Travel, Lite

Jerry Russell Illustration

The United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism to promote this fast-growing segment of the $3.5 trillion travel industry partly because of the great potential it has for helping the world’s economically depressed areas. The UN also hopes the industry will take stock of how well it is doing so far in this regard—and wants to help it achieve its other desired goal of promoting ecological sustainability.

Just as many other industries have been assessing their environmental impact over the last decade, the entire travel industry needs to find ways to "green up" in the face of growing concerns about biodiversity loss, pollution and growing human population. The burden is on both travel providers and tourists to ensure that travel treads lightly on the environment and contributes positively to the well being of destination countries.

The events of September 11, 2001 devastated an industry already reeling from the economic downturn. But travel is beginning to rebound, and while reassessments are already taking place to ensure the safety of travelers, it would seem to be a good time for tour companies, travel agents and hospitality providers to evaluate both the environmental and economic impacts of their industry as well.

As a full-fledged flying phobe, I’m hardly the consummate traveler myself. But I did take a couple of trips off the mainland in recent years—both, as it turns out, quite relevant to the topic at hand.

Puerto Rico is home to the Caribbean National Forest (known locally as "El Junque"), the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. forest system. This "shining star of the Caribbean" welcomes visitors to a wealth of five-star hotels and casinos, built along the island’s most valuable tracts of beachfront real estate. But far fewer of the tourist dollars flow to the local people (save for low-paying jobs making up beds) than to the moneyed interests that run the show. During our week’s stay we made it to El Junque and also snorkeled the island’s beautiful reefs, but it was hard to enjoy the experience in the midst of such sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I attended the 1992 Global Forum, a gathering of the international environmental community in conjunction with the Earth Summit taking place nearby. While in Rio, I saw the famous Ipanema Beach and beautiful ocean. I also saw the "favelas," Rio’s ghetto and home to some of the worst poverty on the planet. Prior to our arrival, police swept the city to remove from view the many who migrate from the favelas each day to beg in the streets. A year later, in the same spirit, military policemen gunned down eight sleeping street children in front of the Candelãria Cathedral in Rio’s financial center.

What good is "seeing the world" if we view it only as our playground while remaining willfully ignorant of the impacts of our footprint, or the flow of the travel dollar? Thus our coverage this issue is not just an assessment of the budding eco-tourism business, but an appeal to everyone to choose travel that is ecologically sound and economically fair. It is also an appeal to travel providers to "green up" operations so that "travel" doesn’t have to mean "trample."