As the rapid spread of COVID-19 hit the world, bringing everything to a pause ever since the pandemic was declared, we are all stuck within the four walls of our homes, contemplating about when we can step out again to see the world. To be honest, being a traveler myself, I always took my journeys for granted, until recently, when I had a reality check and came to realize what a privilege traveling is.
Needless to say, traveling teaches us beautiful lessons that we would otherwise never get to learn. From increasing cultural understanding to aiding in the conservation of wildlife, there’s no denying the positive impact travel can have on the world. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, before the pandemic, the travel industry was one of the world’s most powerful – supplying 10% of the world’s jobs, at 313 million worldwide. But like everything else, there are negative side effects, too, like visitors putting a strain on cities, ruining the popular heritage sites, the lack of tourism dollars benefiting local communities, and the extensive use of fossil fuels by major airlines, etc.
Once things get back to normal in the post-pandemic era, ‘Sustainable Tourism’ will definitely be the buzz word and I hope that people, other than following the precautions to protect themselves from the virus, will also abide by the norms of traveling responsibly and help in making this world a better place for all.
What exactly is ‘Sustainable Tourism’?
The UN World Tourism Organization defines: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
To break it down further, sustainable travel means being aware of and having a positive impact on the environment, the economy, the culture, and the community and people. This is in addition to enriching your own life and experiences, while you are exploring a place.
The sad reality is that most forms of travel degrade their destinations over time. The more tourists, the more hotels, the more attractions, and the more unhealthy and unsustainable foods are produced and eaten, the worse the pollution and quality of life become for residents.
Well, I’m not telling you to stop traveling. I personally believe that the benefits that travel (if done properly) can outweigh the damage it does and endow us with incredible experiences. The ability to expand knowledge and open minds directly result in travelers becoming more likely to advocate for the environment and cultures outside their own.
What are the types of ‘Sustainable Travel’?
When people hear about sustainable travel, the first thing that pops up on mind is ‘Ecotourism’. While ecotourism does fall under sustainable travel, it’s only one of several different types. Some of the major types of sustainable travel are:
Ecotourism – “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
An example of ecotourism might be learning about wildlife and volunteering at various national parks and preserves like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, and doing trail maintenance with the local staff.
Geotourism – “Tourism that sustains or enhances the distinctive geographical character of a place — its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and the well-being of its residents.”
Embarking on a guided excursion with a tour guide and geologist to the North West Highlands Geopark in Scotland, hiking and learning about fossils and rock formations, is an example of geotourism.
Voluntourism – “The integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism — arts, culture, geography, history, and recreation -— while in the destination.”
Both ecotourism and geotourism can also fall under voluntourism if volunteering with a park or a reserve. There are many types of volunteerism – where one can engage with teaching underprivileged kids abroad, or working at a food bank, or spending time at a local healthcare camp, assisting the staff. Organizations like Volunteering Solutions that are providing immensely meaningful opportunities across the globe, encouraging people to be a part of change. But having said that, the best kind is the one that’s long-term and utilizes your unique skills without placing undue strain on the local community.
And as far as we – the enthusiastic travelers – are concerned, who have the power to change the world one experience at a time, here are some things we can do to play our part:
1. Choose a destination that values sustainability.
Traveling to a conservation-minded destination is one of the greatest things a traveler can do. According to the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, European nations Switzerland, France, and Denmark take the top slots as the world’s most sustainable nations. Another great destination is Namibia, which became the first African nation to write protection of the environment into its constitution, and with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund, communities are empowered to conserve, manage, and benefit from the wildlife on their lands. So basically, the idea is to choose a path less traveled. Look for areas that aren’t as frequently visited by tourists and contribute to economies that don’t benefit from masses of tourists descending on their town.
2. Be aware of your Carbon Footprint.
The farther we travel, the greater the environmental impact and as travelers, we surely need to be mindful of reducing our carbon footprints. Globally, transportation contributes over 20% of carbon dioxide emissions. Now that the pandemic has hit the world, we would tend to focus more on local travel, within our own region, which will always be a more sustainable option. But in case you’re traveling a greater distance, some options are better than others – like taking a train rather than a flight, wherever you have a choice. Traveling by trains will be part of the emerging ‘slow travel’ trend by going to fewer places and spending more time in each. Not only will you experience a deeper sense of place, but you’ll also decrease your carbon footprint. Living all my life in India, I’ve rejoiced in traveling by train! And most parts of Southeast Asia are also well connected by this common means of transport.
3. Be conscious of where you stay.
Where you stay also has an impact on whether travel is sustainable or not. A 2017 study from Booking.com found that 68% of global travelers were more likely to stay in accommodations that are eco-friendly. To be honest, even though hotels are getting greener and focusing on waste management, rainwater harvesting, etc, the best and most sustainable accommodations involve staying with locals. That’s the reason why I personally prefer staying at homestays and Airbnbs rather than hotels. In that way, not only will your stay benefit their livelihood and contribute to the local economy, but as a bonus, you get a sense of the local culture and may even make a new friend in the process.
4. Being respectful of the local culture.
While it’s not as well known as some of the other aspects of sustainable travel, respecting local culture is one of the most important. Even before choosing a destination, you can help respect local cultures around the world by not participating in “over-tourism.” Although it’s a relatively new term, the impact of over-tourism continues to grow in major cities, putting undue stress on infrastructure and local residents. Being aware of these destinations and choosing less-frequented locales will allow you to have a better and more sustainable travel experience.
Many gestures have different meanings in different cultures, be sure to learn from locals on what’s appropriate before visiting religious and cultural sites, as well as be mindful while exploring the heritage sites. And once you choose a destination, being aware of local customs, rules, and traditions will both immerse you deeper, in addition to helping honor the culture you’re visiting.
5. Be thoughtful while buying souvenirs.
It’s always good to add to the local economy by buying souvenirs from local shops and markets, rather than from branded stores abroad. Check the labels to see that it’s actually a product made in that destination. You’ll be surprised to know that a lot of goods sold in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are actually produced in China! Yeah, you read that right. So make sure whatever you’re buying is locally manufactured. Try to choose souvenirs that you and your loved ones will actually use or treasure, not something made from plastic that will be thrown away the next time you move. Even better, go for something consumable like handmade chocolates, spices, or oils, etc. Never buy wildlife products – like bags made of croc-skin or hats with eagle feathers etc., because if you do so, you’ll be inadvertently helping to support a growing marketplace for trafficking rare and endangered wildlife products as souvenirs.
Of course, this is just a short list of everything we could be doing while exploring the world. If travelers like us are mindful of their impact and take the above into consideration when we travel, it will make a huge collective difference and we’ll together protect our beautiful planet for the future generations.