How to travel more sustainably

Paul and I are passionate about travel. We love to slowly explore the world, immerse ourselves in other cultures, practice our language skills and learn more about the world and about ourselves. Travelling has countless benefits for those who travel and for those who host travellers:

  • The travel and tourism industry contributes nearly 10% to the global economy (according to the UNWTO). As one of the fastest growing sectors globally, it is a key driver for socio-economic growth.
  • Travel and tourism is one of the main income sources for many developing countries, with economic and employment benefits not only in the travel industry itself but also in related sectors, such as construction, ‎agriculture and telecommunications.

But there is also a flip side to travel: According to the UNWTO, the number of visitor arrivals globally almost doubled in the last 16 years (from 674 million in 2000 to 1.2 billion in 2016), and the growth is expected to continue at a similar rate to 1.8 billion by 2030.

This increase of visitors is becoming a problem as destinations are not prepared to handle the influx of tourists, often multiple times the countries’ or cities’ populations. Too many visitors at any one time have led to overcrowding, driving up prices, changing the socio-economic structure of destinations such as Barcelona, Amsterdam or Dubrovnik, and detrimentally impacting fragile ecosystems in Iceland, the Galápagos and elsewhere.

“It used to take years for a destination to become super popular. Now, with China on the move and with social media, a destination can go from unknown to top 10 list within two years.” – Yves Marceau, G Adventures

Fundamental issues need to be addressed at the institutional level through collaboration between governments, tourism boards and travel companies. This includes establishing accepted ways to measure and quantify the impact that tourism has and directing more funds to actual tourism management rather than just tourism marketing.

But each of us (travellers) can (and needs to) make our own contribution to ensure that travelling the world doesn’t become (more of) a burden and nuisance to others (than it already is).

Image courtesy of Nick Randle (via Unsplash)

As much as we enjoy exploring the world, sustainability is close to our hearts, and Paul and I try to travel sustainably.

What does sustainability and sustainable travel actually mean?

In the 1980s, the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development to develop a joint response to the conflict between economic growth on the one side, and accelerating ecological degradation and social injustice on the other. The report issued by the commission, known as the Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Short-termism is the cause of so many problems in our world today, and this definition responds to it by considering future generations.

Sustainability encompasses three elements: economic prosperity, a healthy environment and social justice, which due to their interrelated nature cannot be successfully developed in isolation.

Image courtesy of the UNWTO

As travellers, this means we need to

  • be aware of our travel behaviour and its environmental, economic and social impact; and
  • make conscious decisions about our travel behaviour.

“Every action counts, and travellers have a strong role to play in building a more sustainable tourism sector. Imagine the impact of one small action multiplied by millions. We want to inspire all travellers to be the change they want to see in the world.” – Taleb Rifai, ex-Secretary-General of the UNWTO

What can you as an individual do to ensure your travels don’t become a burden?

Do your research and prepare

Inform yourself about your destination/s before you travel. Apart from the obvious such as things to see and do, find out what time of the year is (off) peak season, what’s the weather like during the time you intend to visit, and what are the local laws and customs. The latter will also help you to travel safely.

If you can, visit outside of peak season. You help alleviate some of the pressure on your destination and will be able to enjoy lower airfares and accommodation rates, and fewer tourists.

Before you embark on an activity (such as an organised day tour), do your research and ask questions, including

  • What does the tour specifically entail?
  • What do I need to bring?
  • How large is the tour group, at a maximum?
  • How busy will it be (at the points of interest the tour includes)?
  • Are there times of the day/week that are less busy?
  • Who owns the tour company?
  • How does the local community benefit from my purchase?

Be aware of sacred sights and (if you intend to visit them) find out what is okay (and what should be avoided). Ayers Rock (or Uluru) is a sacred place to Australia’s Aboriginal population, yet many visitors climb Uluru (out of ignorance and/or disrespect).

Image courtesy of Ewan Robertson (via Unsplash)

Pack sensibly. Lugging man-size trolleys around narrow cobble-stoned streets is no fun for you nor locals trying to get passed minding their daily business. Check out our carry-on packing lists for men and women.

Packing sensibly also goes for your activities. Only the other day, local news here in New Zealand reported people having to be rescued by emergency services from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as they were caught in high winds and icy conditions without the appropriate clothing. While it may be a free service here in New Zealand to those rescued, it costs the New Zealand taxpayer and can be avoided.

Be respectful towards locals and fellow travellers

Dress appropriately. This is even more important at places of worship and when visiting a less liberal country than your own. Entering a church in spaghetti tops and shorts that show your butt cheeks, as Paul and I saw a bunch of Western teenagers do in Antigua/Guatemala, is way out of line, even in our (non-religious) eyes.

