What is Sustainable Travel?
It’s not as out there as it may sound. Sustainable means anything having an environmental, social and economic benefit. OK, we get it… still a little hard to wrap your head around. Let’s break it down for travel:
- First, GO: have the time of your life really exploring a destination and making local connections.
- Second, PLAN: be conscious of minimizing your footprint on our planet while you’re doing it.
- Third, DO: try to maximize your positive impact on the people and places you visit.
Not so bad, right?
Oh, and one other important note on sustainability: it’s impossible to do perfectly. It’s best done one step at a time, and if we all get that far we’ve made great progress already. And while we’re still uncovering what is truly best for the planet, rest assured doing something is always better than nothing.
My passport’s ready! Remind me why this is such a big deal?
Tourism supports 1 in 10 jobs worldwide (10.4% of global GDP)1 and there were 1.4 billion2—yes, with a B—of us traveling last year and growing. Compare that to 25 million in the 1950’s3 and you can understand the buzz about the problem of “overtourism.” We’re trampling our favorite places.
Some other not-fun facts: We’re pouring one dump truck of plastic into the ocean every minute4 and we’re the biggest factor in wiping out 60% of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970.5 All this means your actions as a traveler adds up to a big impact as we increasingly threaten natural and cultural treasures. To slow this and have a chance to reverse the damage, we must act now.
OK, I’m following you, now what?
Welcome to the smart traveler club. Here are the ways you can take action into your own hands to travel responsibly. (Rinse and repeat: remember, best tackled a few steps at a time!)
1. BE A ZERO WASTE TRAVELER
About 40% the world’s plastic is made for single-use and we’re recycling under 23%.4 Just say no to single-use bags, bottles, cups, and wasteful travel-size plastics.
- Be good-to-go: Pack your own reusable water bottle/filtration, coffee cup, silverware set, straw and bags for shopping.
- Refuse things like straws and lids where you can.
- Don’t carry extra waste with travel-size brand items, bring your own toiletries:
- Consider travel-friendly solid forms, like shampoo bars and toothpaste tabs as well as multi-purpose products to keep it simple.
- Pack your must-have products in high-quality reusable silicone or recyclable tin or glass containers.
- When in doubt, don’t throw it out. Take your items to recycle back home for proper disposal.
- Go digital. Where you can, use apps instead of hotel plastic keys and paper airline tickets.
2. MINIMIZE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT
We need to cut our emissions by more than half to limit global warning this century. But it’s projected global air travel emissions will increase 70 percent from 2005 by 2020.6 It’s critical we cut back where we can.
- Fly less (that’s hard, we hear you!) or book direct flights where possible as landing and take off create the highest emissions.
- Book economy class air and all-economy airlines – twice the room in first class means twice the carbon usage.
- Grab some fresh air! Walk and bike where you can.
- Getting around locally, choose public transportation or locally-owned services like taxis, tuk-tuks, and rickshaws that support the local economy.
- In general, motorcoaches and trains have the lowest impact. A couple boarding a coach cuts their carbon in half!7
- Road trip? Not that you need another reason to avoid rush hour, but it can double your vehicles consumption rate. Rent a more fuel-efficient car for those long hauls.
- At the hotel, skip washing sheets and towels every day (a note or do not disturb is easy), turn off lights and air, close shades in the heat and unplug electronics (as they still use power plugged in).
- Skip doing laundry or hand wash and dry. Avoid the hotel laundry which will likely run your clothes separately.
- Pack light!
- Pack gear like solar chargers and your own quick-dry towels for energy efficiency.
- Eat mindfully to help reduce food waste, which majorly depletes our natural resources.
- Water and power shortages are a reality in many places. Watch your usage in these areas especially and consider how your usage affects others. For example, choose your golf vacation where water isn’t scarce.
- Choose to travel in the off season and to off-the-beaten-path destinations. Who doesn’t like lower prices and fewer crowds?
3. SHOP, EAT & EXPERIENCE LOCAL
Break out of the tourist bubble! Where you go, what you do, who you talk to, and what you buy makes a big difference. Often, as little as $5 out of every $100 spent by a visitor stays in the country’s economy.8 Why not spread the wealth and focus on putting your dollar towards experiences that put the local economy first.
