In the course of my travels–and my career as a promoter and practitioner of sustainable tourism–one question comes up again and again: “What can I do to be a more responsible traveler?” So I thought I’d pen a primer.
Here are seven things globetrotters can do to lessen their impact on the planet:
1. Avoid the plane and take the train (when possible).
Become part of the emerging “slow travel” trend by going to fewer places and spending more time in each. Train travel is a good way to do this. Not only will you experience a deeper sense of place, you’ll also decrease your carbon footprint. Some of my favorite travel-by-train destinations include India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and China.
2. Give, the right way. Many well-intentioned travelers bring sweets, used clothing, books, and pencils to hand out to children and villagers in developing nations. Sadly, this kind giving often has unintended consequences–it can sew community conflict and encourage a culture of dependency and begging. I watched two Maasai women in Africa fight over a T-shirt that a smiling tourist had handed out; in some parts of Asia, the first English words children learn are “Give me sweet.”
It is better to give–be it money or goods–to reputable local organizations that work on social welfare programs, or to international groups that partner with them. A good one is Pack for a Purpose.
3. Understand the following two terms and be part of the new age of intelligent travel:
> Ecotourism: Two decades ago, I joined a dozen scientists, conservationists, and modern-day explorers in an old farm house outside of Washington, D.C. It was the first board meeting of the International Ecotourism Society.
Our task? To define what, exactly, ecotourism was. After two days, we agreed on what is now the most widely used definition of ecotourism in the world today: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves nature and sustains the wellbeing of local people.”
> Sustainable Tourism: This movement takes ecotourism’s core principles and applies them across the full spectrum of the travel and tourism industry–from city hotels to cruise lines. The three pillars of sustainable tourism are employing environmentally friendly practices (reduce, reuse, recycle); protecting cultural and natural heritage (e.g., restoring historic buildings or saving endangered species); and providing tangible social and economic benefits for local communities (ranging from upholding the rights of indigenous peoples to supporting fair wages for employees).
4. Say no to plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of human trash stretching across thousands of miles of the ocean, includes gazillions of throw-away plastic bottles and bags that will take hundreds of years, if ever, to break down–all the while wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.
Be a part of the solution by opting for locally purified water in recyclable glass bottles (in the tropics, I rely mainly on green coconuts to stay hydrated) and carrying tote bags in your luggage that you can use while perusing street markets and shops. Not only will this cut back on plastic waste, it will also reduce your carbon footprint–petroleum-based ingredients are a staple in manufacturing plastic bottles and bags.
5. Do your research when it comes to tour operators. I explore on my own most of the time when I travel, but when I do seek out the services of a tour outfitter, I always ask three questions before signing on: What are some of your tour company’s environmentally friendly practices? Can you give me an example of how your trips help to protect and support wildlife or cultural heritage? Do you employ local guides on your trips?
These days, any outfitter that cannot provide a clear answer is behind the times. Find another one.
6. Support the real local economy. Locally made crafts and souvenirs are not always cheaper, but purchasing them ensures your contribution to the economy will have a more direct and positive impact.
In Cancun, for example, some gift shops sell “traditional” Mexican sombreros that are imported from China because they cost less, while village artisans who make the hats by hand charge more. The difference is not just in the price. Buying the real sombreros supports authentic cultural heritage and provides needed jobs for the locals who make them.
7. Never buy wildlife products–period. On a trip to Vietnam’s Halong Bay, I watched a group of American tourists haggling with villagers who were selling some of the most beautiful sea shells I have come across in my travels.
Similarly, in Mongolia, I witnessed a couple of backpackers bargain in an outdoor market to buy a hand-stitched eagle hunter’s hat made from plush wolf fur. These travelers were inadvertently helping to support a growing marketplace for trafficking rare and endangered wildlife products as souvenirs. Just say no.