In an era where social injustice, climate change and environmental degradation are at an all-time high, mass tourism is taking a toll on the planet and its local communities. But by travel sustainably, tourism can be used as a catalyst for positive change.
Whether you’re a globetrotter who’s been to 50 countries or someone who looks forward to each spring break in Cancun, we all need to better address our own impact and footprint. (Don’t forget to pin it below!)
The basics of how to travel sustainably
Now, first it’s important to understand that it’s not so much the fact that people are traveling as it is how people travel. Call it what you will– eco-travel, green-travel, responsible-travel—the objective is to be more mindful of our impact. Though this is an extensive topic to cover, I’ve broken down the basics to help average individuals make their travels more sustainable.
1. Use transportation wisely
Unless you’re walking or biking to your destination, your transportation is polluting the atmosphere to some extent. Planes, cars, and boats are all significant sources of carbon emissions, where one transatlantic round-trip plane ride equates to an entire year’s worth of driving. However, taking a road-trip is not necessarily better for the environment. With Europe as the world’s number 1 tourist destination, surprisingly cars have the largest impact on air quality.
There are several ways you can get to your destination without completely compromises the environment. Here are a few tips:
- Choose an airline company that actively seeks to offset its carbon footprint.
- Invest to offset your individual footprint.
- Fly less, and opt to take buses or trains (usually cheaper anyways).
- Opt for walking, biking, and using public transport while on the ground.
2. Boycott single-use plastic
When you’re catching that connecting flight, you just need something quick: water, juice, coffee, or a fruit cup. Whatever it is, chances are that on-the-go container is made of plastic. Many travelers continue to reach for the plastic water bottle in airports and on vacation (though bottled water is not cleaner than most tap water). There are 2.7 million tons of water bottles used annually, and the worst part is, 85 percent of plastic is not recycled.
Here are ways you can minimize your plastic consumption:
- Bring your own water bottle while traveling (TSA will let you bring it through if it is empty).
- Take time to recycle. Even if you have to collect it and find a drop-off!
- Avoid ready-made food on-the-go. Bring/make your own food or eat at a restaurant.
3. Put your money into the local economy
Travel and tourism take up 9.8 percent of global GDP, generating $7.2 trillion. Indeed many communities thrive off of tourism. However, tourism leakage occurs when profits end up leaving communities after outsourced expenditures. This is common with most of the all-inclusive travel packages.
For example, UNEP reports that 70 percent of all money spent by tourists in Thailand ends up leaving the country. Most likely that tacky shot-glass that says, “I love Bangkok” also has some fine print that says “Made in China”.
The best thing you can do to mitigate tourism leakage is to shop local. By doing this, you’re investing in cultural and environmental preservation. Here are some tips:
- Purchase authentic souvenirs made in the country you’re visiting.
- Buy food at local farmers’ markets.
- Stop going to Starbucks and McDonalds! Find the mom-and-pop restaurants that serve local food.
- Look for housing accommodations owned by locals (I like airbnb.com or bookings.com).
- Look for tours hosted by local companies, if possible.
4. Respect wildlife and support conservation efforts
The influx of tourists can sadly end up destroying the environment and community. Defined by UNEP, “negative impacts from tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use within the acceptable limits of change.” Several global landmarks are slowly eroding because of this. For, example, Plitvice Lakes in Croatia featured above are at risk of losing their world heritage status after tourists strayed off path for “stupid selfies”.
Here are some tips to strengthen conservation efforts:
- Visit nationally protected parks, and do so responsibly.
- Check out any eco or nature tours at your destination.
- Most of all, have common sense and respect when visiting landmarks, and don’t be an idiot.
5. Be mindful of ethical interactions
Traveling sustainably requires interaction with local people and animals with the utmost respect. This means that simply having good intentions is not enough.
Starting with the latter, unethical animal interactions happen when the creatures are exploited or taken out of their natural habitat (think many zoos!). For example, riding elephants and even horses often leads to exhaustion and even death. Riding with dolphins can damage their fins, including keeping them in captivity. AND the Instagram popular place of Exumas, Bahamas where you can swim and feed pigs, is quickly becoming problematic as the pigs are overfeed food outside of their normal diet (more on both of these here).
In short, when interacting with animals make sure to:
- Find tours that support their existence and/or rehabilitation, and do your research.
- Respect their distance in their natural environment.
- Check out this guide about ethical animal encounters.
Last but not least, ethical interactions with local culture is probably one of the most important aspects of sustainable travel, yet one that often gets overlooked. The reason being that there is a thin line between an authentic cultural exchange and cultural exploitation. Tours that treat local people and their customs like a human zoo are simply degrading. Depending on the circumstances, this may also may mean thinking twice about taking (or paying) to take a selfie with a local, especially if they seem noticeably uncomfortable. The last thing you want to do is come across as using locals as props in your photo without explaining anything about their local culture, which can go into cultural appropriation territory real quick.
In summary, make sure to:
- Respect local culture and tradition from an open-minded perspective
- Be mindful of tours and interactions that degrade, and perhaps don’t even benefit, locals.
- Read this guide about more ways to respect local culture.
Does sustainable travel require more effort? Of course. But that should be the price we pay for experiencing new places. Not only are intergovernmental organizations addressing sustainable travel, nonprofits and bloggers are dedicating themselves to the topic as well.
So who’s with me? Let’s use travel to sustain the world, not destroy it.
Are you passionate about sustainability and travel? Do you have any hacks you could share with the rest of us?