As Travelers, What Is Our Impact on the Communities We Visit?

Editorial director Sarika Bansal reflects on her recent trip to northern Norway and how tourism can have a positive impact on the world.

Snow-covered mountains on the Svalbard archipelago

The Svalbard archipelago remained uninhabited until the 16th century.

Photo by Fredrik Solli Wandem/Unsplash

I looked out the airplane window and saw an endless stretch of white: miles of glaciers, snow, and ice, blending harmoniously with the clouds on the horizon. The sky looked impossibly blue by contrast.

I was about to land in Svalbard, the archipelago more than 500 miles north of mainland Norway, with a delegation from the nonprofit organization Tourism Cares. We traveled last spring to this fragile region to discuss the role of responsible tourism in a place that is already experiencing the impacts of our warming planet.

The conference had started a few days earlier in Tromsø, Norway, where we met with Indigenous Sami leaders. They had generously shared details of their seminomadic way of life in the Arctic Circle: how they follow reindeer, how they use every part of the animal to survive in harsh conditions, and how seriously they take the principle of “leave no trace.” Two women had sung folk joik songs for us, and now, as the plane flew over a white sea of nothingness, I could hear their lilting, melodic voices in my head.

At AFAR, sustainability goes beyond protecting the physical environment. Meeting Sami people made me see the Arctic desert as a landscape full of vibrancy and human innovation. My time in Norway reaffirmed my awareness that as travelers, it’s our privilege to observe cultures new to us, participate when we can, and appreciate the singularity of every place we visit.

The current summer issue of AFAR magazine celebrates cultures around the world. Writer Shruti Swamy travels to Mumbai, India, where she tries to find joy on her first visit after the death of her beloved aunt. Members of three diaspora communities—Hmong, Somali, and Nordic—explain how they keep their traditions alive in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. We learn about Thessaloniki, Greece’s “second city,” famous for its carefree spirit and festive food scene.

My trip to the Arctic introduced me to a culture that is resilient, spiritual, and close to the land. I thought of that connection as I edited these stories. Tell me what you think of the issue via Instagram @sarika008.

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of AFAR Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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