• Alberto

Sustainable Tourism - the Future of Travelling, Taking Care of the Planet as a Heritage

Forget everything you know about travelling. At the end of this article you will reconsider it. The United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. What does that mean? What is sustainable tourism about? Tourism plays a big role in helping to develop a place and making it interesting for people to visit. However, if the development is not focused on actually doing good to the local community, the place can also be destroyed.


Imagine the big threats of our planet (overpopulation, pollution, etc.) in movement. Over the land, the air or the sea. Moving with the people who are travelling around the globe. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) 1,235 million travelers crossed international borders last year. In the globalised world that we live in, we must become aware of the impact we have on our environment when travelling. Why? Because common (unsustainable) tourism is like a big blind roller, trampling ecosystems and smashing heritages and landscapes. Often leaving a deep, irreversible impact on fragile areas like coastlines and islands, that were sculpted by nature for millions of years. This kind of tourism was not designed for taking care of destinations, thinking of the future, the land or its inhabitants’ needs, but is only concerned about the tourists’ wishes. Tourism has turned into a way to escape from reality. Tourists often expect comfort and unrealistic settings, and realities such as pollution or poverty many times do not play any role to them. This fiction-like form of mass tourism turned curious travelers into consumers, and cultures and landscapes into products.


How can we be so ignorant of the harm we are doing to the places we love? Of the people living there, their economy and their troubles? How can we be so far from reality? Our media culture makes us blind to the richness and fragility of our planet. Similarly to how light pollution makes us blind to our starry night sky, isolating us in our cities and anthropocentric bubble. TVs, mobile phones and laptops eclipse the wonders of our world. No wonder that people think that our globalised world is getting smaller. The world has not shrunk, it is only small in our limited minds and way of life. Behind the screens and highways it remains the wide huge world, that we have simply forgotten about. If we all would live for one year experiencing the world like our ancestors, without electricity or vehicles, it would not seem that small to us anymore. This is important to understanding the concept of heritage.


If common tourism turns regions into products, sustainable tourism turns regions into heritage. A beach suddenly is not just defined by the opportunity to sunbathe anymore, but by the ecosystem and cultural meaning it hosts. Heritage is the key word here. Sustainable tourism is based on the definition for sustainable development, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, as it is written in the Brundtland report. Sustainable tourism is also linked to slow movement, against fast food and a fast way of life. This more original meaning of travel is about looking for the authentic aspects of every destination, respecting it as a heritage. In a world overpopulated, where every place has been explored, urbanized or commercialized, what is truly authentic anymore? What remains pure or free to fill our nomad spirit? As Alastair Bonnett suggests in his book “Unruly Places”, the adventure of exploration has just begun. There are still many places that have not been explored. Hidden places where life and history are happening right now. These places do not appear in travel guides, but nevertheless they are waiting for us to write their story.

This is not Switzerland, but Morocco (Ifrane), not far from the Sahara © 2015 Maroc-Maroc.com


There is no sustainable tourism without responsible lodgings and responsible tourists. Responsible here means being aware of water and electricity usage, of recycling, not disturbing nature, bioconstruction, and sustainable means of transportation. Sustainable tourism is a good way to valorize nature and protect it from mass tourism, as it gives regions more autonomy and the means to protect themselves. But sustainable tourism is not just limited to destinations in the countryside. In fact, it is particularly important in cities, which are like black holes swallowing all the surrounding natural resources; and because it is where most people can begin to learn about the need of habit change.


Why would we be interested in practicing sustainable tourism? Sustainable tourism provides us with another way of seeing the world, even the place that we call home. As Marcel Proust said, "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes". This means traveling and experiencing the world with an open mindset and having a holistic view on the destination - seeing it as heritage. There are many different approaches to this. Geotourism for instance is about the fossilized face of the landscape and the universal story of its shape (Limburg or the Eifel region are geological treasures). Birding is about following the flight and life of birds, or even falconry (such as for example “Falconcrest" in Eindhoven). Agritourism includes sleeping in farms and learning how to obtain food like milk, cheese, oil, or honey.


The easiest example however is to just take a look over our heads, at the sky heritage. The stars are the oldest and shiniest library of the world. Astro tourism is one of the most successful forms of sustainable tourism, it gives us the opportunity to wonder about the universe and at the same time be aware of light pollution. In the sky we can read our past and future, but our culture seems to have become illiterate. Cities, symbol of progress, are like blinds under the light pollution, and many physicists and astronomers are forced to move to the countryside for star gazing. According to the project Save The Night about half of the European Union’s population has lost the possibility of seeing the Milky Way, the Galaxy where we live. There are many other projects trying to fight against this invisible problem, such as the Night Light project of the European Union, which has a strong presence in the Dutch province of Frislân.

In 2003 Todd Carlson took this picture during a blackout near Toronto


Light pollution is also threatening our health, nature, culture and economy. Many plants and animals that are awake at night are as delicate as butterflies and dying due to light pollution because artificial light disrupts nocturnal pollination. Light pollution also negatively impacts our health, as different studies around circadian rhyme are demonstrating (a few weeks ago, their discovers won the Nobel Prize in Physiology). Circadian rhyme is the clock of our organism, responsible for regulating our sleep, depending on the light. The Earth’s rotation around itself for 1,5 billion years has made us adapted to the light and darkness cycle of day and night. When at night our eyes are exposed to artificial light (particularly white light), our organism disorientates itself, which has several different effects. Light pollution also represents a big waste of electricity, a burden on the economy. Moreover, our culture has suffered from light pollution and lost a lot of its nocturnal mystery and rites under the moonlight. Human beings are more intuitive without an excess of light, just like other animals. As Junichiro Tanizaki suggests in his essay “In Praise of Shadows”, our society has passed from the “Century of Lights” to the “Century of Blinds”. We live in one of the most polluted areas of Europe. Have a look at the Light Pollution Map, it is astonishing to see how The Netherlands and Belgium seem be on fire. We think we are cosmopolitans, globalised and connected to the digital world, but in reality we are really isolated from the planet and its rhythms. Yesterday, the news were talking about the important essay on 'loss of night’ topic published in the journal Science Advances.

International Dark Sky Association (IDA)


Want to learn more?

To understand a bit more about astro touristic destinations and starry sky windows, you can visit the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) or the Starlight project, which are certificating places with quality labels for the stargazing, such as La Palma in the Canary Islands, Alqueva, in Portugal or De Boschplaat, the first IDA Park in the Netherlands. You can also join many groups and regional associations, such as Lichthinder, about this issue. There are also good news - the Maastricht municipality currently has a project about adapting the streetlights in a sustainable way, to not disturb bats at night. Very close to Maastricht there is also an astronomic observatory. If you are interested in heritage, the stars, and sustainable tourism you can make a first step by visiting it.