Responsible tourism in Europe

With dozens of entirely new countries, their cultures and their sunshine within a few short hours’ travel from the UK, us Brits have known about the wonders of Europe for some time – perhaps too much. The 1950s and 60s emerged as the ‘heyday’ of package tourism and the beginnings of some intense overdevelopment, particularly along picturesque Mediterranean shores. Travel has become cheaper to Europe from far flung destinations; railway routes have been expanded; and people have been able to embrace their wanderlust more quickly, and more cheaply. As some once-idyllic destinations confront monstrous cruise ships, the scars of ski resorts, the dissolution of traditional culture and the development of faceless ‘resort towns’, it’s easy to question if Europe has, in fact, become a victim of its own success.

However, Europe is a vast continent, with many more hidden corners than we give it credit for. Bears and bison roam freely; minority indigenous languages still echo through the mountains and valleys; and ancient architecture and frescos remain beautifully preserved across cities, towns and hamlets. All we need to do to become responsible tourists in Europe, is to look beyond the obvious and the safe; stop looking for familiar faces, foods and experiences; and begin to really appreciate that the best thing about every European country is that they are, most wonderfully, different, and that each is as valuable as the next – just not always for the same reasons.

People & culture

Masses of overdevelopment

Since the 1950s, international tourism has grown year on year in size, sweeping into every nook and cranny of the globe that it can in a swathe of golf courses, airports, high rise ‘resort towns’ and (largely) ugly hotels, not to mention lots and lots of cash.

There is no question that tourism – understood and utilised properly – is crucial in stimulating economic growth and recovery; however, thanks to the suffocating grip of mass tourism, factors such as overcrowding, overdevelopment and the overuse of land and water resources are destroying the very highlights on which they depend.

The real power, of course, is in the hands of the consumers – many of whom now see cheap travel as a right rather than a privilege. Until now, the mass tourism machine has been fuelled by packaged products, which can be easily substituted by another almost identical one. This commodification of travel – which should be valued as unique – has led to the standardisation of the experiences and accommodation found in many European destinations, further diluting any differences and obliterating the idea of mystery. The result? Many tourists spend a week shuffling between the pool and the all-inclusive buffet bar rarely getting the chance to gaze in wonder at what beauty lies beyond. Their money, too, stays behind that same bar and same pool, rarely making it to the surrounding communities – many of whom, particularly across Southern and Eastern Europe, are in the tight grip of unemployment, recession, and urban migration.
For a sustainable and successful long-term future, the interests of visitors to many European countries and the lives of the locals that live there will be better served by greater thought and careful planning. While the focus remains on large-scale mass tourist monoculture, there are now some positive signs in the growth of interest in expanding models such as agrotourism (or farmstays) and culinary tourism – certainly in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy - which offer far more support for local communities and to the maintenance of rural ways of life.

What you can do
Responsible Travel promotes staying in small-scale, locally-owned and environmentally aware accommodation and using local tour guides. Be careful with natural resources (e.g. don't waste water) and leave as little trace as possible on any landscape you are going through. Generally, we do not promote all-inclusive holidays – find out why here.

The Sámi: image versus reality

Lapland’s Samiland is a place of wild beauty and age-old traditional culture, the preservation of which is a source of continued debate across the region, not just with regard to 'mainstream' Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish society but also within the Sámi community itself. Outwardly, commendable initiatives have been rolled out in recent years such as the Minority Languages Act, which sought to promote Sámi language teaching and wider use in Lapland. However, logical folk have pointed out that the language has already been weakened significantly by the inability of many young Sámi to speak it well, and a lack of Sámi-proficient officials has undermined its widespread administrative use in practice rather than principle.

A spikier issue is how the image of the Sámi community is perceived versus how it actually is. Reindeer herding, for example, is widely assumed to be a key marker of Sámi existence, but only 10 percent of Sámi belong to active reindeer herding collectives (known as sameby), and only 5 percent are believed to actually herd reindeer. Widening the gulf between reality and perception further still, the Swedish government officially allocates many Sámi rights based on the idea that their primary activity is reindeer herding, therefore limiting rights for the many Sámi for whom this is not a key part of their lifestyle.

