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Being a responsible traveller can save our planet

Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay with lush emerald and turquoise waters used to be a quiet cove with thousands of limestone islands of numerous shapes and sizes rising out of the sea. Today, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it witnesses nearly 7 million tourists every year and is constantly buzzing with ships each day. In the Philippines, the tiny island paradise of Boracay, is overrun by 2 million visitors every year, many of them from cruise ships. Similarly, Thailand’s magical Maya Bay, was tucked away in the island country beaming with marine life, until it shot to fame as an exotic island through Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach in the year 2000.
 
What’s common among all these places is that amount of human waste dumped into the waters, along with the trash. While Boracay island and Maya Bay have been forced to close for tourism, they also point to a dangerous trend of unsustainable travel. The severe damage is attributed to boat anchors and snorkelers wearing sunscreen which contains a common chemical that is toxic to juvenile corals. 
 
The rise of millions of new middle-class travellers and the mushrooming number of tourists is putting pressure on these natural landscapes. It has also created a misconception about travel and luxury. The problem of over-tourism is acute in Southeast Asia which is home to beaches, tropical forests, and far-flung islands. Most of these countries depend on foreign tourism to drive their economies which had led to exploitation and degradation of these natural wonders. 
 
According to author and travel blogger at Inditales, Anuradha Goyal, there’s a lot of mindless travelling happening. “Peer pressure due to its brag value has led to this sort of travel trend which is creating a huge carbon footprint on the environment. Travel is not resort or hotel-hopping. People need to become conscious of what they are doing while they travel,” she says, adding that the amount of trash she sees now has spiked manifoldly, compared to her travel experience from 20 years ago. 
 
Some popular destinations across the world that see a huge tourist traffic are now implementing new laws to moderate the impact of tourism on environment and conserve these nature’s best assets. For instance: The Peru government has implemented new restrictions for those travelling to Machu Pichhu, a jaw-dropping wonder. The entry is restricted to 2,500 visitors per day and allowing just two entry groups (at morning and afternoon) through one-way circuit. The Dutch government is going to stop promoting tourism to Amsterdam as it is straining to contend with the 19 million visitors it receives a year.
 
To preserve the world’s largest cave system, the Son Doong Caves in Vietnam, the government has permitted only one adventure tours group, Oxalis, for cave expeditions which have limited tours. Similarly, officials in Bali are mulling a $10 tax on international tourists flying through the island’s airport, which would be used to fund programs to preserve Bali’s culture and environment, with a focus on tackling its waste management problem. In India too, the threat of mass tourism is choking some of Goa’s best beaches, heritage sites and hills stations in the North and North-east. 
 
Shivya Nath, a popular travel blogger who wrote the book Shooting Stars, says, not travelling is not the answer. “We need to think beyond ‘Instagram travel’ and travel meaningfully. That means ditching Instagram hotspots for destinations that feed our soul. We need to stop travelling to tick places off a checklist, and travel for the sheer joy of experiencing a new culture, slowing down amidst pristine natural beauty and letting the road change our perspective on life. She writes on her blog about how visiting Spiti Valley, nestled in the Himalayas, six years after her first visit shocked her. 
 
“I nearly cried when the shared taxi deposited us in Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti. The town that I remembered with only a couple of shops and guesthouses, a handful of travellers, and nothing but the barren mountains all around, has changed beyond recognition, taken over by chaotic concrete construction and shops and tourists,” she mentions, adding that there is a dire need to create awareness among travellers to switch to eco-friendly alternatives and be responsible by discouraging plastic use.
 
Sustainable travel could be an alternative but with a few riders, says Anuradha Goyal. “While a part of sustainable travel is plain ‘greenwashing,’ people should realise that they don’t have to consume more than they need. Instead of choosing hotels or resorts, you could find eco-hotels or accommodations like AirBnb homes and choose to walk, cycle or use the public transport” she adds. 
 
Opting for adventurous land journeys over air travel. Adopting a plant-based diet over meat and dairy, which use far more land, water and energy, and have a much higher carbon footprint. Saying no to single-use plastic, including plastic bottled water, plastic bags, plastic straws etc.
 
While travel seems to excite us and offers us a great learning experience, it also requires a mindset change to be a responsible traveller. Experts suggest that people need not leave their physical evidence wherever they go - like carving names on walls or trees or littering a place! 
 
Small acts such as leaving non-recyclable packaging at home, eliminating animal rides (where animals are ill-treated) and supporting sustainable tourism groups could help conserve the the beauty of tourist destinations. “Travelling with companies that have a strong responsible tourism policy and channel money back to the local community,” concludes Shivya.

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