We all enjoy traveling; experiencing new food, culture, and adventure. However, there are two sides to every coin. Carbon emissions caused by flights, the strain on infrastructure in trending towns, and inhumane wildlife tourism are just a few of the negative aspects of travel.
Despite the harm we're creating, we persist with our bad habits.
If we want to continue experiencing the luxury of travel, we need to acknowledge the issues we've created and take constructive steps to see an improvement for the environment, our experience as travelers, and for the residents of tourist destinations.
Clearly we expected to be the only visitors
According to Booking .com's 2019 Sustainable Travel Report, 55% of worldwide jet setters had stated they're now more determined to make greener choices than when they were asked the previous year.
The biggest obstacle holding them back? Lack of options and knowledge.
37% of jet setters do not know how to make their vacation more sustainable, and 34% say sustainable destinations appeal to them less than other destinations.
What does this mean and what can be done?
Encouragingly this means there is a demand for accessible, eco-friendly options for travelers. It also means trending locations need to take action now, as the crowds will inevitably come.
The amount of people traveling internationally has risen from 1.3 billion in 2017 to 1.4 billion in 2018, an increase of 6%; a number initially predicted to be reached in 2020. With airfares and accommodation options becoming more affordable than ever before, this number will only rise in the coming years.
As a city that is growing in popularity, South Lake Tahoe is the perfect case study. South Lake Tahoe has been on my list to visit ever since I saw an iconic photo that went viral. Just like most others that also saw the same picture, I knew that one day I just had to get there.
One billion people are using Instagram every single month, which creates concern for the communities such as South Lake Tahoe who experience an unexpected influx of tourists after a viral post.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
The three factors that define sustainable tourism are economics, social, and environmental.
The environment is the first thing that comes to mind when most of us think about sustainability. It's the obvious one. When it comes to travel, this element covers not only natural habitats but also the preservation of historical buildings and ruins.
It also covers issues such as waste from packaging, the use, and renewal of water supplies, the air quality, and effects of food production.
When a destination becomes "discovered" and starts making travelers bucket lists, there are social and cultural impacts on residents as a result. Growth of tourism can have both a positive and negative effect on the community.
The positive is the social and cultural exchange - sharing new ideas and creating connections. However, there are also undesirable effects such as congestion on roadways, rental increases, and a potential rise in crime rates.
One we don't often consider as a visitor, but to the community, this is a critical element in the balance. The objective of economic sustainability is to keep money local. When visitor dollars are spent at foreign-owned businesses - such as large hotel chains or fast food restaurants – the local economy suffers, and so do the funds required to keep up with necessary infrastructure and amenities.
A balance between all three of these elements is essential to achieve tourism sustainability.
How Destinations Can Adapt to Sustainable Tourism
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Annual Tourism Forum in South Lake Tahoe. This year's theme was Responsible Tourism. The forum was an opportunity for the Chamber of Commerce and local business' to come together and discuss both the mutual and individual issues they're facing, all which affect South Lake Tahoe and its surrounds.
Only ever viewing the tourism industry as a traveler, many of the concerns they discussed were not ones that had crossed my mind. To keep the area thriving and healthy for us to return to in the future, we need to understand the challenges local businesses and residents are facing in these popular areas.
It's commendable that South Lake Tahoe is taking this topic seriously and being proactive in their decisions to keeping Tahoe blue. The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority is one of five U.S. mountain districts stepping up their conservation efforts by introducing the stewardship program 'Pledge for the Wild.' This initiative allows locals and visitors to easily support the environment they love and recreationally use, keeping it preserved for future generations.
Outdoor enthusiasts are reached through marketing efforts in hotels, bars, restaurants, and rental agencies and are encouraged to donate $1 per hour of recreation, which will be used to support the Tahoe Fund's new Environmental Venture Trust.
Read more about the project at www.pledgewild.com.
