Travel is one of the most unsustainable industries in the world. Don’t believe me? Just recently, Thailand closed Koh Tachai Island to visitors due to overcrowding, which was having a devastating impact on local ecosystems. The damage was so severe that many, myself included, will likely never have the pleasure of visiting the island.
Tourism is also one of the best ways to boost a suffering economy. But economic stimulus isn’t exactly top of mind when travellers head out—adventure, memories, selfies, gifts, and nice weather usually take priority over our environmental considerations.
There are many little ways to help reduce the negative impacts of tourism, and they are easy to apply when you take the time to properly plan out your adventures. To help bring more “consciousness” to the way you travel, I’ve put together five easy ways to reduce the negative impact your travels have on our beautiful earth through accommodation, food and drink, shopping, transportation, and activities.
Many hotels, resorts, and hostels do their part to reduce their carbon footprint by “greening” their properties. A few greening methods include using environmentally friendly solutions for energy use, properly separating waste, keeping a compost, and growing produce. This is all a great start, but what about the economy? And how are you supporting the local economy by staying in chain hotels? Do these properties hire local staff, or do they bring in international expats?
Accommodation styles I’ve always been very fond of include homestays and guesthouses, which are usually within the home or on the property of a local family or community member. By simply staying in these types of accommodation, you are giving back to the community because you invest in a person or family living in the destination. Many will partner with local initiatives as well, thereby furthering community investment, all thanks to you.
2. Food and drink
I never understood why the Starbucks in New Delhi was always packed when the Chai wala down the street was serving up the most delicious tea and coffee I’d ever had—for less than a $1! It’s essential to think of the two “L” words when buying food, whether at home or abroad: local and (the) little guys—which is nearly impossible when staying at a mega resort.
Think independently owned restaurants serving up local cuisine with local ingredients. Think sticking to a vegetarian or even vegan diet to help reduce your impact on the environment around you. When you choose poultry or meat, are you able to source exactly where the livestock were raised, how they were treated, and what they were fed? I’ve seen menus that simply say “meat,” and no one’s ever told me what exactly that “meat” consists of.
Another huge component of buying food and drink is the packaging that comes along with it. Was it wrapped in plastic? How many napkins did they give you? Did they put it in a plastic bag or a Styrofoam container? Your coffee—is it in a disposable cup? Did you use a plastic stir stick to swirl in the cream and sugar, which also came out of paper packages? Reduce, reduce, and reduce! And it’s actually so simple to do. When travelling, you’re most likely carrying a bag with you anyways. Try travelling with a water bottle, water filter, travel mug, reusable container, and, if you really want the gold star for sustainability, cutlery.
Many travellers have that one thing they love to collect in every destination, with popular items usually in the form of shot glasses, t-shirts, or mugs. But have you ever thought of where these items are made and manufactured? Although you may be buying something “authentic” in your destination, find out where it was made, who made it, and where the materials to make it were sourced. When you buy, think of the community and the faces of the people making these products. Is it local or does it have a circular gold “Made in China” sticker on the bottom? Remember, a picture says a thousand words, while a mug can break.
Indeed, heat in destinations within South East Asia, South America, and Africa can be stifling, but there are cooler options (literally) than a private sedan. Think adventure and think rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, local buses, trains and trams. Now that’s a story waiting to be told. Although traveling by private car can be extremely convenient, think of your carbon footprint, especially when you’ve already had to fly to your destination.
5. Activities & adventure
There are tons of tour companies out there, and choosing one can sometimes be difficult. Larger companies such as Intrepid, Operation Groundswell, and G Adventures, which lead tours in destinations all around the world, are great to look into because they value authentic experiences, local tour guides, volunteer impact, and sustainable travel.
For volunteer travel, looking for opportunities to volunteer while already in the destination is usually the best way to measure how you are impacting the community. Many larger companies and brands offering service and volunteer trips can be great for getting that Facebook profile picture you’ve always wanted, but the impact you are making is hardly measureable. Think long term for volunteer and service trips or look into smaller initiatives like spending a few days on a wildlife reserve or in an ashram.
I won’t lie – sustainable travel is not easy. Reducing the negative harm you make on your surroundings and truly examining how you can contribute in a positive way while travelling takes time to research, and can be more expensive than taking the easy route. However, we are at a time of need for this type of action among all travellers. If we had all been proactive 20 years ago, maybe Koh Tachai would still be around for us to see.
Sometimes a small step in the right direction can lead to a revolution. Help be the change and sustain the tourism industry by doing your part.
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