As social media filled up with GIFs and quotes to celebrate Earth Day 2020 I started to think about what tourism may look like once we resume some form of normality. After a month of lockdown we have already seen how the earth has started to heal, one of the few winners from the current pandemic. Will we listen to the message it is telling us and take action for a more sustainable future? Or will we ignore it and continue down the destructive path we were on?
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My sustainability journey
When we were in Cambodia last year I had a form of epiphany; the realisation that happiness lies within and that you and only you are in control of it. As we travelled through Cambodia and I saw how little families had, and I learnt about the devastation they had been through, I was surprised to see how content they were. Yet I had it all and more, and there I was still looking for that next thing that would bring me joy.
It was during that trip that I decided to change the way I travel, to take journeys with meaning where my actions and my being there have positive effects on a wider community. To make decisions not only based on what I want, but on the impact I’m going to have. To engage in projects that are saving lives, providing food, shelter, education, clean water, safety and equality. To support companies that add value to their communities rather than exploit them. To choose partners that care about the environment, but more than anything, to focus on countries that could benefit from the positive influence of sustainable tourism. And that is why I should have been in Sierra Leone this May!
How can we make better choices when we travel?
I’m sure that if I were to run a poll asking people whether they want to be a positive influence on others or the environment, the majority would say yes. However, how many would be honest and say “I do, but I’m too lazy to take action”? And that is the key: wanting isn’t enough! The only way to have a positive impact is through action. And what better time than now! Our lives and the world have been put on hold; we will emerge from the pandemic on to a different stage, and we will have the chance to start from scratch with what the new “normal” looks like.
The tourism industry affects hundreds of millions of people. 1 in every 10 people globally are directly or indirectly employed by the tourism industry. Therefore even the smallest of changes in making sure our holiday is “paying it forward” will have a significant impact on so many.
I’ve listed a number of ways you can make positive changes whilst still enjoying your vacation:
Reduce your carbon footprint
Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere by the activities and choices you make: your mode of transport, the length of your commute to work, your hobbies, what you eat, where your food comes from, the amount of imported products you buy, how many kids you have, how much waste you produce, where you go on holiday … they all determine how many greenhouse gases you produce.
However, reducing your carbon footprint doesn’t have to mean giving up everything that is fun in life. Instead it is about finding balance, reducing your impact where possible, and where not, then choosing to offset it.
Here are some examples of ways you can still explore the world whilst reducing your carbon footprint.
Eat like the locals
Something I have always struggled to understand is the concept of going abroad and eating the same as you have at home (fry ups in Benidorm come to mind)! One the biggest highlights of any trip for me is trying the local cuisine, and if that means having curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner then so be it! By eating locally produced products that are in season, and by sharing the same diet as the locals, you can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of that meal. Not only will you be helping the environment, but you will also be getting a much better understanding of the culture, and I would wager that it will also be healthier and cheaper!
Go on self-propelled adventures
For some, the journey starts when they arrive at the destination, for others it is the act of getting there. Adventure holidays have become all the rage and in fact it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism market. Maybe you fancy embarking on an epic journey from the UK to Kathmandu with just your bike and tent for company. For many however, work restrictions would mean we still need to fly to get to our chosen destination. What we do once there can make a big difference though.
There are an increasing number of options to enjoy other countries and cultures at a much slower pace, whether that be by hiking through stunning scenery, cycling through the backroads of a country or kayaking otherwise hidden coastlines. Not only will these self-propelled adventures be reducing your carbon footprint, you are also much more likely to get the chance to interact with locals, get a better understanding of the culture and find the hidden gems.
Offset your carbon emissions
Every action has a reaction, both positive and negative. The simple act of travelling to another country will have both a positive and a negative reaction. Getting there will have a significant impact on your greenhouse emissions, but being there and spending money can have wide-reaching benefits to many within the community. That poses quite a conundrum!
There are many ways in which you can offset your CO2 emissions, the best one being reforestation! Trees breath in CO2 and exhale O2 so work out what your carbon footprint is and plant enough trees to offset it (or pay a company to do it for you!).
In addition to the benefit of offsetting your carbon emissions, these projects have much wider reaching benefits by providing communities with employment, education, food security, access to clean water, biodiversity and health. So rather than just ticking “yes” to offsetting carbon when paying for your flight, do a little research and find a company that will truly put your money to its best use!
Choose your tour provider carefully
There are companies that care and companies that don’t. When researching who to book your next holiday with check, out what their stance on sustainability is. What do they do for their communities? What do they do for the environment?
Intrepid Travel as an example, has been carbon neutral for many years by working out the emissions its offices and trips create (transport, accommodation and waste) and offsetting this by supporting renewable energy projects.
