International Mountain Day 2021: Sustainable Mountain Tourism
About International Mountain Day
Happy International Mountain Day from SheFly! International Mountain Day is a holiday designated by the UN to celebrate mountain communities and we are excited to celebrate this year. This year’s theme is sustainable mountain tourism, an important topic that’s increasingly relevant as mountain towns continue to experience an influx of visitors seeking outdoor experiences due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sustainable tourism in small mountain communities is near and dear to our hearts. Our founders all grew up in mountain towns (Charlotte in Leavenworth, WA, Bianca in Taos, NM, and Georgia Grace in the Appalachian Mountains of Western Maryland.) We founded SheFly while studying in Middlebury, Vermont, a mountain community nestled between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks, and we are now headquartering in Gunnison, Colorado, which is a playground for outdoor activities.
Sustainable Mountain Tourism
Mountain tourism is a double edged sword because tourism is often the main source of industry for mountain communities, and the best strategy for long-term development that doesn’t involve resource extraction. Sustainable tourism in the mountains can contribute to creating additional livelihood options, promoting poverty alleviation, developing social inclusion, and protecting fragile biodiversity hotspots. It is a way to preserve the natural, cultural and spiritual heritage, and keep communities alive and flourishing instead of having everyone move out of their small communities for urban centers. Tourism that isn’t developed sustainably, however, can end up pricing local peoples out of their own homes and overdeveloping natural areas to a point where they are no longer a joy to visit.
Co-Founder Charlotte wrote her college thesis on sustainable tourism ethics, and spent 12 months researching mountain communities on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. We’ve compiled a list of strategies based on these learnings that you can utilize when visiting mountain communities to promote sustainable tourism and keep these beloved places thriving. Our suggestions focus on what you can do as a visitor, but a huge part of sustainable tourism comes from advocating for sustainable land use by local governments and land managers BEFORE the problem gets out of hand. We highly recommend getting involved in this advocacy for the towns you care about.
Keep in mind that these are only suggestions based on our research and experiences, and that opinions may vary. You should always do your own research before visiting a fragile or overpopulated area!
1. Venture Off the Beaten Path (but not too far!)
While some towns may be drowning in visitors, others may be struggling with sluggish tourism economies. Find a town in a beautiful mountainous area that may not be as popular and visit there instead.
If you have flexibility in your schedule, you can also visit a mountain town during the week instead of on a weekend, or during the offseason. Many stores and restaurants struggle to keep up with demand during the busy season, and then don’t have enough customers in other parts of the year or during the week. Help them stay open by filling in these gaps and traveling during non-peak times! It's also often cheaper and more enjoyable, since you get better service and don't have to fight through crowds.
Charlotte visited Manali, India during the wet monsoon season, but still found dry days to rock climb with local guides. Since most tourists stay away during that time of year, her business was more helpful than it would have been otherwise.
2. Buy Local
Make sure your tourism dollars are staying within the community you visit. Stay at small boutique hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, or locally owned campgrounds instead of large chain hotels. Homestays can also a great way to support local people, but be mindful of AirBnBs that may take away long term rental access for local people. Grab coffee at an independently owned coffee shop instead of a national chain, and buy souvenirs or art from small shops owned by people who are actually part of the community.
You can also hire local guides to take you on unique adventures, just try to vet the guiding company first for sustainability and labor practices if possible. Spending money in a town doesn’t inherently help the community very much unless you spend it with intention and do your best to support local businesses while you’re visiting.
While traveling in the Ladakh region of India, Charlotte hired a local guide from a women-owned guiding company and went on a less common trek through very small villages. She paid villagers, like the woman in this picture, a small sum to house her in their living rooms and cook her meals. This gave her an opportunity to give back and support the small mountain communities she hiked through.
3. Wear A Mask
We are still in the midst of a pandemic, and many mountain communities are vulnerable to COVID-19. Towns in the US may not have access to ventilators or may have small hospitals that are already full. Mountain towns in other parts of the world may be even more vulnerable without access to vaccination or a doctor’s office within a day’s travel. Be very cautious and intentional with the ways you interact with others and err on the side of safety. You don’t want your vacation to cost someone their health.
4. Use Travel as an Opportunity to Learn
Research the history, geography, and geology of places you visit before you go. Learn about the Indigenous people who cultivated the land, and who may still live in the region today. If you’re visiting a mountain town in another country, learn some basic phrases of the local language before you arrive. Some familiarity with cultural traditions will help you be a more respectful visitor. For example, Nepal has a very modest culture and it’s recommended for women to wear pants instead of shorts or leggings when trekking in remote villages. This may initially feel restrictive, but it ultimately allows you to have a better relationship with the local community by signaling a basic level of respect for local culture and customs.
Having context on the places you visit helps you appreciate the experience and ensure you provide minimal disruption to the mountain communities.
Charlotte wore long sleeves and long pants while in Nepal, and learned a few local phrases before arriving. This made it easier to make friends with locals!
5. Be Respectful
We often think of travel as an opportunity to let loose and behave differently to our normal selves, which can be a critical opportunity to relieve stress and recalibrate your life. Just keep in mind that your vacation is someone else’s every day. Be kind and respectful of the employees who serve you, and treat the mountain towns you visit with as much love as you can.
Treat the environment kindly as well. Don’t ever litter, destroy public property, or relieve yourself in a place that isn’t sustainable! When thousands of people behave this way, mountain communities feel the strain and it creates a worse environment for everyone. Damaging a beautiful area can ruin the experience for the next person, and eventually harm the sustainability of the town's entire economy.
We hope you enjoy your next mountain town getaway and find these tips helpful! If we all work together, we can support sustainable solutions for the mountain communities we love.