“Sustainability”: it’s the word on everybody’s lips these days. We’re constantly hearing about responsible tourism, eco-lodges and waste being dumped into the ocean. The concept of “being green” has filtered down to all of us in one way or another – but how do we ensure it doesn’t become another shallow Instagram trend? It’s time we all engage seriously with the issue of sustainable travel.
What is sustainable travel?
Are you one of those people who occasionally feels guilty getting flying? You’re not alone. When I started to think more about my own carbon footprint, one issue loomed so large it ended up becoming the elephant in the room, something I couldn’t keep ignoring: how could I square my passion for travel with sustainability? On the face of it, it seemed like the answer was simply “you can’t”. However, once I took a closer look, I discovered there are a lot of ways to solve this problem.
The concept of sustainable tourism rests on three main pillars, namely:
• The ecological pillar: e.g. conserving the natural environment of the destination you visiting
• The economic pillar: e.g. supporting local businesses there
• The social pillar: e.g. supporting cultural projects there
Here is how you can put that practice into action on your own travels.
The ecological pillar: consider your impact on the environment
Planes are a major issue when it comes to the environment – the CO2 emissions per-passenger are huge. So it’s important to consider the length of your trip in relation to the distance you’re travelling. In practice, this means the further you fly, the longer you should stay there. So if you’re considering a trip to the Caribbean then you should stay for at least a fortnight rather than flying there and back in a week. Another way to minimise your environmental impact on a trip is to eat less meat when travelling – and try to cut down at home too. Intensive livestock farming is still the number one cause of CO2 emissions.
A key sustainable travel practice (which may sound really obvious but you would be surprised how many travellers still do this), is to always take all your rubbish with you. Never ever leave anything behind on a beach or on a hiking trail – pack it away and dispose of it properly later. An easy solution is to bring your own reusable flask from home instead of constantly buying plastic bottles in the supermarket. Research in advance if the tap-water is safe to drink in the country you’re visiting (fun fact: it is in Curaçao!) or look out for a water cooler in your hostel. It’s also a good idea to take old t-shirts or broken or worn out shoes home and dispose of them there. A lot of countries just burn their rubbish instead of recycling it, which is unbelievably damaging to the environment.
Another big misconception is that eco-lodges are really expensive, which is understandable given that the term is often used to beautiful luxury hotels located by sustainable beaches. Despite this, it’s actually really easy to find environmentally-friendly hostel accommodation too. If the hostel is made out of wood from the rainforest, provides meals made from locally sourced ingredients and uses electricity from solar panels then you’ve got the makings of some really great eco-accommodation.
Costa Rica: the perfect destination
Around 25% of Costa Rica’s countryside and parts of its coastline have been set aside as conservation areas for decades, meaning the country has been home to some genuinely pioneering work in the field of ecotourism. They even introduced certification in 1999, the “CRT”, that rates the country’s accommodation according to how well it conforms to the principles of sustainable development. In Costa Rica, you’ll always be within easy distance of jungle, rainforest and beaches (like other-worldly beaches), making it all the more important, even as a tourist, to protect the country’s natural landscape. Here’s how to do it.
Book yourself into an eco-hostel
Eco hostels are ten a penny here. How about the Cerro Chato Eco Lodge? This small, secluded B&B is located at the base of the Arenal Volcano and is surrounded by lushly landscaped grounds abundant with tropical flowers and birds. There are plenty of homestays and hostels scattered across the whole country that are subject to sustainable standards and bear Costa Rica’s Sustainable Tourism certification. The people running these environmentally-friendly properties are usually open and friendly people who welcome visitors with open arms and are happy to explain sustainability to you in more detail.
On your bike!
Leave the scooters behind and jump on a bike in Costa Rica instead. In touristy areas like the Puerto Viejo hippie-village, you can rent out comfortable cruiser-bikes for day-trips or longer periods. Although going by bike takes longer, you’ll get closer to nature. Plus, sustainable tourism is just as much about “slow travel” as it is about cutting emissions to protect the environment. After all, what could be nicer than cycling through a palm-forest and taking in all the sounds of the rainforest? None of that’s possible with a scooter-engine rattling away in the background.
The economic pillar: support local businesses
First of all: the tourism industry in all its forms can boost the economy of a country, which is a great thing. However, resorts and large hotel chains with all-inclusive deals are often run from abroad. So, if you want to directly support the local people and the economy of the country you’re visiting, then avoid big hotel chains and book accommodation run by locals. The same goes for businesses: did a local fisherman offer you a tour in his own boat? Did you have a really enthusiastic and friendly local guide in the national park? Then leave them a bigger tip and recommend them to other people.
Malawi: the perfect destination
Yep, you read that right. This small state in southeast Africa, bordering countries such as Tanzania and Zambia, is one of the poorest in the world. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth putting Malawi on your bucket list for when visiting this region. The place has hardly been touched by tourism, despite the fact that it’s home to Lake Malawi (the ninth biggest lake on the planet). On top of this, there are tea plantations, beaches and a mountain range to hike in. Head there now and boost the country’s economy!
