Is tourism ruining the planet?
After a week of vacationing in Honolulu, that is the question that niggles.
What comes to mind when you think of Oahu? An ocean warm enough to swim in? Tropical vegetation and flowers blooming year round? Surfers? Hula dancers? Ukuleles? Snorkeling? If that’s what you see when you shut your eyes and imagine it, Hawaii is all that and more. Think sandy white beaches, roaring waterfalls, jungles loaded with exotic trees and flowers, and tropical fish lagoons, all leaving you breathless and believing you have landed in paradise.
Then there’s the other face of Oahu: traffic back-ups, haphazard development, homelessness, deforestation, a desperate push to offer tourists more and more thrills — anyone for swimming with the sharks? — and more stores stuffed within a few blocks selling every kind of luxury good. And speaking of luxury goods, who would travel to a place known for its natural beauty to spend hours in an unnatural setting? Zillions of people, as it turns out. They meander down Kalakaua Avenue, heads barely visible behind arms loaded with bags labeled Coach, Tiffany and Co., Chanel, Yves saint Laurent, and Chanel. A more casual, open-air International Market has been torn down to make room for a multi-story Sak’s 5th Avenue retail store.
Just about every retired American I know is on the move, cruising, flying, biking in all corners of the world. Our travel bucket lists are long. After we check off one city/country we add a new one. Pick one city, any city where tourists flock, and think about the garbage collected from its many hotels, the water needed to wash its sheets and towels, the fuel burning in every plane, taxi, tour bus, boat and rental car to get us to this destination and around it.
Yet there are many good reasons to travel. If I hadn’t gone to Paris, I’d still believe the French were rude. If I hadn’t spent time in Mexico studying Spanish and living with Mexican families, I’d never know how kind and generous the Mexican people were. Also, I would have missed out on wonderful career opportunities that came from learning to speak Spanish. I wouldn’t have experienced different climates, customs, and traditions in Europe and Asia. Studying about D-Day in school didn’t have the impact that visiting Normandy Beaches did.
There’s no good way to save the planet from tourism other than staying home, and that means missing out on an abundance of rewarding experiences. It might help if travelers were aware of the giant footprint they were leaving and sought ways to diminish it, from using public transportation, to re-using hotel towels, to moving around on foot. There are no simple answers, but every solution begins with awareness.