Travel is amazing, and we are all so lucky that we are able to experience so much travel in our lives. Travelling across the globe is so accessible now (ok, not right now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but I'm sure it will go back to being like this soon enough).
With travel on the rise massively over the past decade, I think it is more important than ever that we all become aware of the impacts that we are having on people, animals, and the environment each time we travel, and how this can change depending on the choices we make when we travel. Conscious travelling, where you are limiting these negative impacts is called sustainable travel.
What is sustainable travel?
When I talk about sustainable and responsible travel and impacts, what exactly do I mean?
I am referring to many different aspects of travel that can have a negative effect on local people who live in the places we travel to, environmental impacts we have, such as our carbon footprint from travel, and also how people are negatively impacting wildlife and nature during their trips.
By any means, we are not perfect sustainable travellers. I still use airplanes, and I often drink bottled water when I am in third world countries, I am not here to preach. I don’t believe that by having a few people being perfect 100% sustainable travellers (if this is even possible), will make a difference. I genuinely believe that we need everybody to learn about sustainability, and try to all make some changes in order to have a positive effect. I feel this is the same when it comes to global warming and sustainability in general. I still have lots to learn, and can definitely still reduce my carbon footprint when travelling, but I have also come a long way in the past few years and have learnt so much, so I want to help spread this to others where possible.
Below I will give you some keys ways in which I think you can have a positive impact towards a more sustainable future of travel
What is the problem with travel?
In my opinion, the main issues with travel are; overtourism (too many people visiting the same place), too much fuel being used (too many airplanes, cars etc), and local people and animals being disturbed or mistreated through tourism. I will talk more about these below, and the steps you can take to help these issues.
What are some key ways to help travel more sustainably?
Where to travel
OverTourism is now a term in the Oxford and Collins dictionary. It is being talked about a lot more in the past few years. If you haven’t heard the term before, here is the exact meaning in the Collins dictionary.
“Overtourism: the situation when too many people visit a place on holiday, so that the place is spoiled and life is made difficult for the people who live there” Source : Collins Dictionary
Some examples they give for places where overtourism is a problem are: Venice, Barcelona, and the Taj Mahal. If you have visited any of these 3 places in the last 5 years, I think you will understand what overtourism looks like and how unpleasant it can be. I personally hate going places where there are more tourists than locals, and if I get annoyed by it, the poor locals must get even more frustrated by it.
Remember in the news last year how Mount Everest was seeing people dying in line to wait to reach the peak of the mountain? This is a very sad case of overtourism. The mountain shouldn’t have that many people on it at any given time.
So one great way of helping to reduce this is by visiting less touristy places. Here are a few good swaps we have listed that we think you should consider
Instead of Here → Visit Here Instead
Venice, Italy → Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Barcelona, Spain → Porto, Portugal
Taj Mahal, India → Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan
Santorini, Greece → Bodrum, Turkey
Bali, Indonesia → Dahab, Egypt
Dubai, UAE → Manama, Bahrain
Boracay, Philippines → Siquijor, Philippines
Mount Everest, Nepal → Peak Lenin, Tajikistan
Paris, France → Warsaw, Poland
Rome, Italy →Thessaloniki, Greece
Zanzibar, Tanzania → Vilankulos, Mozambique
Phuket, Thailand → Kudat, Borneo, Malaysia
Hanoi, Vietnam → Yangon, Myanmar
Cancun, Mexico → Mancora, Peru
Dubrovnik, Croatia → Kotor, Montenegro
Korfu, Greece → Himare, Albania
Serengeti, Kenya → South Luangwa NP, Zambia
There are just a few ideas, but of course, the whole point is that there is so much to see in this world, let’s not all go to the same places at the same time to see them. Often if you head to less touristy places, you will get a lot more for your money too! On top of that, you will also get a much better experience with locals.
I can usually rate my favourite countries to visit from the interactions I’ve had with local people there, to me there is a definite correlation between how much I enjoy my time and how friendly the people are.
Some of my favourite 3 countries to visit are Iraqi Kurdistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Why? Because the people were so welcoming and hospitable.