Though in theory, the region acknowledges Sámi land rights, in practice these are frequently disregarded through encroachment by mining companies, disputes with farmers over grazing pasture for reindeer – and via tourism operations. Anti-Sámi prejudice is also, sadly, a problem among some locals who see the Sámi as 'outsiders' and 'inferior', despite the lauding of Sámi culture as a tourist draw.
What you can do
Check that any tourist activities you take part in with the Sámi benefit as wide a range of the community as possible. Connecting with nature is an important part of Sámi life, so tour guiding is a vital source of income for many.  If you can find ways as a tourist to experience the various Sámi art forms, you’ll learn so much about what they value. Look out for the Duodji label on handicrafts which represent their traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Tune into their music, yoiking being the traditional Sámi form of song, which might be accompanied by the fádnonjurgganas, a 3-5 finger flute, or the rune drum which goes back to ancient shamanic practices. And of course, speak to the Sámi – your guides, the herders you visit – to learn more about the issues they are facing and the intriguing lives they lead.

Laura Greenman, from our supplier, Magnetic North, shares her opinion on cultural Lapland holidays: “When we organise trips or experiences with Sámi people, we have to be really careful that what our travellers are seeing is genuine. Sometimes they might see Sámi in traditional costume for example, but we believe they should only see it if the locals were going to be wearing it anyway; we don’t want people on our trips to experience a ‘show’. We want people to spend time with reindeer herders and see what their day is like and see how they live with their families. These experiences aren’t forced and are in fact very personal and we find that people get so much more out of that than being shunted around a set-up situation.”

Cruise control

Still relatively new to tourism, Croatia successfully eschewed the ‘develop or die’ approach to tourism as witnessed in some other European holiday hangouts such as Bulgaria. One form of development they need to keep an eye on, however, is the cruise industry, which may not be polluting the coastline with concrete, but is polluting it with messy mass tourism and fuel.

Most people’s vision of Croatia involves sailing – circumnavigating its beautiful islands on a smallish, stylish boat, while the wind wafts through their hair (a la Duran Duran in the ‘Rio’ video). However, just like neighbouring Venice, Croatia also hosts a number of cruise ships, giant floating hotels that can unload up to three times a day seeing as many as 10,000 passengers spill onto the streets like a tidal wave.
Although port authorities have carried out sustainability reports and limited the average number of cruise ship passengers to 8,000, in peak season numbers are allowed to far exceed this, which should spell good news for local business. The reality is though that passengers pour out after breakfast and go back at 3pm, stopping only for the odd cup of coffee and a mooch for souvenirs; as a result, many local cafes have become virtual fast food outlets, and craft shops are selling junk, losing not only local culture but also their cash.

Wiping out cruise ship tourism isn’t feasible as it means big business, but many travellers, Croatian locals and land based tourists alike, want to curb it. Though there is no doubt that those who enjoy a cruise holiday want to embrace the local culture and discover Croatia’s history too, the country needs them to leave an economic footprint, not just one made by overcrowding.

What you can do?
If you think the Ministry of Tourism should have a rethink on the number of cruise ships passengers pounding Croatia’s pavements you can contact them on their website and voice your opinion. We’d also advise you take a look at the other fantastic Croatia holiday options available to travellers besides cruising.

Wildlife & environment


A 2013 report from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) exposed the fact that all of Italy's dolphinaria keep dolphins in captive and cramped conditions that violate both national and European laws – specifically, the European Zoos Directive (1999/22/EC) and Italy’s Ministerial Decree No.469, both of which aim to protect whales and dolphins in captivity. Only two of the dolphinaria even have a license – the others are technically illegal, as well as morally abhorrent.

Likewise, Portugal has 'sealife centres' with captive dolphins and other ocean-living animals, notably the Algarve's Zoomarine; and both Spain and France also have a number of questionable sealife facilities. Some facilities even contain captive orcas – huge marine mammals which are forced to perform for tourists’ pleasure.