Hostels run by locals
A lot of the hostels in Malawi have been set-up by locals. The more local people involved in running the day-to-day business the better. This works particularly well at the Pakachere Hostel in Zomba. Surrounded by lush greenery, it’s a brilliant base if you’re staying in the small city of Zomba and it lies on a stunningly beautiful plateau that’s perfect for hiking. In the evening, the Pakachere is a popular meeting spot for many expats, locals and travellers, and there are regular games nights too. Another benefit to accommodation options in poorer countries like this one is that they also support a range of aid organisations, meaning you can donate money or goods when you visit, safe in the knowledge that everything will go to where help is needed.
Choose local operators
To explore this part of Malawi, you can get a seat on a minibus for a small fee – just make sure you aren’t in a hurry. These buses only leave once they’ve filled-up, which can take hours. If you’d prefer to rent a car, team up with a couple of people from your hostel and go to a local company and book one there (instead of using the internet). If you fancy going on a safari, it’s better to ask about a guide than to drive through the park yourself. Park employees know their way around, meaning you’ll get to see a lot more – including things you might otherwise have missed (animal tracks for instance). Ask your guide as many questions as you like, but also remember to give them a good tip as well.
The social pillar: respect the culture and the people
This section is complicated since it touches on a broad spectrum of issues: the violation of human rights, modern-day slavery and disrespect for cultural traditions are just some of the things that ill-informed tourism can lead to. A lot of things go on behind closed doors that you wouldn’t be aware of, so rather than feeling guilty, you should educate yourself to ensure you’re better informed on your next trip. It’s also important to be aware of the cultural traditions of the place you’re travelling too. To start with, being generally respectful towards the people there and showing an interest in the country is important and allows you to recognise any cultural differences or misunderstandings. Start thinking about the country you’re visiting and the people who live there as you plan your trip. Are you flying to a poor country? Then check out Pack for a Purpose, which sets out all the aid supplies you can take with you.
India: the perfect destination
This huge subcontinent has bags of surprises in store. There are incredible temples scattered across the whole country just waiting for you to visit. You’ll have the chance to encounter a wide range of religions, cultural traditions and people from different backgrounds. Even though Indian people are generally very friendly, helpful and full of curiosity, the country’s poverty and hygiene standards can be a shock at first. What better place to broaden your horizons and question your assumptions while meeting with other people, leaving your preconceptions behind you?
Respecting other cultures
India is a very ethnically and culturally diverse country. It is home to over 100 different languages, as well as countless religions and cultures, all in one big melting-pot. Followers of Hinduism make up 80% of the population, meaning it’s the country’s largest religion, followed by Islam and other religions. In this regard, it’s important to check your guidebook (or check online) before or during your trip through each region. The subcontinent is huge, and the differences between each state are just as big. If you respect cultural practices, such as taking off your shoes before going into a temple, the country will open its doors to you.
If you’re travelling solo or just want to chat and get together with other travellers for excursions, you’ll be able to find travel buddies and open conversations in your hostels. The Wanderers Nest Hostel, located in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is a great place to stay. The hostel has even committed to reducing plastic waste and supporting the local community.
Be open when meeting the locals
In India, people often stare at tourists and come up to them. It can take a little getting used to at first, but if you’re willing to be open towards people you don’t know, you should give it a go in India. There will be a lot of people who want to have their photo taken with you. It’s even true that female tourists are often asked to hold a local baby – it’s supposed to bring good luck. Sometimes the endless attention you receive can get a bit annoying, disconcerting and tiresome. You’re not a robot, so it’s ok to say “no” sometimes. However, most of the time the encounters will be really interesting and allow you to get a broader view of the world. Anyway, you came here for a reason, right? To get to know another culture? So get going and do just that!
Support social projects in a meaningful way
A lot of travellers really want to help, but forget that aid work is really complex. If, for example, you decide to volunteer in an Indian orphanage, you won’t realise until you’re leaving how difficult it is for the children to see you go. The emotional bonds they form are ripped apart, again and again. So, what else can you do to help out? Well, one way is supporting social infrastructure through responsible consumption, which is something you can easily do at home too. The German label “Glimpse Clothing” offers Indian women somewhere safe to work and rescues them from the spiral of violence. Another piece of advice: before visiting a region, approach a couple of local aid organisations and ask if there is a need for any specific aid goods (e.g. pens, books, chalk) so bring a few useful products with you.
The responsibility to travel the world in a sustainable way lies with us. It’s not always just about having fun, but isn’t that part of the experience of travelling? To get a broader view of the world and a glimpse what really lies beneath the surface? In twenty years’ time, don’t we still want the experience of travelling to be the same as we imagine now? Standing by a clear mountain lakes and walking along spotless beaches? Encountering other cultures and learning new things now and again? If you answer is YES, then we’ll have to choose to travel in a way that is sustainable and responsible now. The reality is, it’s not that hard. We just have to make a start (at long last).
About the author
Anika Landsteiner has a blog, where she writes about (sustainable) travel, capturing moments, as well as life at home and on the road. You can also follow her on Instagram. Her book, Gehen um zu bleiben (Going away, so you can stay) has been out since 2017.
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