Activism, Social Justice

Understanding Tourism’s Impact on the Environment at the UN Oceans Conference

Editor’s Note: In an ongoing effort to feature writers from marginalized communities and underrepresented issues of importance in the world of travel, this guest post from Aireona B. Raschke of Nightborn Travel brings to light her experiences working in environmental tourism. 

White sands, blue, lapping waves, and the warm, inviting air of the coast. The beach is a place that most people envision when they think of vacation. Whether or not we prefer the crisp air of a high altitude trek, or the gentle, worry-free hum of a cruise, the coast is the quintessential symbol of travel and the ocean has long been humankind’s best way of traversing the world. While tourism now has opened up more destinations than ever before, oceans still play a central role in this massive industry of exploration.

As you may know, however, the oceans are also some of the most threatened environments on our planet. We have over fished, let our plastic form islands swirling in the sea, killed our corals with pollution and changing climates. The list goes on, and from the perspective of a scientist and world traveler, it is not a heartening topic.

However, this past week (June 5-9, 2017), the United Nations met at the UN Headquarters in New York City for the UN Oceans Conference to build a plan for reaching the UN Sustainability Goal #14- “Life Below Water.” While a quick glance at these goals should tell you that none of them are easy to attain, protecting the oceans is one of the hardest, due to the fact that most of our oceans are outside of any one nation’s jurisdiction. This means that international agreements and cooperation are necessary, and this conference laid the groundwork for these partnerships.

Endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle cruises in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii

For those with the luck to attend the entire event, there were scientists, political figures, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations, e.g. Tourism Watch, Ocean Blue) speaking on a variety of ocean-related issues. Science and national boundaries often hinder the passage of ideas on an international scale, so the conversations were extremely valuable to all in attendance, but there were also more tangible achievements here as well.

The UN News Center reported the following: “The first-ever United Nations summit on oceans today wrapped up with a global agreement to reverse the decline of the ocean’s health, and more than 1,300 pledged actions for protecting the blue.”

One of these actions was announced by UN on June 12 as the Blue BioTrade Initiative. BioTrade  is the use of “native biodiversity” or things derived from nature (goods like fish and services like moderation of Earth’s climate) in our economic systems, but with a careful emphasis on conservation of those resources. The three pillars of BioTrade as it has been used on land are (1) conservation, (2) sustainable use, and (3) sharing of benefits. This new initiative focuses on fisheries, cosmetics/pharmaceuticals, and eco-tourism.

As a PhD student, eco-tourism is both my passion and my profession, and I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present some of my research on the subject at the conference. You can read more about my research and ecotourism on my blog Night Born Travel if you are interested, but my take home message, in connection to tourism, is that the health of the ocean is as much the responsibility of travelers as it is local people. Those who travel should always make it our priority to care for the destinations we visit, even above our own experience.

The overall message of the UN Oceans Conference was much the same. We love our oceans, for more reasons than any of us can count, and it is up to everyone to protect them. On an international scale, this event illustrated the power of coming together as an international community to face hard challenges. On an individual level, it highlighted the importance of being a responsible traveler on our days off, and a responsible consumer day to day.

If you’d like to know what you can do to help protect the oceans, check out these great resources:

7 Ways to Reduce Ocean Plastic Pollution Today

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch

Rainforest Alliance Green Vacation

Ecolabel Index for Tourism

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