Tom Neal Tacker argues everyone is better off if you take a more eco-friendly approach to booking your next vacation.
There has been much coverage in recent days of Australian travellers' travails. Indonesia, a perennial favourite for budget tourists, has been central. In Bali, we have witnessed the woes of a New South Wales teenager busted for dope possession, as well as the plight of a Melbourne football identity and his family who were set upon in a nightclub. In Lombok, it has been a tale of a Newcastle nurse who suffered brain and kidney damage after unknowingly drinking a cocktail laced with methanol.
These are sad and alarming stories. They highlight the dangers of travel but they should be kept in perspective: the overwhelming majority of tourists enjoy their time away and return home happy and well.
Many of them, though, may well be returning home having inadvertently damaged the holiday destinations they visited, as well as having missed a richer cultural experience.
Veteran traveller and writer Tom Neal Tacker is here in The Zone to enlighten people about the effects they are having on environments and communities, to encourage people to think differently about tourism and to even inspire experienced travellers and novices to change how they view and experience holidays away from home.
His overarching message is that people ought to be more informed before they leave and more considerate while they are away. He says people are not sufficiently aware of their consumer sovereignty — the power they have by selecting where and how they spend their money.
The way to exercise that power, and a key way to become informed, is to ask questions before booking transport and accommodation.
"For instance, how many other visitors will be there when I'm there? What sort of impact does the tourism industry have on this particular country or region within the country? What sort of impact does my actual travel have on not only the trip itself but on the world's environment?
"Do I really need to fly 16 hours to go somewhere where I'm only going to go to stay five days? Why would I not consider taking a trip within Australia itself by train or going by coach or even driving somewhere? We all know that as soon as you board an aircraft and you fly with however many people on board, your greenhouse gas emissions are much greater using that mode of transport than any other."
As to what people might want to check before they book, Tacker has these thoughts about what to ask travel and destination operators:
"What sort of systems do you have in place for adequate waste removal or recycling? What sort of systems do you have in place for reducing your carbon credits in terms of where you're getting your food from? Are you trying to source as locally as possible or are you shipping stuff in from the other side of the planet?"
It's a planet Tacker is, above all, urging people to explore. It's a planet, though, that lacks a system of eco-accreditation, which puts the onus even more heavily on travellers to spend time on research. If you do not have a web connection, free access is available at public libraries.
There is no simple answer to the accreditation question. A global body would be bureaucratic, lumbering and open to corruption. But so too is self-regulation, so tourists need to take responsibility. This goes well beyond the idea that one can select not to have towels and sheets laundered daily.
"That was a start. But now we're getting to the point where certain businesses — hotels, lodges in various parts of the world — are claiming a certain degree of eco-awareness or eco-co-operation simply through changing light globes in rooms. But they are still not addressing the problems of rubbish removal, recycling of waste, water usage, being water-safe, fair employment, what sort of impact they may have on the local culture and society and religious mores.
"None of these things are being taken into account, and it's very self-regulated. And it's very easy to rort a system which is on a small scale being self-regulated."
The history of public policy is replete with what politicians coyly concede to be "unintended consequences". One such consequence Tacker has discovered is that being listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site can be "the kiss of death".
Consider Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, feted for its limestone formations. Vietnamese authorities have used the listing to spruik the destination, and tourism has boomed.
"The limestone outcrops that stick up in the bay are quite stunning — as long as you do not look in the water. It has now been inundated by visitors from around the world, and there is not still the infrastructure in place to clean up after the people have left. We're talking about dozens and dozens of boats where people are just tossing their rubbish overboard . . . The water is just full of plastic bottles and plastic bags."
Plastic has become a massive problem throughout Asia, in particular, and yet the solution is simple.
Were tourists to take their own shopping bags and water bottles, it would make a huge difference. There is limited waste management and no recycling facility on Bali, for example, where the annual number of tourists exceeds the permanent population.
"If you look at most of the freshwater streams running through central Bali, there are just plastic bottles floating everywhere. There are plastic bags hanging in the trees. There is rubbish everywhere."
Similarly, the infamous full-moon rave parties that originated on the Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan have turned once-pristine environments into a mess.
"These little islands have almost no drinking water. They have no rubbish-removal systems. They have no recycling systems. They had no sewage infrastructure. They have dodgy electricity — they are burning diesel to run the generators.
"It is all because 2000 or 3000 people want to go there for a full-moon party. They bring their ready-to-drink alcohol and they just throw the bottles on the beach, thinking that somebody else is going to clean up after them after they leave. Well, they don't.
"You look at the Gulf of Thailand and you just see whole rafts of floating plastic rubbish in the sea. And that is having an impact not only on the local people but on the sea life."
It's not all grim: Tacker's advice includes opting to travel within Australia instead of jetting to, for example, Bali for a four-day boozefest and shopping session. His list of questions and advice and compelling destinations is detailed in the full transcript of our interview, which is at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone and is discussed further at the links below.
Offshore destinations Tacker recommends include South Africa and India. And there is the option of what has become known as voluntourism.
"This is the fastest-growing area of tourism. It's been going on for some time: universities and museums have been running programs for decades where members or alumni have been able to have access to trips such as going on an archaeological dig in Egypt or Syria or Israel.
"They are actually digging with the archaeologists, working with some of the best people in the field as volunteers. They get to take away from that experience more interaction with local people and also having perhaps learned something about, for instance, archaeology."
The best way to explore this is using an internet search engine — just type in "voluntourism" and a specific country.
Tourists are not bad people. Many just do not realise the negative effect they are having and that it can be readily mitigated. And many do not realise they might easily have a far more rewarding experience if they seek to spend time getting to know locals other than the waiters and room cleaners.
It's probably not only more interesting and refreshing than hanging out in the bars of places such as Bali and, as those recent horror stories suggest, it's probably safer, too.