As the world emerges from lockdown into the twilight zone reality dubbed ‘the new normal’ ad nauseam, a few things have become abundantly clear:
- The travel industry will change post-coronavirus
- It really needed to anyway
- Responsible tourism is the future
In effectively shutting down the entire global tourism industry for a number of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has, ironically, shone a spotlight on how some cities have been straining under the weight of the travel boom during recent years. As of now, European cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice – notorious for being overloaded with tourists – have suddenly become livable, breathable cities for their own locals again.
Residents can sit outside their houses, sip a coffee and chew the fat in Amsterdam’s old center, without fear of drive-by urination from rampaging stag parties. Italian is once again the language you hear lilting around the Gothic waterways of Venice, while Barcelona’s locals have la Ramblas all to themselves for the first time in forever.
Aside from annoying the locals and pricing them out of their own city, over-tourism has been a contributor to another crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight: climate change. Without recreational aviation crop-dusting the upper atmosphere with carbon, emission levels have dropped dramatically in the space of a few months. Cleaner air means lower rates of asthma and preterm births, and the reduced human traffic has also allowed nature to heal and flourish.
Changing the way we travel and consume culture is not only necessary because of COVID-19, but also for the good of the planet and the souls of the cities we love. There are promising signs that a finer balance can be struck, and it’s heartening to see how quickly results can be achieved. With a slightly more considered approach, tourists, locals, and the planet stand to benefit. But the industry needs a rethink across many levels.
The good news is some people have been conscious about this issue for some time already. So there’s a playbook out there to follow, and some really great examples of responsible tourism and eco-friendly attractions and experiences.
Here are five Tiqets partners that are really nailing responsible tourism, and showing us that amazing travel experiences and sustainability have never been mutually exclusive.
1. Gardens by the Bay, Singapore – Pride of the Lion City
The obvious place to begin a list like this is Singapore’s botanical wonderland, Gardens by the Bay. If ever there was an emphatic statement that ecological sustainability can be spectacular, it’s this boldly conceived and meticulously executed urban oasis located at the water’s edge of the city’s Marina Reservoir.
Opened in 2012, the gardens were built upon the principle of improving the quality of life in Singapore for locals and tourists alike, by increasing the amount of nature and flora in the city, with an ostensible ‘more is more’ approach. The site comprises 250 acres of tropical plants, water features, themed botanical gardens, indoor forests, the world’s largest greenhouses, and lots more. With over 50 million visitors to date, you could say it’s been a bit of a success story, creating a playbook many venues could do with taking a leaf out of.
The Gardens by the Bay are perhaps best-known for the shimmering neon lightshow of Supertree Grove, a set of 18 towering tree-like sculptures and walkways measuring between 25 and 50 metres in height. The trees serve a multitude of functions, the most conspicuous of which appears to be magnetizing smartphones aloft every evening. But as with everything in this park, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
How Gardens by the Bay Nails Responsible Tourism
Sustainability and responsible tourism are not mere initiatives tacked on to the Gardens by the Bay as a happy sidenote, but the central theme and idea that the entire complex is built upon from the roots up – often through ingenious means. For instance, the Supertrees are also vertical fern gardens that help regulate heat and provide shade, while some are fitted with solar cells that power the nightly light show. But that’s just the start of it.
The Gardens are otherwise powered by horticultural waste like fallen twigs, bark, and dry leaves from the park itself and others around the city. This is collected, mulched, compacted, and turned into wooden pellets, which are then burned in steam engines to generate squeaky-clean electricity.
The heat produced by this process is also used to help with efficiently regulating the humidity in the giant greenhouses, powering underground cooling rods which force warm air upwards, where it can disperse more evenly. Meanwhile, the ashes are collected and used as soil fertilizer, and excess steam is channeled up through chimneys in the Supertrees so it can fall again as rain. Leave it to the Lion City to nail a project that encapsulates the circle of life!
The gardens are also largely self-irrigating, specifically designed so that rainwater runs into a network of pipes, filtered through beds of aquatic reeds to remove sediment, and fed into two artificial lakes. On the lakes, islands of hydroponic plants are used to prevent the buildup of algae bloom. The clean water is then recycled to hydrate the gardens which reduces the load on Singapore’s national water grid; seven million plants make for one thirsty garden.
