Sustainable Tourism is slowly becoming a hot topic among environmentally conscious travelers. But hey, what is it and how can you ensure you are traveling sustainably? In this guide, My Baggage outline what you can do to ensure that you are following environmentally friendly practices on your next holiday.
What is sustainable tourism?
In a nutshell, sustainable tourism is traveling with an environmentally friendly and socially conscious ethos. Three popular themes of sustainable traveling are reducing, reusing and recycling. It’s also important to be respectful of local cultures and areas of significant cultural heritage, as well as choosing tourism that benefits the local community, upholds rights to a fair wage and does not impact negatively on the lives of the people who call this place home. It can take on many forms, from boycotting attractions that mistreat animals to choosing hotels and airfares that offset your carbon footprint.
Why should we be sustainable travelers?
It is important to become a sustainable traveler so that you can look after the environment and respect the culture of the country you are visiting. By traveling with sustainability in mind you will value the impact you are having regarding your carbon footprint, the rubbish you create, whether or not you recycle and the impact that traveling wastefully can have on the environment of the country you are staying in.
Another thing that’s important to also consider is the impact that your tourism has on the life of locals. Does it impact them in a positive way? Are they getting a fair wage? Many travelers are not aware of these factors and don’t realize how the way they travel impacts on others, it’s important to educate ourselves on this so that no one is getting a bad deal from our holiday.
Tips on how to be a sustainable traveler
There are many ways to become a sustainable traveler, but it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, even making small changes can have a big impact.
1. Means of transport
How you travel will have an impact on your carbon footprint. Many tourists are now opting to go for ‘slow travel’ by traveling overland and flying as little as possible. Many destinations are ideal to visit in this way with popular backpacking trails in Asia, South America, and Europe that solely rely on bus and train travel. Not only will flying less reduce your overall carbon footprint but it will also take you to undiscovered places and allow you to see locals going about their everyday life.
One place where traveling overland instead of flying is preferable is countries with high altitudes. It is advised to travel overland to Cusco in Peru, so your body can slowly adjust to the high altitude, however, this is a long overland journey that can take up to a day to navigate, meaning many tourists opt to fly due to time constraints. If you don’t have the time and must travel via plane, then some airlines offer you the option to pay a fee to offset your carbon footprint.
2. Reduce your waste
You wouldn’t litter at home so why would you do it in someone else’s country? Waste left behind by tourists has a direct impact on the local environment. It is your responsibility to never dump rubbish and try to use reusable alternatives instead of throw-away plastics.
Did you know that Mount Everest Basecamp is often referred to as the world’s highest trash dump? This is due to the amount of waste that climbers leave behind in their bid to tackle the summit. This is not only disrespectful to the people of Nepal, but it has a direct impact on the natural environment and the delicate ecosystem in place.
Simple ways you can cut down on your rubbish is by investing in a filtered water bottle, reusable cutlery, a reusable tote bag and plastic-free toiletries such as Lush’s Naked range.
3. Say no to unethical animal practices
Unfortunately, there are many areas in the world where animals are treated cruelly simply for profit. As a tourist, it is your responsibility to ensure that you do not take part in these activities or endorse the animal’s suffering in any way. Things such as elephant rides, posing with chained tigers, watching dancing bears or having your photograph taken with drugged wild animals all add to a cycle of suffering and abuse.
In Asia, it is common to be offered elephant rides or the chance to have your photograph taken with a wild animal, what you don’t see is the suffering and pain the animal has been made to endure in order to break its spirit. Elephants are separated from their mothers at 2 years old and starved and beaten so they fear their mahouts, tigers are declawed and drugged, and many snakes will have their fangs removed or mouths glued shut resulting in them slowly starving to death.
These animals are living a life of pain and torture and as tourists, it is our responsibility to research ethical animal sanctuaries that have been vetted by wildlife organizations.
4. Respect the cultures of local people
Different countries will have different cultures and traditions and it is important to be respectful of this, especially when visiting an area of religious significance. Wear appropriate clothing in churches, mosques or temples, don’t take photographs without asking permission and respect those wishing to pray by being quiet and adhering to any restrictions in place at these holy places.
A recent example of the conflict between tourism and respecting local customs is Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock in Australia. Uluru has recently been closed to tourists after Aboriginal people campaigned for decades to stop people from climbing their sacred sites. Days before the site was closed hundreds of tourists queued to be the last to climb this monument, even though by doing so it was disrespecting the Aboriginal population.
There has also been a recent trend of posing naked at the top of sites of local religious significance. This escalated in 2015 when four tourists who posed naked on top of a holy mountain in Indonesia were given prison sentences. They were also accused of causing a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. When in doubt, always read up on the culture and etiquette of the country you are traveling to or ask your local hotel or hostel if that activity is accessible there.
5. Give back to communities in the right way
When traveling, try not to give money or gifts to children or people begging. This not only creates a culture of dependence but often many of the children asking you for money are being exploited by organized criminal gangs and by giving them money you are fuelling this trade. The best way to help empower the local economy is to give a credible charity organization.
Orphanage tours or volunteer holidays have grown in popularity but often exploit and do not help locals. Many children in these orphanages are not in fact orphans with a recent study from UNICEF in Nepal finding that 85% of children in its 800 orphanages have a parent. Poor families are often convinced to send their child to an orphanage for them to have a better chance at education, but instead, they end up being on the receiving end of voluntourism.
If you want to volunteer whilst traveling research the organization thoroughly and remember that your two-week vacation can have a detrimental impact on the life of a child who is craving stability and support.
6. Choose sustainable tour operators
There are many tour operators that now focus on providing you with a sustainable experience. These tour companies will give back to the local community and prioritize locally run guides, homestays, and experiences. Research your tour operator carefully and request them to share their responsible tourism policy with you prior to booking.
Some country’s tourism departments offer information on traveling sustainably through their country. Scotland’s tourism website gives you the chance to learn about the importance of sustainable tourism, they also advise you to look out for the Green Tourism Certificate. Other countries will have their own version of this, so it’s important to check the tourism department of the country you are traveling to if you are ever in doubt.
7. Do not buy illegal or unethical products
No matter where you go, you will find touts selling illegal products. Do not buy from them. Jewelry made from rosewood, alcohol-infused with snakeskin, fur products from endangered wolves and dried coral and turtle shells are all items that you will see being offered as a souvenir. However, they are all illegal and impact on the environment.
By buying these products you are helping bring about the demise of their habitat and in some instance’s species. In India, the Tibetan Antelope has been hunted to near extinction for its wool, yet it is still possible to find these products for sale to tourists in India. It has been this market that has driven the decimation of the population, so it’s important to remember that as a tourist you play a very real role in environmental conservation.