Whatever the publicity says about the amount of space, dolphins and orcas are highly intelligent mammals that belong ranging far, wide, and crucially, free, in the ocean, engaging with other dolphins and sea life. In our opinion, they require this for their emotional and social peace of mind much more than they need to get up close to a human being – however happy – in a shallow artificial 'lagoon'.

Here at RT, we strongly believe such dolphinaria are wrong, as do animal protection organisations such as the Born Free Foundation, who have advised the EU to begin legal proceedings against a number of European governmental bodies.

What you can do?
Go and see dolphins and whales in their natural environment; the Azores is one of the best places in Europe – if not the world – to see dolphins as well as numerous whale species, and there are several responsible holiday companies who organise tours accompanied by marine biologists and researchers. These are triply good: they inform tourists, make the change of sightings more likely, and keep the cetaceans happy, too.

Do not give your business to dolphinaria – no matter how happy the dolphins may seem – and try to dissuade others from going too.

Support organisations trying to improve the welfare of dolphins both in the wild and captivity, such as WDC and the Born Free Foundation.
 And if you love dolphins, consider holidays that involve responsible engagement with these fascinating sea creatures. Check out our guide to responsible dolphin watching here for tips on where and when you can see the fascinating creatures in their natural environment.

Mountain & walking pollution: leave no trace

Leave No Trace is the world’s leading authority responsible for training and educating guides, walking groups, and children on how to protect the great outdoors and leave the wonderful landscapes available for us to explore exactly how we found them.

So much of it may seem obvious, but there are still too many people who leave rubbish behind - some downright stupid, like disposable barbecues, drinks bottles and even pop up tents; some that perhaps we don’t realise is detrimental to the environment, or at least take a long time to biodegrade, like banana skins, cigarette butts and chewing gum. Another tough message, and one that is hard for kids especially, is to not pick wildflowers. Because Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it.
Let’s not beat about the bush, the waste issue also relates to human waste. If you’re climbing a mountain, or trekking a long route, bring bags with you, and scoop your poop. The two highest toilets in Europe are to be found on Mont Blanc. They are serviced by helicopter in order to deal with the amount of human waste, which spreads down the mountain, calling it a ‘Mont Noir’ when the snow melts. Eugh.

What you can do
Here are some top tips from Leave No Trace:

    Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. If you are wild camping, pitch at least 60m from lakes and streams. Deposit solid human waste 15-20cm deep, at least 60m from water, camps and trails. Cover and disguise the hole when finished. When washing dishes, or yourself, carry water 60m away from streams or lakes and use biodegradable soap. Respect all rules about fires. Most national parks do not allow them, for example. But in wilder areas, construct only small ones within a carefully constructed fire ring. Use only small sticks and put them out completely, scattering the cool ashes. Leave no trace applies to fires too.

Rewilding: positive wildlife steps in Eastern Europe

For years, bears in Romania have been trophy hunted, forced to dance in the streets and trapped in cages outside restaurants. But, times they are a-changing, and many bears have now being rescued and brought to Libearty near Brasov, Romania's largest bear sanctuary. It was founded by Cristina Lapis, who was spurred to action in 1998 after seeing three bears in a small cage outside a restaurant in central Romania where they were used to attract customers.

In 2007 Romania joined the European Union and that brought new laws including the EU Zoo Directive – which meant all zoos in Romania had to come up to a certain standard of animal management. Many zoos could not comply and the bears in these zoos faced euthanasia – but were saved by being re-homed in the bear sanctuary.

In addition, Poland has also played a significant role in the preservation of wild animals in Eastern Europe – an area of the world that not many people presume is particularly wild. In 1921, wild European bison became extinct there, and would vanish entirely across the continent some six years later. Thankfully though, around 50 European bison remained in captivity during this time. A breeding programme was undertaken, and some 30 years after wild bison disappeared from Poland they were reintroduced.

The reintroduction, or ‘rewilding’, of animals into their natural habitat is still seen as something of a novel concept, and back in the 1950s it must have been really forward thinking. It's thanks to these early pioneers that the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bialowieza Forest now has over 800 wild European bison roaming free amongst one of the continent's largest and last remaining old growth environments.