Remember, as a traveller you are a guest in someone’s home (town/country). Paying for something doesn’t entitle you to behave disrespectfully and inconsiderate. If you like to party while on holiday, do so sensibly. This includes to keep the noise down after dark, especially in residential areas, and to not drink more than you can handle.

Respect signs. Don’t climb Mayan ruins if it is not allowed, and don’t climb over barriers at waterfalls, canyons and the like. The signs are there to protect the sights (and visitors from their own stupidity).

Image courtesy of Zach Savinar (via Unsplash)

Ask before taking photos of locals. Treat (tourism industry) staff with respect: Your hotel maid is not your servant. And respect other visitors – they have the same right to be there and enjoy the experience as you do. This includes being considerate of others when taking selfies.

Support local communities

Choose travel means and activities that support the local community (for example, by using companies that are locally owned / family businesses). When we visited the Galápagos Islands last year, one of the reasons why we decided not to join a cruise (besides the price) was that only 6% of the money you pay actually go to the local community. 94% end up in the pockets of overseas cruise ship companies and the airlines servicing the Galapagos (only one of them is Ecuadorian owned).

Learn the local language (at least some keywords and phrases). You will leave a better impression on the people you meet than if you repeat yourself s-l-o-w-l-y in English.

Stay with locals. Ideally choose homestays, hostels or B&Bs over self-catered accommodation and anonymous hotels. This not only gives you the opportunity to interact with your host/s and fellow travellers, and thus learn more about the country and culture, but also combats the property speculation and gentrification issues brought about by AirBnB and the like. Asking your host/s for recommendations regarding activities, sights and eateries will most likely also help you discover some gems off the beaten tourist track.

Eat at local eateries. A friend of mine told me the other day about a nightmarish trip back to Europe after his wife had got food poisoning at a restaurant in Peru. They had eaten ceviche at countless family restaurants around Peru and never had any problems. People often avoid hawker stalls and small neighbourhood restaurants in people’s houses/garages because they are scared they get sick. Quite often though it’s the expensive tourist restaurants that cause you problems.

In Ecuador, we would have our lunches at the small family restaurants, often not more than a few tables in someone’s house. You get a soup, main and often also a dessert plus a drink for USD2.50-3.50. We loved some home-cooking so much we returned many times, and became friends with the family. If you see locals eat somewhere, go in and take your seat. Chances are you won’t regret it.

Image courtesy of Aaron Burden (via Unsplash)

Buy at local markets. As mentioned in our recent post, we love buying our fruit and veggies at local markets. It’s always fresher and cheaper than in a supermarket, and you have a chance to practice your language skills: My Spanish teacher took me to a market in Quito one afternoon to learn about the different fruit and veggies. One of the best ways to learn and practice a language.

If you buy souvenirs for your loved ones at home (or yourself), support local artisans rather than shop at cookie-cutter souvenir shops. The souvenirs sold in those shops are often Made in China (even though you might be in Peru). Look for arts and crafts that are unique to an area. Buy from a place where you can see the items being made in front of you. This way, you not only support the artist and their family (financially) but also ensure cultural traditions live on (like the weaving and wood carving in Guatemala, for example).

In many countries, bargaining is part of the culture, for example in the Middle East. Inform yourself whether bargaining is appropriate (and even expected) and bargain keeping the local average income in mind.

Do not give money or sweets to begging children. We have seen countless children on the streets begging when they should be at school. Talking to local charities has made us realise that it is more lucrative for the families to send their children on the streets. The same charities focus their efforts on educating the families that education is important to break the cycle of poverty (and on providing free schooling for the children). So, instead of giving in to these children and hoping your money will make a difference, support local NGOs and/or schools.

Image courtesy of Larm Rmah (via Unsplash)

Be mindful of animals

Avoid sights and activities that exploit or distress animals. Paul and I purposely did not visit a turtle sanctuary on Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines or swam with whale sharks off Cancún in Mexico after a bit of investigation unveiled questionable research methods and inappropriate living conditions (in the case of the turtle sanctuary) and animal distress due to overcrowding (in the case of the whale shark experience). Seeing animals in their natural habitat, unencumbered by us humans, is a million times more rewarding than seeing dolphins jump through hoops or a polar bear in a zoo enclosure.

If you are lucky enough to encounter wildlife in their natural habitat observe the animals from a distance. Do not disturb wildlife or alter their behaviour (which includes feeding them) to get that perfect selfie shot. Be especially mindful around wildlife during mating, breeding and rearing season.

