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Can adventure travel ever be sustainable?

There is a lot of debate around the necessity of adventure travel as a tool to educate and inform versus the environmental impact, seasoned adventurer Sarah M Lawton explores the balance between travel, environmental awareness and education. 

For many, adventure tourism is synonymous with ecotourism. Those of us who seek out the activities offered by adventure tourism are often environmentally aware and expect tour operators to meet sustainability goals. But now, with many borders still shut, travellers and tour operators may be tempted to ask what exactly ‘sustainable adventure travel’ is and if environmental considerations will affect the need for rapid economic recovery across the sector.

The impacts of Covid-19 on adventure travel

In 2019, the global adventure tourism market was valued at $657.8 million. Now, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predict an unprecedented decrease in international tourism, forecasting a 20-30% decrease in international arrivals.

However, despite expected losses of $300-450 billion and fifty million tourism jobs worldwide, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and other sector representatives still highlight the need for continued improvement and development in sustainable approaches to adventure travel.

person carrying yellow and black backpack walking between green plants

The evolution of sustainable adventure travel

During the 1960s, cultural and societal behaviours changed as the average standard of living enabled more leisure time.

Today, adventure travel can share traits with other travel sectors, such as ecotourism and sports tourism, but is set apart by the motivation beneath the term ‘adventure’.

Adventure tourists often seek novel, challenging and transformative experiences. However, the demands of a good adventure are often in stark contrast to the needs of the local population and can conflict with wildlife conservation and environmental preservation.

Tourism, in general is carbon-intensive due to flights, other transport, and energy-intensive luxuries such as hotel air conditioning. It is estimated that the tourism sector accounts for around 8% of global carbon emissions.

Adventurous activities such as surfing and diving can also damage coral reefs, camping and hiking compacts soil, wildlife viewing impacts species behaviours, and the effects of waste plastics and other pollutants can devastate the natural world.

The simple act of spitting toothpaste into the jungle can unintentionally kill amphibian populations on the brink of extinction. And now, facemasks and plastic gloves that have dropped out of walkers’ pockets are cropping up tangled around throats and in the nests of various species across the globe.

So, while there is currently no explicit requirement for tour operators and travel companies offering adventure tourism to be ecologically sensitive, any long-term strategy for sustainable adventure tourism must account for current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.

Why tour operators should aim for sustainability

Countries that have focused on sustainable development have seen a corresponding increase in adventure tourism.

Adventure travellers often value the opportunity to interact with local culture in a meaningful way. Destinations that have worked to preserve their heritage, culture, and unique natural resources, alongside the implementation of strategic climate change policy, will fare well in future and find themselves with a competitive advantage.

Adventure tourism is a platform for increasing awareness and it offers educational opportunities around environmental and cultural issues.

Initially, the sector’s approach to long-term sustainability was a strong focus on carbon offsetting to compensate for emissions, with tour operators offering tree planting and other programmes to balance the carbon footprint generated by flights and transport. However, the canny adventurer has quickly come to recognise that this approach is a shallow one. There are only so many trees to be planted and often these projects are merely corrupt ‘greenwashing’ fronts.

Today, ethical travellers look for smaller group travel and demand more clearly defined direct sustainability approaches. They are often prepared to compromise their own comfort and budget to ensure true sustainability goals are being met and wish to learn how to minimise their impact further.

To remain competitive in this lucrative and growing market, governments must stamp out corruption and push environmental policy and tour operators must have a two-pronged approach.

First, they must focus on reducing the impact of their own operations, supply chains, vehicles, energy consumption, food and resources and waste disposal. Secondly, they must also provide an in-depth analysis of travel impact and implement demonstrable sustainability practices covering destination policy and planning, community involvement, management of natural and cultural assets, and environmental consequences.

Tie-on carbon offsetting will simply not do

An add-on nod to sustainability in the form of carbon offsetting will no longer do. Instead, the demands of modern adventure tourism will insist upon continuous improvement, with carbon reduction over offsetting.

Recycling, waste reduction, energy efficiency, and use of renewable energy sources will become selection criteria. Experienced travellers will learn to prioritise minimum impact activities that deliver good returns to the local economy while preserving heritage and biodiversity.

Companies offering meaningful experiences while demonstrating a long-term beneficial commitment to communities with considered development plans, detailed risk assessments and measurable results will win customers and maintain higher levels of customer satisfaction and retention.

Photo by Holly Mandarich

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