Six Ways to be a Sustainable Traveller
From exploring the emerald rainforests in Borneo to hiking the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Himalayas and strolling around the vibrant markets in India, to travel the world is at the very core of what makes us human. It’s wandering down the path unknown, learning about new cultures and, essentially, finding out about ourselves.
As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism supports local businesses, enabling economies to prosper. Yet the ever-increasing number of travellers is taking its toll on the environment and its inhabitants. Experts have estimated that there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
Now more than ever, it’s important to be a sustainable traveller. But is that a mere buzzword being thrown around, or does it hold more substance? What does it actually mean to be a sustainable traveller? And more importantly, why should we care?
According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism can be defined as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts". National Geographic says it can be partaking in environmentally friendly practices, protecting cultural and natural heritage and providing tangible economic and social benefits for local communities.
Here are six ways that you can be a more sustainable traveller.
Choose a reputable tour company
Lisa Pagotto, founder and director of Crooked Compass, a tour operator offering travellers culturally immersive journeys designed to inspire, educate and encourage responsible tourism, says sustainable travel is “Being aware and focused on making a positive impact when you travel through a local community, the environment you are exploring as well as economically supporting the region where you travel.”
There are lots of tour companies out there for you to choose from, some better than others. Before your trip, do your research to find out about the values and practices of the operators. Participating in environmental conservation, protecting wildlife, supporting cultural heritage and employing local guides are some of the ways a tour company can offer sustainable travel. Some tour companies will work with the local community, like Hands on Journeys. On one of its trips you could be supporting a community to open a cooking school or providing an underdeveloped college with clear water. Crooked Compass supports many sustainable tourism initiatives, such as educating local communities in Rwanda, where they run tours, about gorilla poaching.
Give back, the right way
It can be tempting to hand out money to beggars on the streets or to leave gifts in villages you visit. However, these acts of goodwill can do more harm than good, creating a culture of dependency, rather than sustainability, and can cause conflict in local communities. If you would like to give a donation or gift, search for appropriate organisations you trust that are operating in the area. Check out Pack for a Purpose, which utilises the space in your luggage to pack supplies needed by worldwide community projects.
If you do want to spend some time volunteering, ensure it’s ethical and supported by local communities. There are lots of companies doing great work, one of them being Africa Impact. While volunteering you’ll spend time with local women suffering from the effects of domestic violence – with opportunities to teach skills leading to employment or enabling the creation of small businesses.
Buy locally made products and use local services
While purchasing locally made crafts and souvenirs may be more expensive compared with cheaper, imported products, buying local allows you to give back to communities who need the contributions more. As well as providing jobs for the locals, Pagotto says, “Buying from a local artisan, such as an embroidered table cloth which was created with ancient techniques, also helps to preserve local craft traditions and cultural heritage”.
Leigh Barnes, Chief Purpose Officer for Intrepid, a tour company that was founded "to create a style of travel that could benefit both travellers, and the places and people they visit" says, "At Intrepid we travel the local way - with local leaders, eating in local restaurants, staying in local accommodation and using local transport wherever possible". By doing so, you're supporting the community, and chance are you'll have a more authentic experience, too. "
Be conscious of the wildlife
It’s vital to ensure you’re remaining ethical in your pursuits when it comes to viewing and interacting with animals while travelling. Many popular tourist activities hide sad truths that cause animal harm. Sustainable Travel International recommends you don’t participate in wildlife petting, animal selfies, watching dancing monkeys and elephant rides. Intrepid Travel has been the first tour operator to end the last activity after research in 2010 found elephants were being poached from the wild to fuel tourism demand.
Be sure to visit only attractions that do not capture animals from the wild and provide healthy and adequate living conditions. When out and about, keep your hands to yourself and don’t feed or touch animals as it can alter their natural behaviour. Finally, be careful to not purchase any souvenirs made from animals, such as ivory products.
Be kind to the environment
The world is a truly beautiful place. From the water-colour blue waters found in the Cook Islands, to the vibrant streets of Vietnam, the stunning architecture in Spain and even our own rugged native bush, diversity reigns supreme and what makes each destination different is what makes it special. And while the environment isn’t anyone’s to own, it is everyone’s responsibility to look after, as Barnes says "to make sure the world's most special places are preserved for other generations to enjoy". Admire flora from a distance, and don’t take it or cut it for yourself. Put your rubbish in the bins - It’s been said over eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s ocean every year- and recycle when you can. Say ‘no’ to plastic straws and use reusable cups and bags. And when you can, travel by foot or bicycle rather than by car.
Be culturally respectful and sensitive
A little bit of Aretha Franklin’s R E S P E C T goes a long way when it comes to being a sustainable traveller. Being aware that every culture is different will help you have a genuine appreciation and new-found perspective for all cultures that you encounter. Languages, gender roles, meal time etiquette and general behaviours will be different, and that’s okay. It’s important to be sensitive to local communities and be sure to dress respectfully if you’re in a place that dresses modestly. Be mindful when visiting heritage sites not to touch artifacts. Follow the area’s rules and guidelines, and don’t assume just because it’s legal in Australia it will be there, too. And if you would like to take a photograph of a local person or place, always seek permission first.
"Travel can be a great way to have fun, and do good at the same time", says Leigh Barnes.