Image courtesy of Kleber Varejão Filho (via Unsplash)

Keep your dog on a leash in wildlife habitat. Through our house sitting, we have visited countless parks in recent months. While many dogs are well behaved off leash if they see a bird or other animal their first reaction is to chase them. Dogs are a key culprit in the threat faced by New Zealand’s native bird, the Kiwi. So keep your furry friend on a leash if you walk through wildlife habitat.

Leave nothing but footprints

The other day, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) reported that a recent popularity of the Blue Lake among hikers is putting this iconic sight at risk. With a visibility of up to 80 metres, the Blue Lake is considered the clearest lake in the world. Unfortunately, not only is it now way more crowded around the lake each season, but hikers have been found to bathe, and wash their clothes and equipment in it. If you need to wash yourself or your equipment fill a bucket and do it at a safe distance away from lakes and streams, using biodegradable soap.

If you are an avid hiker like Paul and me, chances are you already adhere to the following. If you are a novice, here are some tips that ensure those that hike the trail after you will have the same awesome experience you do:

  • Stay on marked trails.
  • Don’t pick flowers, collect stones or any other souvenirs.
  • Take your rubbish with you.
  • If you need to go to the bathroom in nature dig a hole (a safe distance away from any streams and lakes) and cover up your business.
  • Only lit a fire where it is safe to do so (for example, in designated areas) and do not lit one if a fire ban is in place.
Image courtesy of Jan-Niclas Aberle (via Unsplash)

Reduce waste

On our travels, we have seen great and very poor examples when it comes to recycling and treating waste. Seeing the rubbish on lake and roadsides in the Caribbean and in Central America hurts (not only) our eyes.

Our presence as travellers adds waste to our destination/s, so the very least we can do is limit our impact. How can we do that? Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid packaging. This is one of the benefits of buying at local markets: Your fruit and veggies won’t be wrapped in plastic; you can just place them into your shopping bag (see below). Another source for packaging is toiletries. Since Paul and I travel with carry-on luggage, our toiletries need to stay within the 100ml limit for fluids. Instead of creating lots of plastic waste by buying travel-sized bottles more frequently, we travel with toiletry bars (of soap, shampoo, conditioner etc) as much as possible. Some people make their own but we haven’t gone down that route yet.
  • Avoid plastic bags. Paul and I travel with a silk bag which we take with us whenever we go shopping for groceries. It is super strong, can be washed with our normal laundry and folds down to handkerchief size when not in use.
  • Avoid straws. Bring your own (reusable) one, drink out of the bottle or just ask for a glass.
  • Recycle (where possible).
  • Share meals or bring your own (reusable) container or plate for leftovers.
  • Do not litter – even if you see others do it.
  • Call out bad behaviour. We marked a Savannah Motel down because they use Styrofoam cups, and plastic crockery and cutlery.
  • Leave information material of your destination at your destination, for the next one to use. Paul and I scan it/take a picture for future reference. This also helps keep our luggage within carry-on limits.
Image courtesy of Hermes Rivera (via Unsplash)

Conserve scarce resources

Several islands in the Caribbean and some islands in Galápagos do not have any freshwater source… Water is caught in the rainy season, stored in large tanks, and needs to last through the dry season. When it doesn’t rain enough (thanks to Global Warming), water runs out before the rainy season arrives. Whether your destination experiences water scarcity or not, be mindful of your water usage. An easy but effective way to do this is to take shorter showers, which is actually not that difficult if the water is cold (as often the case in developing countries) and/or it’s hot outside.

Speaking of water (and waste just earlier). Travel with a reusable water bottle (link to Amazon water bottle) and boil water rather than buy water bottles all the time. The oceans and your wallet will thank you for it.

Use local/public transport or better yet walk, rather than drive everywhere in a rental car. Not only is fuel expensive in most countries. Travelling as the locals do gives you the chance to immerse yourself in local life and will be better for your waste-line.

Finally: Turn off appliances when you don’t need them – such as lights, fans, and especially heaters and air conditioners. Air conditioners are THE biggest energy waster out there. If there is a good cross-breeze, open windows instead. BTW, this also reduces your energy costs at home.

“Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.” – Pico Iyer, British-American Travel Writer

Image courtesy of Luis Tosta (via Unsplash)

A lot of what we suggest above is common sense. Yet, it’s astonishing how many people forget their manners when they are somewhere else.

What unacceptable behaviour have you experienced on your travels? What other tips can you share?

Interested in further readings? Here are some links we have come across during our research:

Feature image courtesy of Ethan Weil (via Unsplash)