Sustainability is a subject popping up in travel discussions with high frequency these days. In my experience, “sustainable travel” can be an overwhelming, yet simultaneously limited term. Just existing seems to be unsustainable. Sustainable travel is not just about eliminating plastic and flying less. It also calls into question the impact our travel has on the local cultures of the places we visit. What harm do we do to wildlife by our treks and animal encounters? There’s so many things to consider. That’s why I created this list of 20 tips for sustainable travel – to break it down into simple changes to make.
If I’m being honest, it’s not alway a very fun topic to think about. It’s easy to feel guilty about your vacation or adventure if you think too long sometimes, which nobody wants. The sad reality of it, is that while so many of us love to travel, there are some dark sides to both the industry and our impact which we can’t ignore. If we want to have “untouched”, culture-rich, breathtaking locations to visit decades from now, we have to protect the planet we’ve got.
Perfection is likely a bar we will never reach when it comes to sustainability. Travel means moving, and that leaves an impact. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t continually try to do better and make that impact shrink. I think we need to be more considerate about our choices on our trip, more intentional, more aware. We need to consider the rest of the people, plants, animals, and earth on our trip instead of pretending our trip exists in a travel bubble. We need research, after which we can make an informed decision about the adventures we have planned.
I’ve got 20 tips below for you to consider with ways you can be more sustainable (and/or considerate) in all aspects of your travel. Read through the list and pat yourself on the back for any that you’ve been doing already. Then pick a few where you’d like to do better, and focus on those for your next adventure. I challenge us to be more considerate on our next trip, and more considerate on the trip after that. And on our next trip, we’ll be more considerate still. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can always be better.
Go to the sustainability archives for more posts.
1. Read the TripAdvisor reviews.
National geographic said that for attractions known to harm animals, only 20% or so of the reviews express any concern about the animals welfare. That being said, in most cases where animal encounters are being offered, there will be a few reviews calling into question how they treat them. Read through these thoroughly, knowing that far fewer people will report any concerns than may be accurate. If anyone is saying that they are sketched out, especially if they can point to specific things they saw, go somewhere else.
Not sure where to find ethical animal encounters? Start with this list for some great suggestions.
2. Do your research before trying exotic foods, like shark fin or sea turtle.
Although sometimes available in restaurants for a pretty penny, these “delicacies” are often putting extreme pressures on endangered animals and contributing to their possible extinction. Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. If a restaurant is serving something on the menu that sounds exotic, do a quick Google search to see how it is they’re able to serve you this exotic animal.
3. Don’t feed the wild animals.
I know – it’s tempting and sometimes even encouraged, such as when you’re on a cruise and stop at an island with monkeys, or you’re on a snorkeling tour and they chum the waters to lure more animals to the site. However, this usually creates an unhealthy dependency on humans to provide food for wild animals. This can in turn can create safety concerns for future travelers, disrupt the ecosystem, and threaten the very wildlife you’ve traveled to see.
4. Don’t buy animal souvenirs.
Ivory art pieces, animal parts, and other similar objects encourage the hunting of animals that are often at great risk of extinction already. Don’t participate, even if it would make a beautiful centerpiece. I promise they are more beautiful in nature! Elephants are hunted often for their ivory tusks, one of many other battles they face with the tourism industry. Read the Suitcase Six post about my elephant encounter.
5. Ask questions.
If you’re visiting a place where you can see animals, or in anyway interacting with them, ask the people running the attraction how they treat the animals. If you don’t like the answers, leave. It’s one of the best ways we have to raise our voice about how important it is to protect the wildlife.
6. Ask for permission before photographing people.
Not only is it rude and intrusive, it is also taboo in many cultures to be photographed. Unless you ask permission, you risk offending the citizens of the country you’re visiting. This does not endear them to hosting future travelers, nor does it give them the respect they are due as we are guests in their homeland.
7. Learn the language.
It’s presumptuous and naive to expect everyone else to speak English, or your native language, if it’s not the official language of the country you’re visiting. Learning a few key words, like “yes/no,” “please/thank you,” “bathroom,” “help,” and “how are you,” go quite a long way in being understood and signaling to locals respect for their culture.
For the basics, I like to use DuoLingo. Five minutes a day and you’ll be well on your way to learning a new language, and you can practice from your computer or phone!
8. Don’t haggle too hard.
If your country’s currency is strong in the places you’re visiting, consider the impact haggling has on your wallet versus that of the vendor you haggle with. Sometimes we can spend precious time arguing down prices that amount to a few cents. Often that makes a tiny difference in our personal travel budgets, but could amount to a lot in the local economy. Haggle until the prices are reasonable but consider whether you can spare a few extra coins to support the local vendors rather than bartering to the death.
9. Support local businesses.
Along the same lines as the previous tip, support the local economy! If you can buy your foods at a local market, rather than a chain-grocery story – do it. Opt for the small coffee shop over the Starbucks on the corner. Consider a guest home over a giant hotel. Tourism is a critical industry in many countries, and you can say “thanks” for hosting you by directing some of this money to locals instead of the CEO’s of big corporations.
