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Travel, enjoy, respect – protecting our aquatic environment

Sailing the spectacular Turkish coastline, sunbathing on one of Jamaica’s tropical beaches, diving the depths of submerged caves in the Yucatan Peninsula – the opportunities to explore this planet are diverse and truly incredible. But let’s not forget that these treasured and pristine natural places, tend to be some of the most fragile and sensitive to the impacts of tourism. If we don’t tread lightly, we’ll be destroying the very thing we all seek to enjoy.

This is the underlying message of the UN World Travel Organisation’s latest campaign, ‘Travel, Enjoy, Respect’, which is being rolled out as part of the international year of sustainable tourism. It’s a chance for tourists and those working within the tourism industry to celebrate all that is great about travel but also to highlight what we need to do to make this trillion-dollar industry more sustainable.


Silent polluters

 Sometimes the environmental impacts of tourism are clear. We’ve all spotted litter strewn on beaches, increased traffic or graffiti in beauty spots. But there are also less obvious but equally damaging impacts. For example, how many visitors are conscious that marine and freshwater habitats are being threatened by what we put on our skin? Our newest partners, incognito®, make 100% natural and environmentally-friendly insect repellent products and are on a mission to highlight the issues surrounding the use of cosmetics, suncreams and insect repellents.

The issue

Widely used personal care products including soaps, hair & bodywash, sunscreens and insect repellents contain a host of environmental contaminants. These are rinsed off our skin from sweating, showering, swimming, or even when we wash our clothes. Eventually they reach the rivers and seas, polluting marine eco-systems and wildlife. Some contaminants will also enter the environment from our bodies – researchers have shown that chemicals in sunscreens appear in our urine just thirty minutes after applying to our skin!

It is estimated that each year some 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen lotion ends up in coral reefs, the chemical Oxybenzone, used in in most synthetic sunscreens is well known to cause coral bleaching. DEET, found in many synthetic insect repellents, has been found to be harmful to some freshwater fish and zooplankton. Nano-sized particles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide used in some sunscreens can also harm fish and algae.

Elizabeth Greagg, Head of CSR at incognito ® explains, “incognito was founded to create an effective, 100% natural insect repellent which would protect the both user and the environment. Popular tourist spots are particularly vulnerable to the effects of personal-care products due to the high concentration in the tourist season. We’re proud of the fact that our insect repellent is totally biodegradable and will not harm the surrounding wildlife or environments when used.”

Supporting the Travel Foundation

Founded upon principles of environmental and social sustainability, Incognito shares 10% of its profits with charities. The Travel Foundation will become a main beneficiary, and Incognito’s donations will help the charity to deliver sustainable tourism programmes across the globe, shaping tourism in a way that benefits local communities whilst reducing its environmental impacts.

The Travel Foundation’s work protecting water quality and aquatic habitats is particularly relevant for Incognito’s customers. Our Blue Wave project in Fethiye, Turkey, is looking at ways of keeping the waters pristine and wildlife thriving by reducing environmental pollution.

We are working within a protected marine area which is home to many endangered species including loggerhead turtles and monk seals (it’s thought there are fewer than 700 remaining in the world) as well as bottlenose dolphins, coral reefs and seagrass meadows. The beautiful beaches, quiet bays, islands and marine life are a major draw for tourists but along with that comes, of course, the potential for water contamination. One of our core activities is education – highlighting to visitors the issue of all kinds of pollution including inorganic cosmetics, sunscreens and insect repellents, which can build up in the sheltered bays where people swim. Our emphasis  is on how special, pristine and fragile the marine environment is – it really should be a case of “leave nothing behind”.

Advice for travellers 

  • Natural, effective, biodegradable alternatives to harmful insect repellents and sunscreens are available.
  • For insect repellents: seek those containing the active ingredient PMD – a natural repellent which has been found to be as effective as DEET-based products, without the associated environmental risk.
  • For sunscreens: seek those made with larger sized (not nano) titanium dioxide or zinc oxide particles. These are natural, mineral ingredients which are larger than damaging ‘nano’ sized particles. Check the ingredients to make sure the product doesn’t contain oxybenzone
  • If safe to do so, you can reduce your usage of sunscreen and repellent products when travelling. For example:
    • Cover up skin with clothing/long swimwear & apply sunscreen only to uncovered areas
    • Seek shade when the sun is at its most fierce (generally a few hours either side of midday)
    • Cover up during the times of the day when biting insects are most likely to bite (around dawn and dusk)
  • Visit: for answers to lots of frequently asked questions, including simple advice on avoiding insect bites

How tour operators can help?

  • Share the above advice and make travelers aware of sustainable alternatives in customer-facing health and safety information and communications.
  • Communicate your concerns with your supply chain (for example ground handlers, hotels and excursion providers) to ensure they can provide advice and alternatives to customers.
  • Remind tourists that drainage systems overseas may not be the same as back home. Their bathroom water could be reaching water supplies used for drinking or feeding into sensitive freshwater and marine habitats.