Sustainable travel has become quite the buzzword in the last couple of years. So much so that the United Nations designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. But what is sustainable tourism and how can you become a sustainable traveller?
The term “sustainable tourism” can be used interchangeably with ecotourism, community-based tourism, and responsible tourism. Although the words are different, the idea behind them is the same. This type of tourism focuses on the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. What does this mean? Sustainable tourism initiatives and projects strive to be environmentally friendly (think 3Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle) and protect natural and cultural heritage while also providing social and economic benefits to local communities. This means that tourism dollars stay within the local economy and tourists end up leaving only footprints and taking only pictures. But this may still be a little too vague, so here are some tips on how to become a more responsible, local-conscious and sustainable traveller:
Use Less & Be Respectful. Want to become a sustainable traveller? Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, purchase a reusable grocery bag, turn off the lights when leaving your hotel room, don’t throw trash on the street or on beaches. Every little bit helps.
Say NO to Plastic. Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, it is a collection of marine debris that includes plastic bottles and garbage bags. Be part of the solution by traveling with a reusable glass bottle (or a reusable straw for all the coconut water you’ll be drinking) and a fabric tote bag for all of your shopping purchases.
Support the Local Economy. Supporting the local economy is easy when travelling abroad. Make sure to eat at local, family owned restaurants, use local transportation, tour operators, and when purchasing souvenirs try to find something special made by local artisans. Buying local allows you to support people’s livelihoods, culture, and self-sufficiency.
Do Your Research as a sustainable traveller: greenwashing is quite common in the tourism industry, so it’s important to know what type of questions to ask when booking trips and accommodations. Questions can include:
Does the activity, tour and/or accommodation minimize your impact? (i.e., via small group sizes, using ecologically sensitive accommodations and transportation modes, etc.)
Are they committed to building environmental and cultural awareness and respect?
Do they provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people? If YES, ask for specific examples of success stories.
Do they provide positive experiences for the hosts as well as the visitors?
Are they environmentally-friendly?
Is the item that you are buying made locally? What region? By whom?
Do you employ locals?
If you cannot get a clear answer on these basic questions, then that’s a problem. Look elsewhere!
Stay in Eco-Friendly Accommodations. There are numerous certification programs across the globe, like the Rainforest Alliance Green Your Vacation, certification programs that only feature tourism businesses that meet their rigorous environmental and social standards. Make sure to visit the accommodations website and look for the three pillars of sustainability. Do they have a recycling program or a way that lessen their environmental footprint? Do they give back to the local community? Do they hire local staff? If this information is not listed on the website or social media channels, make sure to send them an email or give them a call. Hotel zones take over prime beach areas, decrease biodiversity, and other environmental effects while creating a division between tourists and locals. If you want the real local experience, then make sure to stay in smaller and locally owned hotels, hostels and/or homes.
Respect the Wildlife. Many people may have dreams when traveling of riding elephants, swimming with dolphins or having their photos taken with tigers, but these activities can be doing more harm than good. If you are really interested in visiting a place the protects animals, then make sure to contact the organisation and ask questions. The more you ask the more you are a knowledgable sustainable traveler! A reputable organisation will have no issue with sending you all the information that you would like. Furthermore, when traveling, make sure not to buy any souvenirs made with animal products, like coral necklaces, ivory, bone, shell etc. When at the beach leave the sand and shells alone as it may disrupt the ecosystem. The Smithsonian Magazine reported that at one beach in Spain, increasing numbers of tourists have caused a 60 percent decline in shell abundance, potentially disrupting the aquatic ecosystem
Respect the People. There is a fine line between a tourist that is invited into a community to learn and share with the locals and a tourist that treats the community like a zoo filled with caged animals that are only there for their pleasure and, of course, the coveted photo op. If you do want to take pictures, remember to always ask for consent, especially if you choose to take pictures of children.
Remember that once you do become a responsible and sustainable traveller, you should pass along this information to educate others. Remember, our actions when we travel can have a big impact so make sure it is a positive one.