How to Travel Sustainably
October 8, 2021 • 10 min read
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Travel is, without a doubt, one of the most soul-nourishing experiences there is. Immersing ourselves in other cultures, learning about the world, trying new foods, and engaging in different activities are all incredible ways in which we can gain a better understanding of others, ourselves, and the planet as a whole.
New-age travel however, seems to have departed from the way it used to be – a trip a year to a prized destination that would be talked about and reminisced over for months to come. Now, travelling has in a way, become too easy and too convenient, which in turn has rendered it almost meaningless. While we’re all for free global movement and enhancing our education via lived experiences, influencer culture, cheap flights, and the desperate need for an escape has channelled tourism into just another aspect of our insatiable consumption society where we often fail to consider the effects mass vacationing has on certain destinations.
Ticking off a site-seeing list, staying in foreign-owned resorts, and purchasing cheap souvenirs over real, home-grown crafts are just some of the ways in which the industry and local cultures are negatively impacted.
Conscious travellers are aware of the effects the industry has on the planet, on vulnerable communities, and on cultures that are quickly becoming commodified. How can we do better?
Here are some ways to travel sustainably and consciously. Keep these tips in mind before you book your next trip!
1. Don’t Bring Travel-Size Toiletries:
When we travel, we often pack disposable mini toiletries with us, which we use and dump once they’re empty. While this makes sense from a space and weight perspective (especially for carry-on bags and for those trending in-flight wellness rituals), it’s incredibly destructive to the earth. In fact, it’s estimated that around 100 million miniatures are purchased every year in the UK alone, equaling around 980 tons of plastic waste. Since only about 9% of plastic packaging is recycled, all of these minis end up in landfill, further contributing to our immense plastic problem. Additionally, dumping these little guys in your host country places a rather large burden on the nation you’re visiting, especially those who might already struggle with effective waste and recycling programs, or those that have unjustly become dumping grounds for wealthier nation’s refuse. This is quite contradictory to the idea of “leave nothing behind” when travelling.
Buying reusable containers and bottles in smaller sizes is your best bet, as you can fill up as much product as you’ll need, ensuring the packaging returns with you. You can also consider travelling with solids – shampoo and conditioner bars, bars of soap etc., as a low-waste alternative.
After pressure from environmentalists, the hotel industry is changing too. Instead of offering in-suite minis, many hotels are switching to bulk dispensers that can be easily refilled. Major chains such as Marriott and Intercontinental have already made the switch, to either dispensers or larger bottles meant for in-room use.
2. Bring Your Own Reusable Water Bottle:
It goes without saying that water bottled in disposable plastic is one of the worst things for the environment, and for people. I won’t get into the ethical side of things and how companies like Nestle are using fresh water reserves that marginalized, majority world, and impoverished communities rely on, but from an environmental perspective, bottled water truly sucks. In Ontario alone, 1 billion bottles end up in landfill and in the environment every year.
When travelling, help the country you’re visiting reduce its waste by bringing your own reusable water bottle. Many countries have safe and clean drinking water straight from the taps, making this incredibly easy and economical for you. I spent a month in Italy a few years ago and managed to not buy a single plastic water bottle the entire trip. The city fountains are great for filling up, and many restaurants and bars are happy to fill bottles up for free. Get creative and side-step the easy, automatic response for one that better supports the earth, other people, and our health! (We recognize that in countries where drinking water is scarce or not clean, you may have to opt for bottled water. In this case, buy the biggest bottle you can and then pour it into your reusable – this is a tiny step in helping to reduce the number of bottles you buy, and therefore the plastic. You can also consider buying a UVC filtered bottle to help with this).
3. Reduce Plastic Waste:
Sampling the culinary delights in foreign countries is one of the best parts about travelling, especially when it comes to street food. What isn’t so great though is all the disposable plastic that comes with it. In the US alone, 40 billion plastic utensils are thrown away every year! Instead of just accepting the disposable cutlery that comes with every dish you try, consider packing your own reusables. This works well for the days you just want to get takeout and chill in your hotel room too. Make a little zero-waste kit to keep in your purse or backpack as you tour around. This can include a set of reusable cutlery, reusable straws, cloth produce bags for fruit stall goodies, a reusable/collapsible coffee cup, and a cloth napkin. You can also make sure to stash a few extra tote bags for any shopping you’ll do.