- Buy from local artisans to sustain their crafts and the cultural heritage you have come to experience. These businesses often support local employment for women especially.
- Have fun haggling where appropriate, but don’t overdo it.
- Skip the mass-produced, imported souvenirs that come with bigger carbon footprints and do little for local economies.
- Support locally-owned restaurants and buy locally-produced food.
- Share the love! Try different places every day.
- Seek experiences and travel companies that engage local guides, families and other entrepreneurial businesses working with local staff.
4. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. THE CULTURE
Do unto others… Make a point to do a little research on the local cultures and customs, acceptable behavior, current issues, and any other sensitivities before you go and you’ll surely enrich your experience.
- Dress respectfully in consideration of religious and cultural norms.
- Adhere to any specific dress codes.
- Always ask before taking anyone’s photograph.
- Make a point to try the culture and participate.
- Learn a few phrases of the language, a little effort goes a long way.
- Pay attention to signs and use your best judgment for how to behave at important monuments, temples, etc. (e.g. please, no yoga selfies at war memorials).
5. SAFEGUARD NATURE & WILDLIFE
Its said 60% of the millions of wildlife tourists a year pay – knowingly or not – to participate in activities with negative animal welfare and/or conservation impacts.9 It’s up to us to ensure, as the saying goes, we “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Let’s walk the walk on the wild side!
- Use organic products like reef-safe sunscreen and DEET-free bug repellant that are better for you and the Earth.
- Take the trails and take care not to upset the natural ecosystem or otherwise do any damage.
- Don’t buy items from animal parts—you could inadvertently be supporting trafficking or other unethical practices.
- Don’t pay to have your picture with any wild animals as they could have been taken from the wild, drugged, harshly trained or have had teeth removed to ‘behave’ around tourists.
- Say no to animal tourism activities: Riding elephants; taking tiger selfies; walking with lions; visiting bear parks; holding sea turtles; watching performing dolphins; watching dancing monkeys; touring civet coffee (Kopi Luwak) plantations; charming snakes and kissing cobras; and visiting crocodile farms have been noted as ten of the world’s cruelest attractions.10
- Watch out for food delicacies from threatened species or plants at risk of unsustainable harvesting.
6. GIVE THE RIGHT WAY
Sometimes even the most well-intended actions can lead to more harm than good. It’s important to be thoughtful about your charitable impacts with these basic do’s and don’ts.
- Do, if you want to bring items to give, organize it in advance through a local organization or a group like Pack with Purpose to ensure you’re not undercutting locally-made products or causing other inequities.
- Do consider the long-run impact of gifts and donations versus the simple power of your spending to support local businesses and economies.
- Do carefully assess volunteer opportunities, vetting organizations and their demonstrated commitment to the community. Ensure you can lend support that isn’t actually putting locals out of work.
- Don’t give to beggars, even children or mothers, as often this is part of a larger scheme and typically will only perpetuate harm and not help those individuals.
- Do give to reputable social programs, organizations or local businesses that address the root causes of any issues you may observe, like youth or vocational training, or empower disadvantaged members of society.
- Do consider nature conservation programs, cultural preservation or restoration projects, and infrastructure development projects.
- Don’t volunteer at orphanages, as UNICEF says, “Children are not tourist attractions.” In some cases, this encourages the institutionalization of children, creating a profitable business out of it.
- Do always report instances of abuse and illegal sex tourism and trafficking.
7. SPREAD THE WORD
Your actions, from observing the practices above to carrying reusables and other cool responsible gear, naturally set an important example to inspire others. Keep it up.
- Teach others about traveling responsibly and share your practices and resources. Now here’s a great use for all that social media.
- Write reviews and posts for travel companies and local businesses and organizations you experienced positively impacting communities so others learn from your experience.
- Share feedback for improvement to companies and tourism authorities.
Phew, well done if you made it to here! It can be a lot to take in, but the bottom line is, do your basic research, plan ahead and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Then simply do your best to put people, planet, and prosperity for all first. As the Zero Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau puts it, “We don’t need a few people doing zero waste perfectly, we need a million people doing it imperfectly.”
Responsible travelers, let the adventure begin!