What you can do

Take a Libearty tour or make a donation at the Sanctuary website. For even closer involvement, volunteer to work with the bears through Responsible Travel.

Responsible tourism tips

Water is scarce throughout parts of Europe, especially on the islands and sun-scorched south. Be respectful of the people who have to endure the threat of drought year-round and use water sparingly. Wild fires are a risk throughout the long, hot summer months in forested and countryside areas. Be extremely careful when driving, do not discard cigarette butts and never leave glass bottles lying around, as they can spark a fire in dry vegetation. In some regions of Spain for example, starting a forest fire – even if it is an accident – is treated as a criminal offence. Eat local! This is surprisingly easy to do. Weekly markets are a great place for self-catering travellers to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, and coastal areas will benefit from daily fish. If you’re not planning on cooking, you can still prepare your own picnics with bread, cheese, fruit, olives… Spain has some enormous agriculture projects – but many rural areas are still filled with small-scale producers, growing largely organic rice, olives, fruit, grapes and oranges, for example. Some of these make lovely gifts, including olive oil, wine, and little canvas bags of paella rice – all counted in food metres rather than miles. Bullfighting is still a popular attraction across much of Spain, particularly in Andalucia and Madrid. Northern Spain prefers bull runs, with the most famous – San Fermin – taking place in Pamplona. Catalonia has recently banned bullfighting, but bull running still takes place. At Responsible Travel, we don’t support the idea of killing animals for sport – and anyone taking part in the bull runs is also putting themselves at risk of injury or worse. It is, undeniably, a huge part of Spain’s culture and national identity – but if you want to know more, we’d recommend reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 account of San Fermin in The Sun Also Rises. Waste disposal is an issue everywhere, but multiply that by ten when it comes to islands anywhere in Europe. It is costly and tricky for businesses to get rid of rubbish here, so don't arrive with lots of packaging, water bottles and so on. A bit of creative packing will not... go to waste. There are now police at certain stages of France’s Mont Blanc ascent, due to irresponsible and ill-prepared climbing practices on some people’s parts. This is always a divisive issue – how much do we police the mountains in order to stop the one or two idiots? When actually, the mountains should be about freedom and tranquility, not over-regulation. The fact is that if every climber, hiker and mountaineer acted responsibility, there wouldn’t be such a need for reigning in. Wild camping is not permitted at high altitude anywhere in France, and sleeping is only allowed in the mountain refuges, so it’s safer to stay put. You aren’t allowed to build fires either. It is very important to stay on the allocated paths up in the mountains unless your guide says otherwise, and this applies particularly to mountain bikers, who are increasingly guilty of going off-the-beaten-track’s beaten track. It is a growing tourism sector, and so it is very important that you check if you are on a pathway where mountain bikes are allowed in the first place, and then to stick to the path and not go like a bat out of hell through untrampled nature. Greece’s Ionian Islands are key breeding sites for the Mediterranean's endangered loggerhead turtle, and designated nesting beaches on islands like Zakynthos are off limit between dusk and dawn when the turtles come ashore to lay eggs. Nesting season is June to early August, with hatchlings emerging two months later – all events that coincide closely with peak holiday season. Also avoid taking boating trips in the Bay of Laganas because of the risk of collision with swimming turtles. On any Ionian beach, avoid using beach umbrellas on dry sand areas as you run the risk of piercing buried eggs – and flatten any sandcastles which could act as obstacles for nesting turtles. You can get further information from Archelon – the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. Do all you can to support rural communities and traditions. Rural areas in many Europeam countries have suffered for years – even more with recent austerity – due to migration from rural areas to cities because of lack of local opportunities to earn a living. Community-based tourism based on using accommodation, tours, restaurants and food from local producers can play a key role in providing money and opportunities to help locals – especially young people – believe they and their communities have a future where they are, thus helping maintain rural life and traditions.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: ZM_Photo] [Masses of overdevelopment : Gary Bembridge] [The Sámi: image versus reality: MicheleVacchiano] [Cruise control: Dennis Jarvis] [Mountain & walking pollution: leave no trace: felix_w]