Sustainability is a buzzword within the travel industry that has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. Awareness of the impacts of climate change, over-tourism and harmful tourist practices is growing amongst travel discourse, and a new generation of travellers are seeking to minimise the disruption their presence is making. Covid-19 has, in many ways, boosted this movement, allowing for a complete reset of the tourist industry and making space for more mindful and cautious travel in the future. This article, we discuss some of the ways you as a traveller can minimise your impact on humans, animals and the environment, and even work towards positive and lasting changes to the world around you.
Avoid Air Travel
After several decades of ludicrously cheap flight deals from budget airlines, the tide is beginning to turn. Much like fast fashion, some deals are simply too good to be true, and ultimately a bigger price has to be paid. As we head into an uncertain future, budget airlines have no place amongst the sustainable and climate conscious society we must be working towards, and though it pains us to admit it, this means big changes to the way we travel.
Currently, sites like Skyscanner are working climate consciousness into their business models, offering flyers the option to purchase the most "carbon friendly" flight for their trip. Other airlines, like EasyJet, have pledged to offset 100% of the carbon from their flights, although it is yet to be seen how well they will enact such a policy. Such changes make a difference, but it is important not to allow sustainability discourse to mislead us into a false sense that enough is being done.
Whilst waiting for the big businesses to make structural changes however, it is up to us to try and guide the market, by refusing to use air travel as much as possible. It may be tempting to get a flight when travelling internationally or cross-country, but weigh up all your options before doing so. It may be that travelling by train, coach, carpool (e.g. services such as BlaBlaCar) or even biking it(!) will be a more rewarding, exciting and ethical journey.
Support The Right Businesses
In the same way, it is important to be selective about which businesses within the travel industry you want to support. Is your tour company actively working to minimise waste and carbon emissions and support local communities? Nowadays, there are plenty of tour companies, such as Responsible Travel and I Like Local that make this their top priority. If travelling independently, try to stay in hotels or hostels that don’t just talk about, but show, evidence of their commitment to sustainability.
For example, Jetpack Eco Lodge in Berlin uses 100% renewable energy, and all food is composted on site. ZiZi Mekhoo Homestay in Sapa, Vietnam offers handicraft sessions with local Hmong families and even encourages visitors to spend a day volunteering at a local primary school. For more inspiration, check out this list of Hostelworld’s favourite eco-friendly hostels.
Sometimes it is not just a case of looking for the most sustainable option when out-there, but actually planning the foundations of your trip around responsible destinations. Remember that “responsible travel” can be defined as short-term individual actions that minimise negative environmental impacts, generate positive economic and social benefits for locals and contribute to a more culturally sensitive, respectful form of tourism.
“Sustainable tourism” on the other hand, is the sum total of these practices, the conditions that lead to long-term and lasting change. Both terms are inter-connected and work to achieve the same outcome, but are subtly different. When picking your next destination, question whether you will be able to engage with the services available in a way that is both mindful and sustainable, and if not, perhaps you should consider somewhere else.
Be Smart with Your Packing
We all know that the traveller’s backpack is a constant battle for status and prestige. Having the smallest number of litres is a universal language, communicating to all you interact with that you are the ultimate nomad and master of all things minimalist. Packing for the road takes careful consideration, since most items you bring must serve multiple utilities in order to be deemed essential.
Alongside this, however, should be a consideration of how you can reduce your waste along the road. Reusable items come in all forms nowadays, from water bottles and sporks, to menstrual cups and even wipes. Similarly, wash products like toothpaste and shampoo can be sold in bar format, saving space and minimising plastic. Bring a mesh laundry bag for your washing and a reusable shopping bag for everything you buy. Not only will this drastically reduce the amount of waste you leave behind you, but it will also massively elevate your status as a master of travel!
To volunteer or not to volunteer?
As mentioned earlier, travelling responsibly can be a minefield of misleading “sustainability” claims. Knowing that this is a priority for millennial and Gen-Z travellers, many companies, tours and hotels saturate their advertising with buzzwords of eco-consciousness, without necessarily being anything of the sort. It is up to us as individuals to weigh up the impacts of our actions, and consider what we are doing to actually make a difference, and what we are doing for our own sense of self-worth.
It may be that volunteering on a farm or building site is doing more harm than good if you do not have the proper training. Some Western companies make lots of money by selling these “experiences” to wealthy students, whilst robbing trained and experienced locals of a job.
In fact, simply choosing to buy from a small local business, such as a restaurant or store, may be the best thing you can do for a community. Whether on the tourist trail or off the beaten track, finding out which businesses are locally owned is vital to making sure your valuable tourist dollar is going into local pockets.
That being said, there are still plenty of combined work and travel experiences that actually do make a positive impact, and can be a great way of giving back when travelling. Volunteering to teach English, or other subjects, in a local school can give the teachers a well-earned break and equip children with valuable language skills. Beach clean-up days are also an invaluable way of clearing away the damage over-tourism can bring and protecting local wildlife.
In general, here are a few things to keep in mind when weighing up whether a volunteering programme is responsible and sustainable:
- Am I taking a job away from a local who could have benefited from this?
- Am I helping local people to help themselves?
- Am I making a positive impact that will last longer than my presence there?
- (If paying a fee) Is the majority of this money going to the local community?
- Will I be comfortable supporting and sustaining contact with locals after my volunteering experience?
- If not, will this be detrimental to their well-being? (e.g. young children)
- What skills do I have to pass on, and in what way will I do this?
With these in mind, a volunteering placement can be a hugely rewarding experience that can shape your perspective of the world, allow you to make new and exciting relationships and give back in a powerful way.
Spread the Word
Finally, spread the word! The internet is a great way of bringing once marginalised businesses or companies to the fore-front and encouraging others to behave sustainably. If you visit somewhere or engage with a local business that you think is making a big difference, let others know! Leave positive reviews, share on your social media and get your friends excited about responsible travel. Changing to an eco-friendlier way of doing tourism doesn’t have to be about shaming others for flying with budget airlines, but sharing the love when it comes to positive actions.
When planning your next group trip with friends, inspire them into choosing a train journey over a flight. Find sustainable hostels or tours to get excited about, from trendy storage-container hotel rooms to stays that involve feeding wild horses (such as popular California ranch Return to Freedom). Charities and online articles can preach sustainable travel all they like, but nothing gets people motivated more than copying the inspired action of friends.