Much Better Adventures also invest 5% of all their revenue (as opposed to just profits) into conservation and re-wilding projects making sure they offset more carbon than their trips produce.
If you are serious about sustainable travel then definitely read more than just the trip itinerary when booking your next holiday. You may be surprised what facts you find out about the company whilst searching the depths of their website!
Get involved in community tourism
Mass tourism can be incredibly destructive with wide reaching consequences, but that doesn’t have to be only the form of tourism. In fact, there are plenty of sustainable alternatives and community tourism is one of them!
But what exactly is community tourism? This is when communities, quite often in developing countries, or otherwise remote areas, work together to create a project that will enable tourists to experience their culture, traditions and environment whilst providing them with the necessary income to improve their standard of living. Examples of this could be the farming communities in the rice paddies of Ping’An or the indigenous tribes of Togo.
Getting involved in community tourism allows you to step off the beaten path and immerse yourself in the culture of a community you would otherwise never have the chance to see. It is guaranteed to be a very different experience than you will get from a bog standard coach tour and provides a great tool for sustainable development.
Make sure your money stays local
When I travel I like to make sure my money lines the right pockets to make sure it has the most positive impact it can. You can do this by bypassing all the third party companies that take a cut of what you spend and dealing directly with the local guides and businesses. Not only does this guarantee that all your money gets spent in country, but it is also likely to save you some money too.
However, that isn’t always possible, and you can still get it wrong even when you do, so if you are booking through a tour operator, make sure their ethos is to leave as much money as possible in local economies by choosing local hotels, transport, restaurants and guides. G Adventures for example score all their trips with a Ripple Score, which gives each trip a score out of 100 therefore providing transparency on how much of the money spent goes directly to the hands of locals.
Skip the hotel and stay with a family
Homestays are a growing phenomenon which allow you as a traveller a truly immersive experience by staying with a local family in their home, generally in underprivileged areas. Not only will you get an insight into local traditions and delicious home grub, you will also be distributing wealth directly into that household.
As an example, Panauti Community Homestay in Nepal offers accommodation outside the oversubscribed hostels and hotels of Kathmandu, giving tourists a genuine Nepali experience whilst supporting a project that empowers local women.
There is no denying it, mass tourism can destroy habitats, fauna and flora. You don’t have to go far to see the damage we inflict on the environment. Just head to the popular peak of Pen y Fan in South Wales. Over 250,000 people attempt to summit the straightforward peak every year, trampling the grass and other flora native to the mountain. They create mud paths that increasingly get wider as other walkers try to avoid the mud, thus trampling more flora as they go. The park rangers of course have stepped in and laid paths out to minimise the flora erosion, but are we really aware of the damage we are doing when we travel?
We have already established that every action has both a positive and negative reaction. In the event of wildlife, conservation brought on because of tourism can be a very positive reaction.
Wildlife populations are under threat (admittedly because of humans). Deforestation, poaching, pollution, expanding cities, new roads, introduction of foreign flora and fauna… the reasons are many, however the results are the same: dwindling populations. Conservation of these habitats however costs money, and tourism is able to play a very important role in generating the funds required to conserve and repair.
It isn’t just about the money though. It is also about educating and influencing tourists so that they make much better choices when it comes to how they spend their money. As an example, if you were to visit an orangutan wildlife sanctuary in Borneo to see the devastation and suffering palm oil deforestation has caused, are you more likely to avoid products that contain palm oil? Hopefully!
Don’t encourage animal cruelty – even if inadvertently
I’d like to think that nobody reading this blog would actively and knowingly partake in animal cruelty. However, inadvertently you might. And there is no denying, it is an incredibly sensitive subject. What is right and what is wrong? Is riding a horse OK? Is riding an elephant OK? Is holding a baby panda OK? Does the fact that the income from these activities is used for wide reaching positive conservation make it OK?
As a horse rider and animal lover I even find my own thoughts contradictory. Domesticated animals are used to human contact and so long as they are treated appropriately, are living in the right environment, in big enough enclosures and free of stress, then I don’t see a problem with interacting with them. However, the simple act of saying that means it encourages the domestication of said animals and for me that is where the conundrum lies.
I am guilty of riding an elephant, a camel, swimming with dolphins, going to a circus, a zoo and Seaworld, and some of those decisions in particular I truly regret. However, you can still enjoy animals whilst not contributing to their abuse, especially if you focus on visiting sanctuaries that are rehabilitating animals to return to the wild, or in the case of the Panda Breeding Centre in Chengdu simply trying to not let them go extinct!