There are a few other challenges South Lake Tahoe are currently experiencing, and have worked to find a solution for each:
The Challenge: Garbage at South Lake Tahoe
In 2018, a shocking image spread across social media after the 4th July holiday. This image was of the beach at Lake Tahoe covered in single-use plastics and other garbage. It took nearly 500 volunteers to clean up the 1458 pounds of waste including over 8,000 cigarette butts. Independence Day was created to celebrate the United States, yet this valuable natural resource was trashed.
Photo Credit: Keep Tahoe Blue
Another issue that was discussed at the forum was that hikers are leaving their (un-recyclable and un-biodegradable) coffee cups hidden behind trees, either anticipating to collect them on their return trip and forgetting or hoping no one will see and they will just "go away."
The Solution: Attention-grabbing signage
The council realized that no one was noticing the garbage bins along the beaches and hiking trails. The U.S. Forest Service signs and dark brown bins blended into the background.
Take Care Tahoe worked with a collection of comedians to create new, relatable, and eye-catching signs. The Forest Service was hesitant, saying none of the signs fit in with their guidelines. Take Care Tahoe emphasized that was the point.
Since the launch of the signs, the local area has seen a reduced amount of littering, and increased use of the garbage bins.
Image Credit: Take Care Tahoe
The Challenge: Congestion on the roads
If you've ever been to South Lake Tahoe, you'll know the majority of the traffic drives along Highway 50. The double-lane highway runs directly through town. In summer and winter peak seasons the traffic is unpleasant for both locals and vacationers, also reducing the city's air quality.
The Solution: Alternative transportation options
South Lake Tahoe has implemented multiple transportation options for you to leave your car parked during your stay, or even leave it at home altogether.
Transportation options to reach South Lake Tahoe are:
- A bus connecting the area with Carson City and the Carson Valley
- The South Tahoe Airporter – a shuttle service to and from Reno/Tahoe International Airport
- Yellow Cabs
Once you're in South Lake Tahoe:
- A public bus runs through town. You'll also find public buses with multiple routes along the beaches and through the woods.
- Other options are the Lime electric scooters for hire and local companies renting out bicycles. These are both perfectly paired with the bike paths and trails.
- If you do bring your vehicle and need to park, paid parking helps generate revenue which contributes to police and fire departments, as well as street maintenance and snow removal in winter.
- During the winter months, there are free Winter Ski Shuttles to both Heavenly and Sierra at Tahoe.
Photo Credit: @tahoesouth on Instagram
The Challenge: Wasteful accommodation
According to cleantheworld.org, "More than 2 million bars of partially used hotel soap are thrown away every day in the United States." That one fact is small on the scale of environmental impacts hotels have on our planet, yet it's huge.
The Solution: Eco-friendly accommodation
Hotels such as Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel are doing their part to be green by dedicating themselves to keeping Lake Tahoe and its surrounds pristine. The hotel understands the mountain and lake are the main attractions of this city and are why they're in business.
Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel makes an effort to consult with conservational and energy-efficiency experts regularly to continuously improve their efforts. This is why they're leading the way for eco-friendly hotels and other businesses in South Lake Tahoe.
Photo Credit: @tahoeresort on Instagram
What can you do as a traveler?
Before selecting where you'll visit on your next vacation, take a moment to research if they have systems in place for sustainability. Look into the options for transportation, environmentally-friendly lodging, and local dining options before you decide, as well as if there are eco-activities.
Yes it is more effort, and you may need to spend a few extra dollars, but you can help the region retain its economic balance and keep your dollars local, ensuring this will be an authentically maintained and well-managed area which you can return to in the future.
Take Care Tahoe has an incredible website which I encourage you to visit. It has a range of activities which you can sort by date and location to see what you may be interested in during your stay. Activities range from "clean up the lake" days to group wildflower hikes with opportunities to learn about the natural surroundings.
I believe South Lake Tahoe will set an excellent example for many cities in the United States. I hope to see other trending destinations follow suit when tackling the same issues. Visit www.tahoesouth.com for more about what's happening in South Lake Tahoe.