TRAVEL. The guilt-free pleasures of wandering and exploring. The sound of crashing waves. The picture of a glorious fiery sunset. The sand sinking beneath your toes. The sea of clouds and fresh mist coming from a mountain top. The mix of scents and tastes of both exotic and native cuisines. The sight of intricate architecture and indigenous art.
Traveling is more intrinsic and natural to us humans than commonly perceived— setting forth into distant lands as early as the first human migrations in continental Africa, and navigating across rough open oceans by the Spanish conquistadors. We humans have been traveling and exploring both land and sea as early as 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, and still traveling to this day, albeit for disparate societal and personal reasons. Though undoubtedly, the rise of travel has led to a booming industry in itself: tourism.
An industry across different nations that has led to great socioeconomic opportunities — providing livelihood, leisure and pleasure, infrastructure and businesses, intercultural exchange, and an unprecedented increase in globalization. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, tourism measured in terms of the tourism direct gross value-added (TDGVA), or “value added of different industries in relation to tourism activities of both inbound and domestic visitors in the country,” contributed about P2.2 trillion, or 12.7 percent to the annual gross domestic product (GDP) of the Philippine economy.
Tourism has never been as popular as it is today, much more accessible than we could ever have done in the 21st century, from the surge of low-budget airlines and the advancement of technology. Digital maps, language translators, food suggestions, cameras and tour operators could now all fit in your pocket — that was all impossible just 20 years ago. And with the rise of a new age in digital media, from Instagram posts in a white sand beach to a Facebook album of your friend’s family vacation in a different country, the call to travel has never been more enticing.
Indeed, tourism could be perceived as an inherently beneficial industry for both the sociocultural and economic sectors of a country. Some hidden irreversible consequences, however, have recently come to light when it becomes just too much.
Overtourism has led to the severe degradation of mountains, coasts, beaches and forests, where prominent nature destinations are now filled with litter and trash, and where once pristine forested trails have been eroded by the relentless footsteps of hikers. Mountains have been burned, and wildlife disturbed. This rising issue in tourism asks the question: where do we draw the line between socioeconomic development coming from tourism, and environmental conservation?
I read a recent investigative report in the National Geographic Magazine about “hidden stories” of the wildlife tourism industry, where animals such as Asian elephants, tigers and sloths are being exploited in developing countries like Thailand and Brazil to provide livelihood for local communities. A myopic view, however, could make a hasty judgment against these communities, because the larger picture shows an unfortunate reality regarding the disparity in nature conservation programs and sustainable tourism industries that leaves room for exploitation by capitalists and businesses.
Movements and new business models, however, are finally starting and becoming more proactive in finding innovative solutions to address this disparity between the ever-growing tourism industry and environmental conservation. One example in the Philippines is Eco Explorations, which is a sustainable tourism company committed to conserving the Philippines’ natural and cultural heritage and biodiversity through a low-impact, nature-based, immersive ecotourism experience for people.
Another is Masungi Georeserve, which is an international award-winning conservation project committed to protecting the Sierra Madre through inclusive livelihood programs and tours with indigenous people who once lived there — an inclusive program that does not only protect the naturally rich landscapes and biodiversity of the Philippines, but has also evolved new, “disruptive” models in the fight for the rights of indigenous tribes when it comes to contentious governmental projects.
Today, it would be easy and convenient to follow the trend when it comes to tourism and travel. Everyone is going here, everyone is taking photos there, so why not follow suit.
Even though there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to travel to such popular and over-touristed places, because one cannot deny the beauty and allurement of nature. But we should still be mindful of the places we travel to — to have intent and to embrace new disruptive models that not only supports the local tourism industry but the preservation and conservation of nature. I remember with fondness many people sharing their dream vacations in nature places, but that dream trip will remain a dream if we don’t have nature in the first place.
BY GAB MEJIA