The diversity of aquatic plants used in the lake also helps sustain dragonfly and fish habitats, which keeps all but the most masochistic mosquitos away, while the greenhouses themselves are made with special glass that lets in light, but reflects heat, so the climate never becomes uninhabitable in the Cloud Forest or Flower Dome. At night, all lights are dimmed or turned out by 11pm to conserve energy and let the plants sleep.
The list of holistic, eco-friendly systems and practices in the Gardens by the Bay goes on and on, and there are philosophies, principles, and examples here that can inspire creative thinking and ways to orient a business model around sustainability and responsible tourism.
But you don’t need to be a cash-flush international business hub with a massive sovereign wealth fund and the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world, like Singapore, to pull off a culturally rich botanical garden project. It works on a small scale too.
Introducing the world’s world’s first sustainable pyramid scheme…
2. Botanical Gardens and Pyramids of Guimar, Tenerife – Planting Seeds of Sustainability
The Pyramids of Guimar in Tenerife bear no association to Egypt’s famous Pyramids of Giza, apart from being shrouded in mystery. Precise theories as to their origin are debated to this day, although the consensus is that the pyramids were built as a byproduct or side-project of 19th-century agricultural land clearing, which isn’t to say they were meaningless rock piles assembled at random. Clearly this involved huge effort.
Standing at 12 metres tall, these pyramids are oriented towards the sun during the Summer and Winter solstice, much like the neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland, or Stonehenge in England. You can even witness a double sunset by standing atop the largest pyramid on the Summer solstice, as the sun initially sets behind one mountaintop, before reemerging from the mountain’s side and setting again behind another peak. Okay Tenerife, you’re just showing off now.
Despite not being the handiwork of ancient civilizations (or aliens), the Pyramids of Guimar still offer a cool window into the ethnographic history of Tenerife. But when only 5-10% of the site’s visitors were locals and only 2.7% of the island’s visitors reportedly consider cultural tourism important to them, the museum body asked themselves how they could diversify their cultural offering to make the site more appealing to everyone.
The economic downturn of 2008 made this question all the more pressing, as the crash hit Tenerife’s tourism hard. But the answer was right under their noses the entire time – and it smelled sustainable!
How the Botanical Gardens and Pyramids of Guimar Nails Responsible Tourism
During the construction of the ethnographic park around the pyramids, an extensive garden of endemic and native flora was planted. Until then, this garden had been principally ornamental, a nice bit of natural eye-candy that made the visit pleasant and aesthetically pleasing.
With backgrounds in ethnography, the museum staff soon realised that this unique botanical collection was a culturally significant attraction in its own right – plants can teach a lot about the culture and natural history of a place. So they teamed up with the botany department of the University of La Laguna, and began to pivot the focus of the complex itself towards a sustainable eco garden, expanding it considerably, and using the plants to engage visitors in the ethnographic histories, folklore, mysticism, and cultural customs of Tenerife.
Today, the garden is a wonderful outdoor cultural and botanical exhibition modelled on a classic Canarian ravine, with sustainability and responsible tourism permeating every facet to pretty powerful effect. With most of the ravines in the Canary Islands having become dry dust bowls, the garden also serves to highlight this ecological tragedy, and demonstrate that it’s possible for nature to make a spectacular comeback in a relatively short space of time, with just a little push.
There are multiple routes around the garden, each with its own theme and character. The Botanical Route is populated by some of the most rare and emblematic plant species of the Canarian archipelago, while the Export Route presents the plants which have been the lifeblood of the Canarian post-colonial economy, such as sugar cane, wine, cacti.
There’s a Volcanic Route, which showcases the flora that has flourished in Tenerife’s igneous lunar landscape; a Cultural Route, which focuses more on the ethnographic history; while the Poison Garden takes you on a strictly look-don’t-touch tour of over 70 species of poisonous plants.
Life Finds a Way…
The coolest part about the botanical garden is, apart from one small shed containing a water pump and some biological water-filtering processes – the entire garden is pretty much self-sustaining. Having re-introduced native flora and fauna around a watercourse that mimics a Tenerife ravine, down to the placement of certain trees and plants at specific distances from the water, a naturally self-regulating ecosystem has emerged. Invasive weeds are sometimes purged, but other than that, the insects and plants feed each other.
