For the last seven years, I have been an outdoor guide: three years of working on guest ranches in Wyoming and Colorado, and four as a Trip Leader for Backroads. For me, working with my hands, outdoors and with people is what truly brings me to life. And you can throw travel in there as well. Finding a connection with someone from a completely different culture, who perhaps speaks a different language, is an experience so gratifying that I have forever pledged my allegiance to the strong and ever-growing global community of wanderlust junkies. This is why it pleases me deeply that the United Nations has declared this year--2017--as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, tourism makes up 10% of the world's GDP, contributes to one in every eleven jobs globally, and is expected to rise to 1.8 billion international tourists by 2030. Tourism undoubtedly can put a strain on local environments and peoples--irregular use and overuse of resources put stress on infrastructure and natural eco-systems, culturally insensitive tours can lead to the exploitation of peoples or communities. However, tourism also has the immense potential to provide jobs and upward mobility to millions, and to provide funds for preservation efforts when handled responsibly. Hence, this International Year of Sustainable Tourism is a call to action--for tour agencies, and just as importantly, for us as individuals.
As an active travel company, Backroads has been promoting self-propelled travel since its inception in 1979. While we undoubtedly have an eco-footprint of our own, our ability to take thousands of guests out of individual cars or tour buses and put them on bikes or trails each year is pretty exciting. Exposing people to the power of nature and the outdoors is an important first step. We are also part of initiatives that make small but meaningful impacts. We partner with local foodbanks and charities to donate our leftover food from trips, we've switched from paper directions to GPS devices, and we encourage our office employees to walk, bike or carpool to work with incentive programs. However, we can do better. I can do better.
During my time in the field I have experienced both the highs and lows of touring foreign countries--from seeing a field of sunflowers basking in the final rays of Provençal sun to walking past intense hawkers and trash cans overflowing with Styrofoam food containers at Angkor Wat. We as tourists must pay attention to the impact that we have while out exploring the world. It might feel like a small act at the time, but when you add up the 1.8 billion of us tourists, we make a dent.
So how can we be more responsible tourists? Here are a few simple steps:
1. Bring your own water bottle wherever you travel, even to places where you can't drink the tap water. Did you know that in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat, tourists and locals go through 4.6 million water bottles each month? 4.6 million! Fill up on filtered water from your hotel or restaurant or buy big jugs of water to fill your personal bottle.
2. Buy local, eat local. Spend your money where it goes directly to the person who made the goods or provided the service. Eat at local cafés instead of big chains. And when you can, skip the plastic bag or container.
3. Do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions. Choose low-impact tours, visit culturally sensitive sites and travel with responsible tour companies.
The most powerful aspect of travel is its ability to introduce us to worlds unknown, educating us on their importance. This year, let's ask ourselves how we can be responsible travelers - environmentally, socially and economically. We know that change starts with the individual. Let's start now.
 United Nations World Tourism Organization. www.tourism4development2017.org/why-tourism
 For some examples go to: www.coha.org/cubas-tourism-the-embargo-and-the-environment; epicureandculture.com/thailand-long-neck-women
 Plastic Free Cambodia. plasticfreecambodia.com