Why? Because they don't see many tourists and are super interested when they meet them and are also grateful for you visiting their country.
Timing / When to travel
Ok so if it has always been a dream for you to visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris, of course, i’m not telling you not to visit there. Even if I did I wouldn’t expect you to listen, understandably. But you can think about when you will visit - go to these popular destinations out of season. Any time during the school holiday, or possibly Christmas time will be high season. If you visit during the low season you will benefit and so will the local businesses. Local businesses often suffer during quiet months, and would really appreciate getting business in their hotels, restaurants or on their tour groups in these quieter times. Not only that, but the prices will be lower for you, and you won’t have to deal with the huge crowds of people - win, win!
Be careful about volunteering projects
I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but just be aware of volunteering. Of course, in many cases it is brilliant, and anyone who signs up has the best interest at heart, but some volunteering programs are actually not what they seem. I am no expert here, so I won’t pretend to be but please make sure you do really thorough research before attending a volunteering scheme, and be confident that you are doing what you intend to do - to help.
Some volunteering has now become a money-making business for many people, it has even been reported of people taking children and putting them in bad situations so that tourists will pay to come and spend time with them as orphans. There are endless examples of this and some are much worse than others, you can read up online further if you wish.
Just be careful, there is unfortunately a fine line between helping and just putting money in someone's pocket and potentially making things worse for vulnerable people.
Transport - In and out of countries
Transport is always a good one to talk about for sustainability. People are starting to become more conscious about their impacts on the environment by taking airplanes. Airplanes are pretty bad for the environment, there is no denying, and of course, in an ideal world, it would be great to not use airplanes at all, but unfortunately for most people this is not an option. If you are living in Australia and you want to visit Europe or the Americas, you’ll probably need to take an airplane. In saying that, once you get to one place it’s pretty amazing how far overland you can travel through continents.
If you are planning on a trip to Europe, consider visiting multiple places or countries in one go, and taking a longer break, that way you can reduce the amount of planes you have to take to get there, and you can take the train around and through the borders rather than flying. Particularly for domestic travel between countries, always look at trains buses or car pooling / tour options before booking a flight.
Transport - From A to B within a city.
If you’re visiting Rome, how often are you taking private taxis around the city to get to the sights? You can walk around Rome, hire bikes, or even take the local bus instead. Many countries are perfectly safe to take public buses. If you are not comfortable going around on your own, think about hiring a local guide, which also gives back to the community too. Free walking Tours are also a great way to get around a city and sightsee, getting information and tips from a local - just make sure you give them a generous tip at the end - that is how these people make their money.
When arranging a tour, try to find a local tour guide / group. You can often find local guides on places like Tripadvisor where people will have left reviews so you can be sure of their solid reputation before committing to hire someone. There are also a lot more companies out there now helping local guides to get online, so try and find these rather than the big names you think of in tourism, as you will also be supporting small businesses.
Eat where the locals eat! A rough rule of thumb for where to eat is to follow the locals - simple! They know all the best genuine, local, affordable cuisine. I always eat in local restaurants, not in any chain restaurants or Western restaurants. Make sure when you are spending money that it actually goes into the pockets of the local people, and again support small businesses.
Stay with local hotel businesses. Same idea as the restaurants above. There are so many Western chain hotels in popular tourist destinations, and they will employ local staff so that is still beneficial, but all of the profit from the hotels are usually going into a wealthy Western owner's pockets.
There are many great eco-homes now available also, and these don’t have to be super expensive either - they range in price. We stayed in some awesome ones across Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. They all focus on different things, but most of them will only service vegan foods, will have policies to ensure quieter times, they will often use no electricity, employ local staff, pay them fair wages, give back to local communities, use no plastic, compost and recycle everything used in the accommodation, and some even offer activities such as yoga or meditation.
