As the number of travellers increases the world over, and popular tourism destinations get busier and busier, there’s a need to think about the effect that this has on the entire eco-system. We did a deep dive on this topic for this issue, considering the theme for this year’s Arabian Travel Market is responsible tourism.

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) says that this phrase is “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

Carbon footprint and the effect of travellers on the local community and environment are top concerns, in my mind. There are a number of examples where I consider whether a rise in the number of tourists is potentially doing more harm than good — especially in historical sites which are prone to erosion, for example.

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I will always remember most of the fantastic quotes and insights shared with me by Gerald Lawless, who ends his two-year term as the chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in April 2018, but something he said about sustaining a destination back in 2016 to me comes to mind here. He noted at the time that every country has to be concerned about sustainable tourism, and added: “Tourism and travel is a good development, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for people to come together. But it has to be done in a manner that’s sustainable — because the last thing you want to do is to damage the very product that you are promoting, particularly in leisure tourism.” Lawless said that travel and tourism can also help sustain a destination, but it needs to be managed responsibly.

This issue was something I wondered about during a memorable trip to the Maasai Mara last year. While I had a fantastic time learning about the flora and fauna, and experiencing the migration, with the number of vehicles crowding popular viewing spots, I did stop to think about whether the tourism numbers helped or hampered the local environment. How much were we contributing to increased emissions and pollution levels in that land, I thought? Was it all really worth that one Instagram photo?

That sounds cynical, but I am pleased to say that the drive towards being responsible is something that travellers are demanding as well. They want to see hotels or airlines or tour companies doing something for the environment, or contributing to the community. For example, the WTO estimates that tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions and accommodation accounts for approximately 20% of emissions from tourism, including energy and water demand and waste management. This is a number the industry should be keen to lower as much as possible.

In addition to the environment, the community is equally important, and this form of responsible tourism ties in to the experiential demands that travellers today are making. In the Middle East region, this can include offering pearl diving experiences  in Abu Dhabi (The Pearl Journey), or visiting tanneries to understand leather production (Al Khaznah Tannery), or going to the desert to plant a ghaf tree while eating a local breakfast (Frying Pan Adventures). Now there is a greater focus on learning more about the culture, the city’s history, and connecting with people. And at the end of it, isn’t that what travelling is all about?