No one wants to be a tourist, crowding the streets at a maddening snail pace to take photographs of uninteresting inanimate objects, or even worse, the oh didn't see you there selfie.
Granted, tourism can stimulate economies, but it has a detrimental byproduct: tourism pollution. Pollution can take many forms, in any environment—not just air or water pollution but noise pollution or light pollution, as in some major metropolises. Tourism pollution is when tourists have a detrimental effect on the local environment, from literally polluting it with litter to adversely impacting the local people, or buying into animal exploitation for amusement and souvenir selfies.
Take, for example, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Thailand: the Indian elephant, a subspecies of the great Asian elephant. When photographers Diogo Paulo and Maria Midões traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, they decided to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary run by a local family who truly cares for the animals. There, you don’t ride the elephants. Tourists ride elephants; an ethical traveler wouldn’t be caught dead on an elephant’s back. It’s as cruel to the magnificent creatures as it is cliché to do.
The Indian elephant is a creature to behold: a gravely endangered species, in part due to the ivory trade and, yes, their appeal as a tourist attraction. These gentle giants belong on anybody’s bucket list, but they deserve our respect. At the Karen Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, a family-owned not-for-profit project, you can hang out with the elephants all day without exploiting them for entertainment and photo ops.
Visiting these majestic creatures in an ethical way isn’t a free-for-all. You have to schedule your visit in advance, which helps keep the environment safe for the elephants. It’s easier than it sounds, though: they pick you up at your hotel on the morning of your visit, drive you there and back, and even feed you lunch. After you’ve gotten to swim and frolic around with the elephants, you won’t care that you haven’t gotten to ride one.
Tourism pollution doesn’t just apply to the natural environment but to cities, such as in Kyoto, which has had problems with the influx of tourists disrupting the traditional customs and peaceful vibe of the place. Things that seem like no big deal to many Americans—for example, canceling a reservation at a restaurant at the last minute, or smoking cigarettes outside their rented AirBnB—unwittingly constitute tourism pollution. Tourists behaving disrespectfully of the local customs became such a problem there, in fact, that Japan has been cracking down by imposing regulations on short-term renters who cater to tourists through platforms such as Airbnb.
To be a traveler as opposed to a tourist is to engage with the new environment with grace. Treat the place and the people you’re visiting with at least as much dignity as you’d expect at home. Before you arrive, look into the traditional customs of the destination so you don’t upset the atmosphere or unwittingly offend the locals.
No one wants to be a part of the problem, but that doesn’t mean we have to deprive ourselves of our wanderlust. Travelers can help reduce the negative impact on their desired destinations with a little bit of mindfulness, patience, and savvy planning.