How to Avoid Destructive Tourism

By: Shelley Seale

Traveling can be a big threat to the planet—both environmentally and culturally. There, I’ve said it. As much as those of us afflicted with wanderlust don’t want to admit it, that is a cold hard truth.

There are many ways in which tourism is wreaking havoc with places—but there are also many ways in which we, as travelers, can minimize that negative impact. It’s all about being aware, conscious and mindful. And the absolute number one, easiest general principle to follow to put tourism in the beneficial balance column rather than the detrimental is this:


Travel like a local. As much as possible.

Recently I have discovered a really great travel resource called the WHL Group. It is the largest local-travel company in the world, and is a global network that helps travelers find unique ways to experience a destination through local tourism professionals. WHL Group companies empower local partners who have practice in experiential and mindful travel, and a local’s knack for identifying, explaining and sustaining the distinctive qualities of a place.

WHL operates several different travel resource sites, including the Local Travel Movement and The Travel Word.

The Local Travel Movement connects travelers with locals at their destination, to help them respect the culture, heritage and environment where they are traveling and have a more authentic cultural exchange. The movement defines Local Travel Values:

  • If you are mindful of the local people, you put yourself in the locals’ shoes and discover what they really think.
  • If you are mindful of the local environment, you put yourself in the heart of it, feel its beauty and power, and do what you can to preserve it for the future.
  • If you are mindful of the local culture, you put yourself in the local mindset and share in activities and experiences as locals do.
  • If you are mindful of the local economy, you put your money into local business and ensure that your tourism benefits the right people.

The Travel Word is the blog and newsletter of the WHL Group, showcasing sustainable and local travel. I was highly impressed with a recent post on The Travel Word, that asked numerous travel professionals: “What is tourism’s biggest threat to the environment?

Turns out that the answers aren’t surprising in a way; but should also ring many alarms in the tourism industry. I would like to share a brief bit of the findings, because I think that by being aware of these things we can consciously craft our travel experience in ways that will not only preserve the ecology and cultures of our planet, but also give us a much better travel experience.


What is tourism’s biggest threat to the environment?

“Sometimes visitors come with neither foreknowledge nor sensitivity enough to appreciate (and respect) the unique qualities of a place, both natural and manmade. It’s a process that includes, in the search for adventure, travellers’ pursuit of off-the-beaten-path destinations that are perhaps not entirely suitable as tourism attractions.” ~  Ethan Gelber, Chief Communications Officer, WHL Group
“When people travel to parts of the world where the currency is weaker simply because it’s ‘cheaper,’ bringing with them expectations of luxuries, resorts and vacation, and without thinking critically about how their expectations impact the local community and its necessity to meet those expectations in order to generate business.” ~ Jenna Makowski, Content Editor,
“The construction of new mega resorts along undisturbed coastal areas. It’s a hard thing to stop, especially in some developing countries like Vietnam, where consideration for the environment takes a distant second place to growth as a priority. A good example is the once-untouched China Beach near Hoi An in central Vietnam, which is a developers paradise and now a construction site of luxury resorts.” ~ Luke Ford, CEO, Gunyah
“The pressure that tourism puts on already unstable local resources in many developing nations. Many destinations are in short supply of energy, water and food (which tourists generally take the best of). It is a real challenge as a tourist to truly tread lightly in vulnerable destinations.” ~ Maureen Valentine, Director, Hotel Link Solutions
“I’d say corporate greed is the most immediate threat to the environment, which is why it’s so important to get involved. It’s up to travellers like us to supply the checks and balances: write to your government or join a local non-profit to advocate for better and more sustainable land uses.” ~ Laurel Angrist, Editor, The Travel Word
“Perhaps the most significant concern is the impact that opportunistic development has on destinations. We all love visiting beautiful places and we want those places to be as accessible to as many people as possible and for them to be cheap for us to visit. We’ve created the demand, so it’s hypocritical for us then to decry the developers who slap up blocks of apartments on stretches of pristine coastline. We wanted to see it and we didn’t want to pay much to go there.” ~ Paul Tavner , Developer, The Travel Word

The article ends with an encouraging example from the WHL Group’s CEO, Len Cordiner:

As a model for tourism I like what is happening in Bhutan. Here the government has taken a measured view and wants to ensure tourism is run sustainably. Numbers of tourists are limited, tourism development is tightly controlled and an enormous effort is placed on win-win-win outcomes – for tourists, for local communities and for the environment. At the core of this is a belief that growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a poor measure for development’ and instead the country has focused on Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH). Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan is leading the way in defining a new economic paradigm.”

Here are a few more resources to help you travel like a local:

  • – I just discovered this awesome resource; connecting people in over 175 countries for travel tips, shared cups of coffee, rideshares and homestays. Tripping is safe, free and good for the world. You can also find cool places to stay in 15,000 cities.
  • AirB&B – Airbnb is a global network of accommodations offered by locals. It’s more fun and very cheap, especially in big cities like New York, San Francisco, etc. It’s also a great place to rent your own place out (I’ve done this twice), earning you money to fund your travels.
  • – Experience the greatest alternative to staying in hotels. Like AirB&B, Housetrip lets you find apartments, houses and other individual accommodations when you travel; Housetrip is based in Europe, but has hundreds of thousands of listings all over the world.


Travel like a local!


There is no excuse for mindless travel.