Last year, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, and September 27 to be World Tourism Day.

Given how many countries rely on tourism for a considerable percentage of their annual Gross Domestic Product—and the fact that an estimated one in 11 jobs worldwide are directly connected to travel—it made sense for the U.N. to focus on the sector and to address its benefits and drawbacks.

There has long been a love-hate relationship between some U.N. agencies, other organizations and the tourism industry. While travel can undoubtedly bring a great deal of income to developing nations, there’s also been a history of negative influences associated with mass tourism.

From the loss of culture, damage to the environment and the alienation of local populations, to the creation of a culture of begging, or local resentment against what some perceive to be a form of modern slavery (when local staff are paid pitiful sums to serve well-heeled foreigners), it’s understandable why some are dubious of tourism’s benefits.

But when handled properly, the benefits of travel can indeed be substantial.

What does the Perfect World of Tourism Look Like?

When the U.N. declared this latest International Year, they identified five key areas of tourism they wanted to promote:

  • Inclusive and sustainable economic growth
  • Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction
  • Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change
  • Cultural values, diversity and heritage
  • Mutual understanding, peace and security

For the past few decades, ecotourism operators have tried to abide by their own written and unwritten guidelines, which are largely in line with many of the U.N.’s points.

In general, such companies strive to be responsible organizations whose operations not only serve their clients with great experiences, but also provide the destination with respectful employment, decent wages and a positive influence on the local economy, all without having a negative impact on the culture.

It’s a fine line to walk, and while there are many trustworthy and reliable tour operators, there are those that claim to be doing good but in fact are contributing next to nothing to the local economy.

Ethical Travel: The Onus is on Us

Ultimately, the onus for responsible tourism lies with us all—whether we’re independently backpacking, booking a tour through an experienced operator or doing a combination of both.

While it’s possible to perform some degree of due diligence on operators, package holiday providers, airlines and accommodations to determine how responsible they are, policing our own actions is a little more demanding.

As a traveller, the oft-used mantra—“Take only photographs, leave only footprints”—should apply to all our wanderings, though I would add to the footprints line that we should also leave fair money for our experiences and positive memories of our visit for our hosts.

Whether we have travelled or not, I think we all know what a “horrible tourist” looks and sounds like.

They are that boorish, insensitive, condescending creature whose best attempt to speak a foreign language is to simply speak their own more loudly; who ostentatiously flash their wealth and their opinions; who refuse to eat anything that doesn’t resemble what normally sits on their table at home; who, devoid of any culture themselves, choose to condemn, belittle and ignore any other culture that comes their way.

Although often portrayed exclusively as wealthy Westerners, in reality the horrible tourist exists all over the world and can be of any culture, gender and age, and are just as likely found camping or staying in budget hostels as in comfortable all-inclusives.

Most of us squirm at their behavior, and would never emulate their antics; but sadly, a lot of us do act similarly, though sometimes in less grand or obvious ways. Perhaps we’ve snatched a subversive secret photo where none are permitted, ignored the dress code at an unguarded spiritual site or mocked the statue of a local hero.

It may seem innocuous, but it actually leaves behind something more than just footprints—namely, a bad taste in the mouth that not only offends our hosts but also makes it more difficult for the next traveller to have a positive experience.

International law, government regulations and industry self-policing can help ensure that travel companies act responsibly and genuinely benefit local populations, culture and the environment (or at least don’t harm them). But only we can ensure that the United Nations’ efforts this year do genuinely help everyone, from travellers to hosts.

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