By the time Christina Chi’s flight landed on Santorini, few tourists remained. She and her family planned their trip to the Greek island for late December, long past the peak season at one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.
Swimming in the Aegean Sea was out; it was too chilly. But Chi and her family had the island’s black sand beaches almost to themselves. They took leisurely visits to the island’s archaeological sites, museums, and restaurants, and Chi snapped photos of Santorini’s famous sunsets without the crush of standing elbow to elbow with other tourists.
Chi, a professor at Washington State University’s School of Hospitality Business Management, researches sustainability in the tourism industry. Growing global affluence means more people are traveling, both domestically and internationally.
Exploring new places through frequent travel contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being, according to research from WSU’s hospitality school, part of the Carson College of Business. Tourism can also enhance host communities, Chi says. Besides jobs and economic development, tourists give communities financial incentives to preserve their natural landscapes, heritage sites, and cultural traditions such as local cuisine, language, music, and art.
“Without the interest from tourists, some of those culinary or artistic traditions would be dying or extinct,” she says.
But when a destination like Santorini gains international acclaim, the tide of tourists can be overwhelming.
“It’s a small island,” Chi says. “If everyone is crowded onto the same beach trying to capture the same sunset photo, the experience is diminished, and you risk damaging the resource.”
At another Mediterranean hot spot, Sardinia’s Spiaggia Rosa beach closed permanently after tourists started collecting the pink sand. Closer to home, poppy fields in Southern California’s Walker Canyon closed this spring amid predictions of a “super bloom.” Local officials wanted to prevent a repeat of 2019, when hundreds of thousands of visitors descended on the area to view the wildflowers.
Despite inflation, travel industry officials are predicting a strong year for domestic and international travel. Many people postponed their trips during the pandemic. They’re acting on pent-up demand for new sights and experiences.
Chi understands the allure of distant places. Her favorite tourism quote comes from a Hans Christian Andersen poem, “To travel is to live.” With advance planning, she says tourists can make the most of their trip and travel with a lighter footprint.
Besides visiting popular destinations during the off-season, Chi is a proponent of the “slow travel” movement, which urges tourists to pare down itineraries, savor their surroundings, and interact with local residents.
“Slow travel fits my personal style. I usually travel to one destination at a time, so I really get to try the different foods and experience the area’s traditions,” Chi says. “Only by spending time in another place can you really learn about its people and culture.”
However people choose to travel, Chi encourages them to think about sustainability. Her work focuses on environmental stewardship, respect for the host community’s culture and values, and fair distribution of profits.
While tourism is often considered a nonpolluting industry, “it’s highly carbon intensive,” Chi says. That’s an industry dilemma. Tourism both contributes to global warming and is harmed by its adverse effects, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and flooding of historic and cultural sites.
By 2030, carbon emissions from tourism are projected to increase by 25 percent from 2016 levels, according to the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization. The recent UN Glasgow Declaration calls for urgent action from the tourism industry to decrease emissions.
Reducing fossil fuels in travel—particularly air travel—has grabbed much of the attention. But hotels also are significant carbon emitters, and many properties already are making efforts to curb their emissions. Chi recommends booking at green-certified hotels, which pledge to reduce water and energy use. Some properties also have commitments for limiting plastic waste. Green certifications should include third-party audits for accountability.
For developed countries, sustainable tourism is often about protecting the environment, Chi says. But in emerging economies, leaders also focus on tourism’s potential to reduce poverty through job creation.
“Mass tourism can have very negative effects because there are few benefits to locals,” she says. “Think about an island that attracts thousands of cruise ships, but those tourists don’t stay overnight or eat there.”
But when travelers spend money at local establishments, their dollars turn over in the local economy. Visiting less-popular destinations—another “slow travel” recommendation—spreads the influx of tourism revenue over a larger geographic area.
Some tour operators also steer clients toward women-owned businesses. Instead of a trip planned around a destination’s scenery or cultural heritage, it can focus on equity and social impact, Chi says.
After a vacation, Chi encourages people to talk about their travels and the choices they made. Perhaps a local restaurant recommendation led to a memorable evening and deeper cultural understanding. Or maybe they ditched the rental car and took public transportation.
“People sometimes overlook the power of their individual choices, but when they multiply, they become a movement,” Chi says. “Change is driven by customers. When we start to ask for sustainable options, the tourism industry responds.”