decide which side to take. The point is not to be against the mechanism we don’t share, but to contribute to let it go in the right side.

But how to do to leave a good footprint (or at least a not negative one)? Sustainability is the essential concept. It has a boring and old meaning for the common idea, and actually it has never been practiced, but it’s the only way to rescue ourselves and our planet. Sustainability has 3 essential aspects: environmental (and natural), social (and cultural), economic. Its purpose is to satisfy “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”. For this reason it’s important that sustainability cooperates with every kind of human actions. As far as tourism concerns, sustainable tourist means to keep a touristic area alive (an area that, first of all, belongs to the Planet and to the populations who live there), being careful to not alter that place and to its social and economic system. Obviously, sustainability is a dynamic concept, which changes with time and with society, but I would say that it can be interpreted keeping in mind those 3 essential aspects in the following way:

  • Environmental and natural sustainability: safeguard and protection of places, ecosystems and biodiversity, trying to reduce the environmental impact in the choice of the means of transports, in the choice of the destination and the period of the journey, and in the selection of the services required.
  • Social and cultural sustainability: safeguard and protection of the traditional culture and participation to development through the choice of services that involve the local community as much as possible. The aim is a fair distribution of costs and benefits derived from the way in which a touristic service is supervised in the different places. It’s important to ask for a touristic service that gives value to diversification and integration of human resources, local identities, biodiversity, equity and, most of all, it’s essential to look for a development pointed towards a higher quality of life for the local communities and a higher quality of experience for the tourist.
  • Economical sustainability: creation of economic benefits for the local population, with the prospect of a price/quality ratio that would be fair for both the tourist and the direct profit for the local communities.

A sustainable journey means to consider our experience as an opportunity to leave our footprint in the world and it signify becoming conscious of our potentialities as singles, as community, as global population. But here the biggest challenge starts. Consciousness and sensitivity towards a sustainable touristic experience is essential. But it’s pointless if limited to the 3 or 30 days in which we are tourists. Then a travel interpreted in this way can be a useful example to use for the other more than 300 days of the year and for our territory. It’s here that our footprint can be deeper and more incisive. It’s here that we, as part of a mechanism that works thanks to us, can really decide to turn to the right direction.

Translated by Giuditta Gubbi

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