Navigating Sun, Sand and Sustainability

By Na’imah Saffiya

August 2022

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

I was on my way home, devouring another episode of my beloved ‘Getting Curious with JVN’ on a 250 bus from Streatham, totally engrossed by the young guest speaker, Dr Jessica Hernandez. The guest came on the show as an expert on indigenous science which is a totally separate – totally fascinating – conversation of its own when the topic of sustainable travel and the devastating social-environmental impact of tourism caught my attention.

All I knew before this podcast was something embarrassingly vague about carbon whatchamacallits being a source of air pollution and lazy, obnoxious travelers frequently dumping tons of litter annually during trips abroad. I always pictured this like a shameful little Hansel and Gretel trail of hyperconsumption. But as highlighted by the guest speaker, I realised in that moment that I never truly considered the complex human impact on communities of colour whose home happens to also be popular commercial holiday destinations. What had the pandemic done to their local economy in the short term, but also what was happening in the long term as a result of tourism? Admittedly, I was immediately overcome with a sense of guilt, “Damn! We literally ruin everything…hot girls just want to traipse mysteriously across Kaui.” Yet the reality is seemingly not as harmless.

My desire to venture to Pacifica and islands in the Caribbean felt immediately morally questionable as taking for granted the ecological impact of a typical holiday to these regions felt misaligned with my concern for justice, particularly regarding people of colour. Two of the talking points that really stuck with me were the environmental destruction as well as the cultural alienation suffered by host communities. Dr Hernandez raised the point that often indigenous communities experience commercial development of their local community that is not in any shape or form designed for their benefit but for tourist’s consumption. Host communities almost always lose their stake in the transformation of their homelands, they aren’t consulted, respected or properly compensated. As I continued to listen to the podcast, my wanderlust wilted and my heart swole up tight thinking “Who wants to be a part of that?”

In the same vein, I personally don’t find that guilt makes for great motivation to change, it can be like a self-pity soup. So I decided then and there to begin understanding what I can do to help sustainable travel become normalised and feel more accessible to people like me and my friends. What’s good to know is that there are many people who want to teach and even enjoy teaching. These people are dedicated to educating travelers as a way of protecting their communities and homes – it’s a matter of survival. It’s quite natural that until something or someone becomes visible to you, you aren’t inclined to give a thought to issues that don’t feel proximate – they may simply not be on your radar, which is why exposure to all different kinds of people is so positive and important. I was so used to associating holidays with escapism and tourism that I disregarded that some of the most vulnerable islands are struggling to break this popular image as an ‘untouched paradise’ waiting to be ‘discovered’. The truth is, host communities are an untapped resource for knowledge and actionable steps towards safer travel and it’s my hope that we start to listen.

You can find more of Na’imah’s work here and here.