I’ve talked a bit about locals, and how it’s important that you support them by spending your money with local businesses. This could also be on a small scale. For example, when travelling we often get invited into people's homes and offered lunch and tea. We would always offer to give them some money as a way of saying thank you and paying for your cost of food at the least. Of course, just use your judgement on this, as in some countries people would almost get offended at us offering to pay for things, or to contribute money, so use your discretion but also try to at least payback for the cost. Many of these people who offer so much are really quite poor.
Also with locals, a very important thing is to respect their culture. Culture changes so much between every country you visit, and that's what makes travel so addictive and fascinating. We live to travel to experience new cultures and meet new people, and we love to learn about these cultures through the people. We always, however, do a bit of research before going to a new country, to ensure we understand a bit about their culture and the expectations. This can be across many things such as behaviours, diet, and dress code. We have made a few mistakes before, and we find it highly embarrassing.
I recall visiting Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the holiest temple for the Yazidi people. We were welcomed with open arms, and invited to make several tea stops with people, followed by a picnic lunch with a big family who we sat with all afternoon. They dressed us up, took photos and had lots of fun. They showed us into one of their temples, but we didn't realise that it is forbidden to step on to the doorstep as you enter the temple. I did so without realising and the cute little grandma had a few words to say to me - none of which I understood as she didn't speak any English. The family laughed it off and said it was fine, but I knew that I had upset her and accidentally disrespected her place of worship. She was all good after, and all was forgotten, but I still remember it like it was yesterday, it's very embarrassing and I wish I had known this before I visited.
Paying to do anything which involves an animal being out of its natural habitat, not being free, or being touched by humans is going to be bad for the animal 99.9% of the time.
Popular things I see tourists doing whilst abroad, or photos I see on Instagram are:
Petting or holding monkeys
Playing with baby tigers
Photos with exotic birds and animals
Bathing or riding elephants
Holding a sloth
Feeding / touching sea life
If you don’t think it’s fair to keep the animal at your home as a pet, why is it fair that this person does, and keeps them in a cage their whole life? Also, on a very short side note to this. Please be aware that most ‘elephant sanctuaries’ are just called ‘sanctuaries’, and still keep these large exotic animals chained up or in pens their whole life purely to make money from tourists. They may not be taking people for rides, and they may not be beaten, but they deserve to be free.
If you are planning to go to an elephant sanctuary to bathe and feed an elephant - let me ask you this - Are you there because:
1 - You think the elephant needs help bathing?
2 - Because you thought it was a cool thing to do and to get an awesome pic for Instagram?
3 - Because you genuinely think this sanctuary needs money to help support the cause.
I think most people that go to these are genuinely thinking they do the right thing for the animals, but if you really think about it logically - Why are you there? Is there any evidence that you are helping these animals? Is there any evidence that shows that these elephants have been rescued, and can’t be released to live a normal natural life of freedom? The more people that keep paying to go and touch and bathe elephants, the more elephants that will spend their lives, in captivity pleasing humans, so we can take a shameless selfie with them. I’m sure there are some genuine sanctuaries out there, but I think the chance of you finding one and booking a tour to go there are very slim.
What to Pack
You can even have a positive environmental impact when you decide what to take with you on your trip. Think about taking things like reusable cups and straws, so that you don't buy any single-use plastic along the way. Also, make sure you pack clothes that will last so you don’t need to throw away any cheap clothes you took with you when they break. Take shampoo and conditioner bars, rather than bottles, as they last much longer, contain no plastic, and are compact and light.
Buying souvenirs from a country is a great way to give back to the community, many countries will have lots of souvenir stalls around any tourist attraction. Always see if you can find any authentic local gifts. Handmade souvenirs can be surprisingly hard to find these days. Most of the cheap little souvenirs you see (including scarves and knitted items) are usually mass-produced in China and sold around the world as souvenirs. If you can find locally manufactured items, they may cost a bit more but all the money will be given back to the community you are visiting, and I bet the people selling them make more money too. You will also generally find the quality to be much better.
So these are my top ways you can help to travel more sustainably. If we all make a few better decisions it will contribute to a much healthier industry for people, animals, and the planet.
Let me know what else you guys do to travel more sustainably :)