Long-distance travel is not good for the environment.
The good news is that sustainable travel is on the up in 2019 and – while we all want to be travelling smarter, fairer and more aware – just how do we go about it?
As a full-time traveller and digital nomad, long-distance travel is a regular occurrence.
I have been following a plant-based diet and living sustainably at home for several years, but I hadn’t really considered the effects of travel on our planet. That is until June 2018 when I became a serial traveller, became aware of how largely destructive to our planet travel is and suddenly felt an urgency to change my ways.
I began by incorporating small changes into my daily life, such as abandoning pre-wrapped processed foods, reducing my plastic waste by purchasing a reusable water bottle, and walking wherever possible rather than taking a car or scooter.
I am now very much a sustainable travel advocate and love to educate others on how they too can implement simple changes which, in turn, can help to make big changes to our planet.
So, what does sustainable travel even mean? Does it begin when you reach your destination or does it start when you’re sitting in work on a rainy Tuesday, desperately plotting your next escape? Is it about keeping your carbon footprint light or should you also be conscious about giving back to local communities? Do you have to sleep in a tent and cook on a solar-powered camp stove in order to be considered eco-friendly?
To break it down, sustainable travel (a.k.a. ecotourism) is all about being a responsible traveller and making simple, smarter choices in order to lessen your negative impact on every aspect of your trip. That doesn’t mean you need to totally overhaul your travels though.
Individually, each one of our choices make only a small difference in the big picture. But collectively, becoming more conscious about these little things can have a huge cumulative impact.
We cannot control the carbon emissions of the planes we fly in, the chemicals used by the hotels in which we stay, or the plastics used in the souvenirs sold in the destinations we visit. But we can choose more eco-friendly transportation, hotels, tour operators, and shopping tactics that do less damage to the environment, and create more benefits for local people.
Sustainable travel is essentially ensuring that we make choices that help to sustain or maintain the environment, cultures, animals’ habitats etc in the long term.
Now, for some people, being conscious-minded and having the drive to travel sustainably comes naturally. For others, the consciousness might be there, but the idea of giving up certain things is still one bridge too far.
Traveling sustainably starts with small steps and slowly – one step at a time, someday – it is incorporated into your life as it has mine. To help you in this process, I have put together a list of simple and practical steps that every traveller can use to make their adventures more friendly to the environment and the people and animals who inhabit it.
1. Where possible, avoid the plane and take a train, or bus, or ship. Not only will you experience a deeper sense of place, you’ll also decrease your carbon footprint. Air travel is the natural enemy of sustainable travel because it wreaks havoc on the environment.
2. When you do need to fly, look for the shortest flight path to your destination (even if the cost is slightly higher). Take offs and landings cause most of a plane’s carbon emissions, so it’s best to take a direct flight and avoid changes or stop-overs where possible.
3. Be a slow traveller. Mitigate the negative impact of air travel by flying less often and staying for longer in destinations. Being a slow traveller has many benefits and helps you to travel more sustainably.
4. Take a blanket (or blanket-scarf) for the plane journey. This way you won’t have to use the blankets provided by the airlines which are wrapped in plastic. Also ensure you keep hold of your airplane rubbish temporarily and recycle it when you get out into the terminal. Airlines have been slow to hop on the recycling bandwagon, so unless you’re asked for specific types of refuse, such as magazines or plastic bottles, you should assume that your airline isn’t sorting recyclables.
5. When you have arrived at your destination, there is an easy way you can reduce your ecological footprint; instead of hiring a car, scooter or taking a taxi, try to walk, take a bike, car share with others or use public transport to get around (whenever possible), Not only will this cut down your gas usage and save you money, but when walking or cycling, you can actually enjoy and feel the natural environment of the place you’re in much better. After all, what could be nicer than cycling through rice fields or tea plantations and taking in all the sounds and smells of nature?
6. Support local business owners by opting to stay in locally-owned accommodation. This is an opportunity to invest in the local community and economy, so instead of staying at a multinational hotel or resort, look for locally-owned guesthouses, home-stays and bed & breakfasts where you can immerse yourself in the local culture.
7. If a hotel is your only option, look for accommodation with a commitment to sustainability initiatives. Ask questions. Does the hotel you are staying at have a recycling program? Do they hire mostly local staff? Do they get most of their foods locally? Companies that utilise indigenous resources tend to be more sustainable, as they’re investing in the local economy.
8. When you leave your room, always turn off all lights, heat/AC, and television. Closing the curtains and blinds can help keep out the heat of the sun in summer. Also, leave a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of your room for the duration of your stay. This cuts down on chemical cleansing agents, electricity used in vacuuming, and the washing of bed linens and towels.
9. Take showers, not baths. Showers use just 10-25 gallons of water, while baths use up to 70 gallons. Also try to take shorter showers, turning the water off while you lather up, shampoo, shave, and brush your teeth. Want to experience something magical? Shower under a natural waterfall. There is truly no better showering experience!
10. Support the real local economy. Locally made (preferably handmade) products from indigenous artisans are not always cheaper, but purchasing them ensures your contribution to the economy will have a more direct and positive impact. When you buy directly from an artist, you’re not only helping them to feed their family, but in many cases you’re helping to preserve their cultural heritage. Not only this, but items that are flown or shipped in have a much larger carbon footprint. Anyway, nobody wants a cheap, cookie-cutter souvenir made on an Asian assembly line, right?
11. Never buy anything made from endangered plants/animals, or ancient artefacts – period. Not only is it wrong, but you probably won’t be able to get them back through customs.
12. Additionally, don’t buy souvenir photos from anyone exploiting wildlife, such as the famous performing elephants of Thailand.
SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL PACKING
13. Pack light – your luggage adds up to the carbon emissions. A plane’s fuel consumption is greater if the weight it’s carrying is heavier. Need some help with this one? Check out my blog on How To: Pack Your Life Into A Suitcase.
14. Take a BPA-free water bottle you can refill over and over again. Many international airports have free water dispensers, which saves you money and wasting plastic bottles. Also ensure that you opt to use your own cup or bottle during beverage service on the plane.
15. Carry tote shopping bags and produce bags in your luggage that you can use while perusing street markets and shops. Plastic bags are SO 20th century… You can also pack other reusables such as a coffee cup, steel or bamboo straw, food container (collapsible ones are great for travelling), and bamboo cutlery or a spork so you can avoid single-use plastics.
16. Take any leftover soap, shampoo, or toothpaste with you when you leave your accommodation. Unused portions are often thrown away, and you can reuse the plastic bottles in the future. Better yet, take zero waste toiletries, such as eco-friendly shampoo bars, deodorant paste, and tooth tablets. You’ll create a lot less waste and you won’t have to worry about liquids and aerosols.
17. Be thoughtful about the types of products you use, and opt for reef-safe suncream and biodegradable cosmetics. Many suncream contain coral harming chemicals, includingoxybenzone and octinoxate, which are known to accelerate coral bleaching even at small amounts and are therefore being banned in a growing number of places worldwide.
Sustainable Tours, Activities AND VOLUNTEERING
18. I explore on my own most of the time when I travel, but when I do seek out the services of a tour operator, I make sure to use sustainable tour operators with green accreditations. I always ask three clarifying questions before booking in; What are some of your tour company’s environmentally friendly practices? Can you give me an example of how your trips help to protect and support wildlife or cultural heritage? Do you employ local guides on your trips? Of course, also use common sense to determine whether a tour operator is taking care to minimise the impact of their tours on the local wildlife.
19. Choose small-group travel.It’s always best when travellers seek out small group tours and travel experiences rather than large group or cruise ship travel. By limiting the number of people who visit a place at a time, it is easier to effectively manage impacts to the environment and minimise disturbance to wildlife.
20. Travel off-season if you have the opportunity. This definitely makes a lower negative impact on the destination, its people and wildlife. It is easier to interact with locals in low season and you will also leave money to the local community outside peak season, which is a great thing. It is also harmful to nature when it gets too crowded as it is harder to control the masses so they don’t harm nature, and it provokes more rubbish.
21. Look for tours that won’t disturb wildlife and that ensure you are a certain distance away from any animals. If you are keen to see wild animals in their natural habitat, choose places that offer ethical and sustainable animal interactions such as elephant sanctuaries and marine conservation volunteer projects. You can usually get a sense of whether an animal tourism activity may be unethical based on the interaction with the animals, especially if the animals are not used to human contact. If you’re not sure, do some research into each specific type of wildlife tourism to ensure it is responsible. With only a few exceptions (like the friendly gray whales in Baja California, Mexico), activities that allow you to touch, cuddle, feed, or ride the animals, are to be avoided.
I also recommend reading Responsible Travel’s article on wildlife tourism issues.
22. When out hiking and exploring, bring along a small bag and pick up any rubbish you find in nature. Have a friendly competition with others to see who can clean up the most unsightly waste and join the movement of My Green Trip!
23. Return maps, brochures, and other tourist info once you’re finished with them so that they may be reused by future travellers.
24. Giving back is a great way to make your travel meaningful. If you would like to give back while traveling, make sure your support is making a positive difference. Also ensure the volunteering activities you would like to join are ethical and truly help the local community. A great option is participating in authentic and local experiences that empower local communities and let them fairly benefit. Not only will this provide you with a unique and memorable experience, it also creates a positive impact.
25. Don’t spontaneously take pictures. Some local people don’t like to be photographed so always ask if you can take a picture.
26. Spend your travel dollar in restaurants and cafes run by locals. This is a great way to meet locals who are enthusiastic about you trying their traditional food. Also avoid international food chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks where your money doesn’t enter the local economy.
27. Buy locally grown food from local producers. Avoid imported foods and international food chains where food has had to be transported from far away causing carbon emissions. You can shop for local fruits, vegetables and other produce at local farmers markets. The farmers markets were one of our favourite places to go in Bali.
28. Whether you’re eating in or dining out, one simple change can dramatically reduce your diet’s ecological impact. Consume less meat, or even better, none at all. Reducing how much meat you eat while abroad is a really simple way to lower your environmental impact. And it’s relatively easy to implement too as most local culinary staples abroad include little to no meat.
So, there you have it. Now, I’d like you to keep just one key point in mind: and that is to simply respect the fact that you’re travelling in someone else’s home, and to think about how you can make a positive impact while you’re there.
It’s time to reflect
Do you already travel sustainably? What are the rewards and challenges you face in doing so? What are your tips for other travellers who want to be more conscious-minded?
Share your responsible travel experiences and advice with friends, family, people you meet, on social media and even in the comments section below!
The more we talk about the way we travel, the more we reinforce how important it is to travel green.
About the guest blogger
Hi! I’m Natty, an english chick, who left her job in June 2018 to become a full-time world traveller and digital nomad.
I am an advocate for sustainability and breaking away from the 9-5 life.
I love coffee, smoothie bowls and discovering hidden waterfalls in Bali. When I’m not sharing as much information and inspiration as possible to make travelling full-time happen for you too, I work as an online Affiliate Marketer.
- Read here about how you can protect the ocean while you travel.