What is Tourism’s Impact on the Environment?

I am one of many who become frustrated when a hotel leaves a little card in the bathroom encouraging you to reuse the towels and then changes them daily regardless of your preference.  The idea that hotels think this attempt will convince their guests that the hotel has a “green” outlook is outdated.

Today’s travelers are concerned about the environmental practices undertaken at their destination and want to know their stay will have minimal impact.  In fact 60% of leisure travelers in the US identify themselves as sustainable travelers with 53% of them choosing their destination based on the sustainable practices in operation at the destination.

This increased awareness is due to campaigns such as World Responsible Tourism Day which is in its 10th year and will be marked on 8 November.  While the tourism industry has made huge strides toward sustainability there is still a long way to go.  We asked some of our supporters in the safari industry what current tourism practice they see as the biggest threat to Tanzania’s environment.

Plastic

Emilie at Duma Explorer, a company operating safaris, camps and mountain climbs, sees plastic as the number one concern for the Tanzanian tourism industry.  Despite attempts to recycle or dispose responsibly, plastic almost inevitably ends up in Tanzania’s iconic ecosystems.

What makes the challenge particularly difficult in Tanzania is the perception that you can only trust bottled drinking water.  Despite this generalized belief, Duma Explorer have taken a bold step to provide safe and healthy alternatives to bottled water, proving that single use plastic is not the only option.

On the treks up Mt Kilimanjaro, Duma Explorer filter all of their client’s drinking water, removing pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal illnesses. In their Serengeti camps, Duma transport reusable 20 litre returnable containers of purified water on their regular resupply vehicles.  This water is then decanted into smaller reusable bottles.

“Thorough training and providing detailed information to the client is key to alleviating concerns and keeping clients healthy” says Emilie.  Most clients listen to Emilie’s advice and enjoy a healthy and safe safari.  “There is occasionally one traveler who has had a bad experience in the past and refuses the filtered water. We simply respect their position and provide bottled water, but they are definitely the exception, not the rule.” states Emilie.

Mt Kilimanjaro

The world’s tallest free standing mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro, is also under threat from the 35,000 adventure seekers who traipse up the mountain each year.  Tara from African Environments, a company who have been operating mountain climbs for 30 years has observed that “poor environmental practices, often from budget style companies are taking its toll on Kilimanjaro’s environment. Rubbish, human waste and lack of knowledge of the basic principles of ‘Leave No Trace’ camping are suffocating the natural environment.”

Tara believes that while Kilimanjaro National Park has done a good job introducing restrictions on plastic bags and bottles on the mountain with designated areas to dump trash, we believe a heavier hand could be placed on companies that are consistently not adhering to the rules. We also believe that companies should have to go through more detailed training on why maintaining the mountain is so very important.”

Once a year African Environments offer the official ‘Leave No Trace’ course to their guides and porters.  “Our guides have been learning about the principles of Leave No Trace before it was made a trade mark, they fully understand the idea of why we should preserve Tanzania’s natural environment.”  Tara emphasizes that it is due to African Environments constant conversations with staff about conservation that ensures their operations have a minimal impact. “It is not just a once a year seminar that people are forced to attend, there is ongoing discussions that keep the topic front of mind.”

While both Duma Explorer and African Environments are well-established, responsible operations, they have worked with specialised organisations such as Throttle the Bottle and Responsible Tourism Tanzania to fine tune their policies and practices.  Such specialised organisations are often run by volunteers with a passion for preserving our natural environment.

Before booking your next trip please ask your operator who they work with and how they are acting to reduce their impact on the environment.  Governments, certification organisations and travel guides such as TripAdvisor can make guidelines for responsible tour operators but it is ultimately the tourist that has the power to ensure only responsible tour operators can operate.  The safe keeping of the natural environment needs the collaboration of many to ensure that the tourism industry does not destroy the very attractions that visitors travel to see.