Sustainable travel: 6 ways to make a positive impact on your next trip
You may live sustainably at home but what about when you travel? What does that even mean? Does sustainable travel begin when you reach your destination or does it start when you're sitting in work on a rainy Tuesday, desperately plotting your next escape? Is it about keeping your carbon footprint light or should you also be conscious about giving back to local communities?
To break it down, sustainable travel is about being a responsible traveller and making smarter choices in every aspect of your trip. That doesn't mean you need to totally overhaul your vacation though. We've put together a list of practical tips that will help you along the way, even if you're just getting started on your sustainable travel journey.
Where and when will you go?
In cities like Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik, overtourism is straining infrastructure and pricing locals out of communities. Beaches in Thailand and the Philippines have been destroyed, and natural wonders in the US, Iceland and Japan are being degraded, prompting restrictions. This global phenomenon isn't going anywhere, so when planning your next trip it's worth considering the road less travelled. Or even just moving slightly beyond the tourist hotspots. European capitals like Tallinn, Ljubljana and Belgrade offer centuries-old architecture, hip art scenes and plenty of winding streets to explore without jostling through hordes of limbs and selfie sticks. And Canada's national parks are just as breathtaking as the ones you'll find in the US but with a fraction of the crowds.
If you can't resist the lure of the fabled tourist districts, Justin Francis, CEO of activist travel company Responsible Travel, says you should travel off-peak. "If you really want to see the canals of Venice, or La Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, then consider travelling outside of summer or school holiday," he advises. "There will be far fewer people around, and the money you spend will help businesses that can struggle outside peak season."
How will you get there?
Trains, planes and automobiles. Which one is best? Air travel is the natural enemy of sustainable travel because it wreaks havoc on the environment. The Swedes have even coined a new phrase, 'flygskam’ or ‘flight shame,’ referring to the feeling of environmental guilt travellers have over flying. Unfortunately though, sometimes flying is non-negotiable. If you live in New York and need to visit Shanghai, you're not going to take the slow boat to China. So the best solution is to fly less.
"Instead of taking three or four short city breaks by air each year, aim to take one, longer trip by plane and a few ‘staycations’ or trips where you go by road or rail," recommends Francis. "Always choose economy class (first class can have double the carbon footprint) and fly direct where possible. You can also look into which airlines have the lowest emissions per passenger mile. And wherever you can, travel overland in a destination instead of taking domestic flights."
Where will you stay?
Eco-conscious accommodation has come on leaps and bounds in recent years thanks to changing attitudes among consumers. Now the industry knows what's good for the planet is good for profit and hotels are starting to rack up serious eco credentials. There are CO2-neutral stays on offer in places like The Brando in Tahiti, the Olakira Camp in the Serengeti, Vienna's Hotel Stadthalle and Kong Arthur in Copenhagen, part of Arthur Hotels, which was the world's first carbon-neutral hotel group. You can even try Zero Island, a tourist-friendly island in Sweden that managed to go carbon neutral in one year.
When it comes to plastic waste, the Angama Mara in Kenya follows a strict plastic-free policy and EDITION Hotels launched the "Stay Plastic Free" campaign to remove single use plastics from the hospitality industry. Companies are also giving back, like AccorHotels who are financing smart-tree planting schemes for local farms. In 2016, the international hotel group planted nearly 17,000 trees in the UK as part of its global Plant for the Planet programme, financed by the £233,000 saved by guests reusing towels rather than sending them to the laundry.
What will you pack?
The best way to reduce your waste output is to produce less. Vicky Ellmore from Reusable Nation says pack light and purposeful. "Stick to the basics and take reusables like a water bottle, coffee cup, steel or bamboo straw, food container (collapsible ones are great for travelling), and bamboo cutlery or a spork so you can avoid single-use plastics," she advises. "Take a reusable shopping bag and produce bags so you can shop plastic-free, and take zero waste toiletries, such as shampoo bars, deodorant paste, and tooth tablets. You'll create a lot less waste and you won't have to worry about liquids and aerosols."
Bea Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home recommends repurposing everyday items you use at home for vacation use. "I bring my own earbuds and a peshtemal, which I use as a towel at the beach, a picnic blanket in a park, or a scarf when it gets cold, but also a blanket on the plane, so I don't have to use those provided by the airlines which are wrapped in plastic."
How will you spend your money?
If you choose locally-owned accommodation, eat at independent restaurants, buy locally made products and choose local experiences you can make a positive impact. Travel social enterprises such as I Like Local use tourist dollars to create sustainable incomes for local guides and hosts in 19 countries across Asia and Africa. Founder Sanne Meijboom tells Lonely Planet, "As many local people in Asia and Africa are not benefiting from tourism in their country and more travellers are looking for authentic travel experiences, we connect the dots. A traveller like you can join local life and the local person earns 100% of the money he asks for the experience."
Colombian tour company Impulse also has a social enterprise mission and harnesses the power of tourism to generate a market-driven peace movement. "We do this by creating experiences travellers love and which actively involve local communities thriving for peace in the business. This generates economic and cultural empowerment that supports social transformation and helps break material and psychological poverty cycles within the communities," says Impulse's Nikola Kelch. "Our passion is to help communities get back on their feet, one tour at a time."
How will you interact with wildlife?
It's tempting to be like Kim Kardashian and pose with wild animals for Instagram, but think before you post. Kim's photo received a storm of backlash when it appeared the elephant she was posing with in Bali was being mistreated. Regardless, even 'harmless' selfies can be threatening to wildlife. According to the charity World Animal Protection (WPA), animals in the Amazon “are being torn from the wild so tourists can take selfies for Instagram and other social media”.
Animals shouldn't be used for human entertainment and they need to live as free from human interference as possible. If you are keen to see wild animals in their natural habitat, choose places that offer ethical and sustainable animal interactions such as elephant sanctuaries and marine conservation volunteer projects. Elephant rides should always be given a miss and avoid all experiences where animals are behaving unnaturally.
The best way to travel sustainably is to be more mindful. As Responsible Travel's Justin Francis sums it up, "There is just one key point to keep in mind: respect the fact that you’re holidaying in someone else’s home, and think about how you can make a positive impact while you’re there."
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