Richard Turen
Richard Turen

Plastic is having a negative impact on tourism globally. Many experts refer to plastic pollution as a genuine "epidemic." In very round numbers, we are looking at an estimated 150 million tons of plastic in the world's oceans.

In addition to its impact on wildlife and the environment, it's an eyesore. Much of it washes ashore without regard to the presence of nearby top-tier resorts and hotels. And relatively little of this is accidental. Some 80% of the plastic garbage in the seas has been deliberately dumped there or in the world's rivers, through which it makes its way to the oceans.

The unfortunate part of this story is that technologically advanced countries have been shipping their hazardous plastic waste to developing countries. The good news is that the United Nations met last month, and nearly all of the world's countries have agreed on a treaty that will severely restrict shipments of plastic waste to other countries.

The U.S. could not vote in favor of the new, legally binding agreement. But, as the Guardian reported, "Attendees said the U.S. argued against the change," adding that U.S. officials "didn't understand the repercussions the new agreement would have on the plastic waste trade."

The average plastic bag is discarded 12 minutes after leaving a store. It takes between 10 and 1,000 years for the plastic to decompose, based on the environmental conditions in the dump zone.

The online petition "Stop Dumping Plastic in Paradise" has garnered more than a million signatures. Now China has stopped accepting recycling from the U.S., but that has only meant that more tons of plastic garbage have been ending up on shorelines and seaside villages in pristine corners of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

So, per usual, some nations talk, some ponder and some do nothing to try to counter the coming environmental wars that are already impacting our travel counseling.

Yet, some countries act, and I think we need to be aware of various new rules coming out of Africa. Tanzania has just joined Kenya in banning the use of lightweight plastic bags. In fact, it is illegal to arrive at any Tanzanian airport with plastic bags. Our clients need to be advised, because heavy fines and delays including questioning can occur if visitors arrive with any plastic bags.

Will plastic-sniffing elephants be used to uncover the banned substances? Not yet, but hand searches are likely.

Our clients need to know that zip-lock bags carrying cosmetics, etc., must be left on the aircraft. Garbage bags, favored by those who book African safaris from online call centers, and even plastic shopping bags are now banned.

This is revolutionary. I now count almost 40 countries that already ban or will shortly ban plastic. Among them are Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Seychelles have also joined the fray, with strict anti-plastic laws.

Let's make note of two things: Plastic is a worldwide threat to sustainable tourism, and African nations are leading the way and setting some of the most important environmental benchmarks.

In late 2018, President Trump signed a bill designed to try to clean up our oceans. The Save Our Seas Act had the unanimous support of Congress. Imagine that.

Cruise operations experts know that our seas are littered with plastic from the Arctic to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A lot of it comes from Southeast Asia.

The U.S., however, continues to send its plastic waste to countries like Vietnam for recycling. Can we honestly claim to support tourism while also supporting the widespread use of unnecessary plastic packaging?

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