The watercourse was designed to oxygenate itself as it flows downstream, while a closed-system process of aquaponics is used to cultivate aquatic flora. This clever system channels aquaculture water, containing the excretions of aquatic life like snails and small fish, and feeds into water containing hydroponic plants, which break down the droppings into nitrates which they use for food. The clean fresh water is then channeled back into the aquaculture so the water there never becomes too… soupy!
Since the Botanical Garden was opened, the Ethnographic Park Pyramids of Guimar has been twice nominated for European Museum of the Year, and visitor numbers have skyrocketed. This is a clear demonstration that simple, ecologically minded projects that nurture nature are not only economically viable, but something people genuinely crave and enjoy. It’s one of the great success stories of implementing sustainability into a business model, and a shining example of responsible tourism done right.
Speaking of implementing sustainability into business models!
3. Fashion for Good, Amsterdam – You Reap What You Sew
Fashion for Good is an Amsterdam-based sustainability foundation that aims to interrupt the fast fashion model of today’s clothing industry, and move the industry towards a more circular economy that isn’t quite so entropic and morally bankrupt as the current status quo.
Fast fashion is an environmental, humanitarian, and economic crisis that is using up resources far faster than they’re being replenished, exploiting workers in developing countries, and swindling people into purchasing poor-quality garments that need replacing on a regular basis – all in the name of blind profit.
To illustrate: these days, people are buying on average 60% more clothes annually than 15 years ago, but keeping them for only half as long. In addition to this, over half of the new clothes purchased every year end up in landfills or incinerators, to say nothing of the appalling “sweatshop” working conditions that many of today’s large clothing outlets continue to get away with profiting off. Obviously, none of this is sustainable, but the good news is that there are lots of innovative solutions and technologies being developed to help combat fast fashion.
Fashion for Good has developed a platform that brings together innovators, inventors, researchers, NGOs, and others from across all verticals of the fashion industry supply chain, and works with corporate brands to implement and scale these sustainable innovations within large branches of the market. The ultimate aim is to reorient the entire fashion industry around five principles of Good Fashion:
- Good Materials – safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling
- Good Economy – growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
- Good Energy – renewable and clean
- Good Water – clean and available to all
- Good Lives – living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified
How Fashion for Good Nails Responsible Tourism
With partners like adidas, Zalando, Chanel, Tommy Hillfiger, and others on board, it’s clear this plucky Dutch sustainable fashion platform already has some serious clout in the industry. However, changing the minds of the industry leaders is only half the battle. Fashion for Good is keenly aware that the customer is always right, and so they’ve also developed a responsible tourism solution to help open consumers’ minds too: the Fashion for Good Experience.
Located smack-bang in the heart of Amsterdam city center, this unique and immersive visitor attraction provides an exciting tour of the cutting-edge innovations designed to tackle the problem of fast fashion, while also presenting a stimulating overview of the history of the fashion industry.
Through a variety of interactive exhibits, you’ll learn how you can be a part of a brighter future, with lots of real, tangible steps you can take and programs you can engage with to adjust your wardrobe habits, and live a more sustainability-driven life. And yes, you do get to print your own sustainable t-shirt.
The minds behind Fashion for Good believe in practicing what they preach, and so every square inch of their space is designed with sustainability and circular economy in mind. The furniture is second-hand or rental, natural sunlight is used where possible to cut electricity costs, while all the installations, carpets, printers, and even the walls come from recycled materials.
As with the Gardens by the Bay, there are some ideas here which are specific to a certain industry, but there are also lots of easily implementable initiatives that all venues can take inspiration from. While the visitor experience makes for a thoroughly eye-opening, inspirational, and fun activity that will enhance any day out in Amsterdam.
While you’re at it, you can really double down on the eco-friendly kick with a pedalboat voyage around the UNESCO canal ring!
4. South Carolina Aquarium – Turning the Tide of Wildlife Tourism
The role that aquariums and zoos play in the arena of ecological sustainability is a moral flashpoint where opposing, but equally valid ideas collide. On the one hand, many of these places are deeply involved in excellent projects that are central to the conservation of endangered species. Providing zoological education to the public and funding environmental programs that help sustain and protect habitats and animal populations in the wild is a noble cause.