Choose your interactions with animals carefully and make sure you are funding a business that is contributing to the conservation and rehabilitation of the species without compromising the wellbeing of the animals in their care.
Visit the places others don’t
Tourism is one of the few industries that over the past decades has enjoyed growth, not sustainable growth though, out of control growth. And for those Instagram favourite spots, this has pretty severe consequences. Not only does uncontrolled tourism creative a negative experience for visitors, it also has a detrimental impact on the environment, as discussed above, and on the locals who get pushed out of the city due to rent prices sky rocketing as they make way for holiday rentals.
Even in countries where over tourism is a problem, it is rarely a countrywide problem. So, if you enjoy going to Spain, skip the rammed streets of Barcelona and venture to the Basque Country, equally as beautiful and yet to be discovered by the masses.
The other option is to pick out countries that simply don’t have as much tourism as they’d like, otherwise also known as under tourism. Quite often this is a result of past conflict that made the country unsafe, yet as the situation changed tourists simply haven’t cottoned on. Countries keen to welcome tourists, where you can truly feel like an intrepid adventurer, include Armenia, Albania, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Iran amongst many others. They represent a fantastic opportunity to step off the beaten path and truly go on an adventure.
Consider partaking in disaster tourism – considerately
This isn’t as onerous as it sounds. Disaster tourism is when you visit a location that has been subjected to some form of environmental disaster (natural or man made). Whenever something catastrophic happens the area becomes significantly less appealing and therefore the income it had otherwise enjoyed from tourism vanishes, likely at the time when it is needed most; during the recovery phase!
This doesn’t mean you should go in the immediate aftermath. During that period you are better helping from afar rather than getting in the way or using up valuable resources that are required to support the survivors. However, once the area enters a recovery phase tourist are often slow to return making it much harder to recover economically.
One such example would be Nepal. Following the 2015 earthquake which killed over 8,000 people, injured over 20,000 and left several million without a home, tourism plummeted. It also destroyed much of their infrastructure making it significantly less appealing for tourists to visit which resulted in tourist numbers falling by over 30% at a time when that income would have been instrumental in the rebuild. Thankfully, numbers are growing again.
It is not just about the impact on the economy, it is also about education. Some frown at the idea of visiting sites of devastation, but I feel that in going there and understanding what happened you are not only able to pay your respects but become more knowledgeable, humble, considerate and tolerant, and hopefully less likely to support anything that would lead to similar events in the future. We teach the events in school, visiting the locality is simply a more in-depth history lesson.
Of course, it goes without saying that when you visit sites of sorrow and loss you should be respectful and considerate. Unfortunately, inappropriate tourist behaviour in sombre locations is what gives disaster tourism and dark tourism a bad reputation. So please leave the selfie sticks at home!
To read about my dabbles in dark tourism have a read of the following blogs:
Reduce your plastic waste
No matter how good you are at recycling when you are at home, recycling becomes significantly tougher when you are abroad. Not only are you more likely to be consuming bottled water (after all you are advised against drinking tap water!) but often recycling facilities are scarce. One option would be to avoid water all together and just drink cocktails, but, I’m not sure that would be wise!
Up until recently Doug and I were part of the problem. We reuse all our bottles at home, however, as soon as we are abroad we rarely have that luxury and because we are in hot destinations it’s likely we are drinking even more.
Of course, that is not the case everywhere. Iceland as an example has some of the best tasting water I’ve ever tried. No bottled water needed in Iceland! However, the simple act of rinsing my toothbrush off with tap water in Vietnam left me poorly for over 2 months! As such we found ourselves buying 4 large 2 litre bottles of water (at least) every day of our 21 day holiday through Vietnam and Cambodia. That is a minimum of 168 bottles that went to waste as a result of our trip (that’s shameful!).
The good news however, is that it doesn’t have to be the case! There are bottles that filter the water for you, turning unsafe water into safe drinking water by eliminating 99.999999% of bacteria and protozoa, as well as reducing organic chemicals such as pesticides. I am now the proud owner of a LifeStraw bottle which will enable me to significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste I generate whilst abroad while keeping me safe at the same time. And of course, I’ve not just chosen any water filtration company, I’ve chosen one that gives back by making contaminated water safe to drink for communities across the world.
Sustainable travel has to be the future
There are so many ways we can enjoy the world, and I look forward to the day COVID restrictions are lifted and I can continue exploring again. However, I do expect there will be a change in my attitude towards future adventures as the above is less about telling you what to do and more about writing a note to myself about how I can be more mindful of my actions, to ensure I am having the best possible impact I can whilst still enjoying being an intrepid traveller.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the future of travel so do get in touch. Either leave a comment or drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org