story and photos by Sara Swenson
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, goes the old saying. But how often do tourists live up to that ideal? And are even the smallest footprints really so harmless when made by the steps of many visitors? There is so much beauty in the world. How can we enjoy it without destroying it?
I remember when I first heard of the Galápagos. There was a short description of the isolated, scientifically legendary islands in an elementary school textbook of mine, next to a picture of a famed Galápagos tortoise. Experienced only with the painted turtles of my backyard, I remember thinking, “Wow. I want to see one of those.”
Little did I know I would actually get my wish. As an undergraduate, I chose a study abroad program in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands not just because they happened to be a dream destination for me, but also because they are not ordinarily an easy destination to visit. But this limited accessibility—like projects to eradicate introduced and invasive species from the islands—is part of local efforts to conserve this unique place. Tourists at the Galápagos National Park are expected to understand their responsibilities as visitors, such as to stay at least six feet away from wildlife, to take no seeds or fruits to the islands from the mainland, and to take no natural “souvenirs” from the islands upon departure. As we traveled from island to island, we washed our feet every time we came back aboard our boat to avoid bringing even a single grain of sand to a beach where it did not belong.
Learning about responsible tourism measures like these during a trip and sharing this knowledge with people after returning home is one way tourists can have a positive impact on the place they are visiting. I explored responsible tourism further when I went abroad again during my senior year to the Central American country of Belize. I learned firsthand of many ways that tourism can have a negative impact on coral reefs like the Belize Barrier Reef, such as snorkelers standing on or kicking coral, improperly applied or excessive sunscreen washing off into the water, or trash being thrown overboard rather than disposed of back on land. With tourism representing the main use of Belize’s coral reef, my project for the trip was a video incorporating firsthand footage about tourist activities in Belize and their effects on the reef, which can be viewed on our class trip website.
One of the most important lessons I learned in Belize is that it’s not just tourists that can hurt a far-off ecosystem. Every morning I saw trash wash up on the beach (before workers would sweep it away to improve aesthetics), and I couldn’t help but wonder where all these objects came from. Single shoes, toy doll parts, all manner of plastic debris—it didn’t all come from Belizeans (though they were the ones stuck dealing with it.) In fact, who’s to say a piece of garbage you let drop in the Mississippi River today won’t someday reach the shores of Belize? Everything goes somewhere.
Direct damage, pollution, and improper waste disposal are very real problems caused by tourism. But, undertaken responsibly, tourism can also make positive impacts. Fees paid by tourists can provide financial support for conservation. Tourism can also provide a source of income for local people, motivating them to preserve natural resources they had been depleting in order to make a living. Tourism can contribute not only to local awareness and support for conservation but also to global education through visitors—visitors like you and me!
How can we get up close to nature without disturbing it?
Responsible tourism is caring about the future of a place after you are done visiting it. I have been fortunate to travel abroad to unique natural areas and to begin developing a responsible tourist attitude. I invite you to think about a part of the world you are longing to visit. What makes this place special, and what can you do to help it remain special? Share your own adventures (or fantasies) with us in the comments section below! There is so much out there worth seeing and conserving.
Sara C Swenson is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (concentrated in Environmental Education and Communication) and a minor in Spanish. She has studied biology and conservation in the Galápagos Islands and the effects of tourism on coral reef ecosystems in Belize, is well-versed in Minnesota’s Environmental Review process, and has a longstanding interest in environmental policy and communication.