On the other hand, seeing wildlife in captivity can induce feelings of ambivalence and moral misgivings that obfuscate the good work being carried out behind the scenes. For some, the sight of animals in cages is the end of the conversation, with animal welfare and entertainment seemingly irreconcilable. The reality is complex, but somewhere between the competing ideals there’s an ethically sound middle ground, where wildlife conservation and education are put front and center.
One place that is doing an admirable job in striking this balance and providing an awesome example of responsible tourism for animal lovers is South Carolina Aquarium (SCA) in Charleston, who champion ethical animal experiences and sustainability at every turn.
How South Carolina Aquarium Nails Responsible Tourism
For starters, SCA is a privately owned 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and the price of every ticket sold goes towards a range of sustainability and educational programs that the aquarium is actively involved with. The moral barometer always reads clearer when you follow the money!
Their educational programs include homeschool programs, sponsoring school field trips, state-wide and international outreach programs, and free structured school programs for teachers. By allocating funds towards spreading awareness of environmental issues, SCA is playing the long game, investing in the future and the capacity for change that an informed and energised generation of young minds carries.
But SCA is also very much focused on the challenges of the here and now too, with special attention paid to the plight of sick sea turtles.
The aquarium runs a busy Sea Turtle Care Center in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, where the beautiful marine reptiles that are found injured or tangled in plastic and other ocean pollution are rescued, nursed back to health, rehabilitated, and released back into the wild when they recover.
The center is accessible for visitors, and provides a very real glimpse into the devastating effects of ocean pollution, and the unsung role that aquariums play in combating it. With all seven species of sea turtles now listed as threatened or endangered, this work is more vital now than ever, as coastal development expands and marine habitats shrink.
Many of the other animals at SCA are also rescues, and the stories of their rescue and rehabilitation are worked into the visitor experience, making it a much more emotionally rich and powerful experience than your typical “laugh at this goofy sea lion” aquarium experience.
The idea behind each wildlife encounter at SCA is to foster genuine love and respect for the animals, and appreciate the challenges of survival that they face in their natural habitats due to unsustainable human practices. Deep, inspirational education and real sustainable practices are the order of the day over shallow, profit-driven entertainment.
By only featuring indiginous species found around the state of South Carolina, and not importing exotic animals from all over the world for the sake of novelty, the aquarium also stresses the importance of appreciating the many treasures to be found in your own backyard.
This is something the travel industry is pivoting towards anyway, in the wake of the pandemic. But in doing so, SCA has created a unique visitor experience, whereby guests can take a fascinating ecological journey across South Carolina’s rich biodiversity, exploring habitats from the mountains to the coast, with the exhibitions specifically set up this way.
SCA also promotes the Good Catch program, which generates awareness and incentivises communities in support of local fisheries and the consumption of responsibly harvested seafood. They work with local restaurants, seafood purveyors, caterers and collaborators who share the mission of supporting sustainable seafood practices, and minimising the use of plastics across the supply chain.
Other excellent aquariums on the same wavelength as SCA include Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium, AQUATIS Aquarium-Vivarium in Lausanne, Switzerland. While the SEA LIFE Trust works to end overfishing and destructive fishing methods, as well as working on coral propagation and other environmental causes.
5. North Sailing Silent Whale-Watching Tours Húsavík, Iceland – An Ethical Whale of a Time
Conservation and sustainability are crucial elements of responsible tourism for any attraction that keeps wildlife in captivity, but this is equally true for tour operators who offer experiences of visiting wildlife in the wild.
It’s an easy assumption to make that seeing animals frolic freely in their natural habitat is by definition more sustainable and ethical than seeing creatures behind glass or bars. But if anything, the capacity to do harm to animal populations is actually increased by entering their territories. So the onus of responsibility is even more acute here.
Whales are the biggest – and by any fair metric – most majestic mammals on the planet. Spotting the gentle giants in the wild is one of the most breathtaking, and thus sought-after experiences in wildlife tourism. So needless to say it’s big business.
Every year, thousands of people flock to Husavik, the whale-watching capital of Iceland, in the hopes of glimpsing some of the hundreds of whales of various species who congregate here to breed, feed, socialise, and migrate. Sounds magical right?