10. Leave an orphanage visit OFF your itinerary.
In many regions, the children there have families from whom they’ve been separated. Visiting the orphanages provides money to organizations that are unethically tricking parents into sending their children there and supporting a dark industry.
Don’t believe me? Read this Global Citizen’s article about Cambodian orphanages.
11. Respect the cultural norms.
Understanding taboos, norms, religious practices, and traditions of a region can go a long way in making sure you don’t unintentionally behave in ways that offend the locals. This means higher chances of you receiving a warm welcome and an invitation to return! Plus, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of the region by doing a little basic background research first.
12. Fly as little as possible, nonstop when you can, and utilize public transportation systems.
The bulk of carbon emissions from flying come from taking off and landing, which obviously increases when you make two stops or fly between short distances. Take trains for overland distances when possible before catching a flight.
13. Research your accommodations to ensure you aren’t staying in a place that harms the local economy.
For example, in some regions Airbnb’s have been hugely problematic for the local citizens. The influx of tourists who can pay higher prices drives real estate costs up, pushing out locals who can’t afford the rising prices. While it may be the most inexpensive option, I think there maybe reason for pause if the use of an Airbnb as a tourist means the locals are finding it challenging to stay, well, local. As I said before, this is a case where I recommend you do your research and make your own judgement call.
14. Pack light.
The lighter you pack, the fewer carbon emissions you will create as you fly, drive, and generally travel around. This post from the David Suzuki Foundation explains why it’s so important to travel sustainably and how packing light can help you get there.
See why I always pack these leggings in my travel backpack!
15. Buy bulky clothing items that you need for the trip in the country you’re visiting.
It saves having to pack them and simultaneously supports the local businesses there, if you shop carefully. Again, a lighter pack means fewer carbon emissions. If you have to purchase new clothes for your trip, include it in your budget and save yourself some fun shopping abroad. You’re more likely to find items in season too, since the country is experiencing it at that moment. For some tips on things to consider when shopping, check out my post on Fair Trade.)
16. Travel within your limits, or be prepared for unpleasant consequences.
This is not to victim blame or discourage people from visiting certain parts of the world, or chasing certain adventures. Rather, this is a reminder that if you’ve never hiked before, being in a novel place does not mean it’s necessarily the right time to try something you’re not trained to attempt. Think – repelling down a mountain by yourself, or hiking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro without training. By all means, have your adventures and don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you get hurt or lost, not all countries have the resources or policies to pull out all the stops and rescue you. (Sidenote – get health insurance. This will ensure that if something unfortunate does happen, you can afford to pay for it.)
17. Bring your own water bottle.
Enough said. And if you’re not convinced, read this article about the damage plastic water bottles are causing around the world: read this.
Visit the Plastic Pollution Coalition to learn about ways to replace the use of plastic in your daily life, and steps we can take to make a difference with this issue.
18. Use coral friendly sunscreen.
Coral reefs are dying and the toxic sunscreens we use when swimming, diving, and even washing off are contributing to their slow demise. If you’re like me and want to have a chance to dive below and see the Great Barrier Reef for yourself some day, do us all a favor and pick up some coral-friendly sunscreen.
I suggest reading this article written by a scuba diver for a more practical look at how to proceed knowing sunscreens can damage coral.
19. Don’t litter, even if everyone else is.
A lot of countries or regions do not have the infrastructure for trash elimination or recycling. Especially in areas that are more densely-populated, it can be common for people to throw trash on the streets. Even when this is the case, or especially when this is the case, take special care to dispose of your trash properly.
20. Research tours before you go to make sure they’re doing their part to protect the environment.
Sadly, there are a lot of tours and tour guides who will take you places or do things that puts the natural environment at great risk. It’s our responsibility as tourists to do as much background research as we can to ensure we aren’t encouraging this behavior by supporting these companies. Again, ask questions!
Check out Singapore’s eco-friendly garden!
SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL BONUS TIPS:
Leave everything in better shape than you found it.
As much as we want our souvenirs, it’s a bad idea to take plants/animals you find on your adventures back home with you. While I have been guilty myself of trying to bring back a feather or seashell as a souvenir, it’s best for the environment (and therefore best for tourists who want to enjoy said environments) to leave all the bits and pieces where they are.
VOTE. Make noise. Get involved in your local and national politics.
It may feel like doing some of these things won’t make a difference if it’s just you. Frankly, sometimes that is true. You – alone – will not stop climate change, or pollution, or poverty. BUT you – alone – can stop YOURSELF from contributing.
Maybe more importantly, you can influence the people who are able to make more widespread changes. I’m talking about your politicians and your corporations. Call your senators. Sign those petitions. Boycott the companies still profiting from unsustainable practices. Support those companies who are leading the way in more considerate living, considerate travel. Convince your politicians to vote in favor of our planet, and the multitude of creatures living on it.
So there you have it. Twenty some tips on how to be a more considerate traveler. Pop in to the comments and let me know which tip you’re going to try next time you travel!