The problem is that most whale-watching boats tend to come fully equipped with roaring engines and thundering underwater propellers as standard. This might appear as a benign hum to the untrained ear of a giddy tourist. When you’re enraptured by the sight of cetaceans gracefully breaching and splashing about, it’s hard to notice anything else. But if you’re a mother whale raising newborn calves, it’s pretty much the underwater equivalent of this:
All joking aside, disturbing the natural habits of marine wildlife is a genuine problem that tends to slide unseen beneath the surface, with the passive nature of whales making them seem unperturbed. Worse still is the possibility for collision with the creatures which is increased as the demand for these experiences means multiple boats operating in the same area, with dozens of tours every day in some areas. The issue is well known within the industry.
There’s one company operating in Husavik however, that has turned conscientiousness around sustainable whale watching into action, and has worked to create a responsible tourism solution around non-invasive whale-watching tours that will hopefully become the model which others begin to follow. North Sailing Húsavík might be a small fish in a big pond, but they’re making a real splash.
How North Sailing Húsavík Nails Responsible Tourism
The first and most obvious difference between the majority of whale-watching tours in Iceland and North Sailing’s Silent Whale-Watching Tours from Husavik is its fleet of 100% carbon-neutral electric-powered boats.
These refurbished old oak fishing boats are able to approach pods of humpbacks, minke whale, blue whale, and white-beaked dolphin silently, so as not to disturb the creatures in any immediate sense. They also avoid contributing any extra carbon emissions into the atmosphere, so as not to exacerbate climate change, which devastates ocean ecosystems.
Using electric boats is only part of the mission though, and North Sailing have developed their own comprehensive code of conduct for responsible whale watching, to minimize any disturbance on the animals. Their guidelines take into account the many variables associated with entering marine habitats, such as the weather, number of whales, prey availability, if there are calves present, animal behaviour, and other factors.
Their crews are cetacean experts who ensure that these rules are observed at all times. The basic guidelines are as follows:
- Approach the area of marine mammal activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure.
- Reduce speed to less than 5 knots when within 200 meters of the nearest cetacean. Avoid sudden course or speed changes.
- Avoid driving towards any cetacean closer than 100 meters while the engine is in gear, unless you are approaching from the right angle.
- Aim to approach and depart from whales from the side, following the direction of travel of the animal. Never approach from the front or from the behind.
- If you are approached by a whale or dolphin you should: (A) Continue on your course with little change in direction or speed, and (B) Stop the vessel to allow the animal to interact with you or move away.
- Limit your time engaged in viewing to a maximum of 30 minutes, to minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels.
- Limit the number of boats around an animal to two and try to stay on the same side where possible.
- Keep clear of the path of the animals.
- Do not attempt to drive through groups of porpoises or dolphins for the purpose of bow riding. Should these animals choose to ride the bow wave of your vessel, gradually reduce speed and avoid sudden course changes
By following these rules to the letter, the impact of whale-watching tourism on the cetacean populations is greatly minimised, and thereby reduces the risk of separation of mothers from calves, disruption of social groups, or disruption in migratory patterns – all are things which can occur without a responsible tourism approach. Here’s an even more detailed look at the guidelines and the thinking behind them.
As these examples illustrate, sustainable and environmentally friendly experiences are part of a creative, exciting, and inspiring new wave of responsible tourism that has been building quietly for some time. If there can be any positive taken from the catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19, it has been the way that nature has responded to a sharp downturn in unsustainable practices, and the renewed focus on the need to address this issue with creativity and long-term thinking.
There are principles and ideas in each of the above cases that nearly any attraction can take inspiration from and implement, to shift their offering towards the responsible tourism the world needs. If the health of the world wasn’t incentive enough though, consider this: even investors have begun to sit up and take notice of the economic benefits of financing things that are actually sustainable.
As consumers, it’s also our responsibility to seek out attractions that are geared towards responsible tourism, and fuel greater demand for these types of experiences. With research indicating that destruction of the environment is a direct cause of disease outbreaks, we should all be motivated to minimise the risk of another serious outbreak, and do our small part towards building a more sustainable future for travel and tourism.
After all, nobody wants to be grounded by mother nature again!