1. Consider Your Consumption:
Be cognizant of your consumption while travelling, especially when it comes to what you’re eating. In some areas, trying the local specialty is a great way to help lessen the financial and environmental burden of imported ingredients that often have to be brought in to satisfy tourists. For example, in St. Lucia, the Lionfish is a small ocean predator that is threatening other kinds of reef dwellers as it has very few predators of its own. With their numbers growing, the Lionfish are causing real concern for other marine life. Ordering a Lionfish at a local restaurant gives fishermen an incentive to catch them, while also reducing the high numbers of other fish that get imported from the US in order to satisfy visitors.
In the same vein though, if a local specialty is under threat from too much consumption, with visitors all wanting to sample it, consider a less popular menu item to help offset the burden.
2. Consider Your Movement:
Opting out of taking taxis everywhere isn’t just better for the planet’s air quality, but it helps to reduce congestion on roadways so that locals can move about in their home cities more easily. Always remember that you are a visitor, and that real life exists for locals outside of your vacation. You can consider taking the metro, or just walk! Both are wonderful ways to get to know a city better. When it comes to renting bikes, be wary. In some cities, this might be an amazing, eco-friendly option. But in bike-heavy areas like Amsterdam, tourist bike rentals are driving locals mad. While tourists are charmed by the idea of renting bikes in Amsterdam and leisurely enjoying the views, many are ignorant to the fact that cycle lanes in Amsterdam are no joke. The lanes are a major thoroughfare of traffic for locals trying to get on with their daily lives. Adding in a high-as-a-kite tourist on a bike, well…that’s cause for major frustration.
3. Consider Where You Visit:
If a certain area is famous for a particular aspect – the beaches, the ocean etc., look into how tourism might be affecting it, and adjust your plans. For example, Cozumel in Mexico is a breathtaking island that tourists flock to. Because of this, significant amounts of coral have been destroyed by ships and scuba divers. With 4 million annual tourists descending on Cozumel’s shores, their arrival feels like nothing short of an invasion, despite the island relying on tourism for income. Local biologists are trying to find ways to make this work, while protecting the island. The interior of Cozumel is a large protected conservation area, but most tourists never set foot there. Locals would love to see more tourists engage with the rainforest, as long as they abide by strict guidelines. This would take the pressure off the beaches, but would still allow the island to generate income from tourism.
4. Consider Your Tour Operator:
If you choose to go with a tour guide or tour company, be careful which one you go with. Do some deep research and try not to just go with whoever is cheapest (they’re often cutting corners somewhere). Checkout their website/about page to see if they: give back to the local communities, are locally-owned, employ and support local and Indigenous folk, express the efforts they’re making on natural conservation and ecosystem preservation, etc.
5. Don’t Geo-tag Your Photos:
Instagram has drastically changed the landscape (no pun intended) of travel. While we’re seeing a lot of creative output from creators, we have to be mindful of the earth. Influencers tend to forget just how influential they are, and for accounts that have large followings, their geo-tagging is ruining natural landscapes. Tons of national parks and reserves are complaining about the traffic they’re getting from people who just want the photo for the gram, all because they saw it on an influencer’s account.
The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board asked visitors to stop geo-tagging photographs on social media in an effort to protect the state’s pristine forests and remote lakes. Delta Lake has become “a poster child for social media gone awry.” A few years ago, one or two hikers a day would make the trek, and now they are seeing as many as 145 people a day. These people are hardly there for the connection with nature as they are for the photos they’ll get. It’s a disaster and the trails are eroding in some places.
Hong Kong is also seeing influencers use public housing developments as backdrops, to the chagrin of the residents. A Canadian sunflower farmer recently had to ban visitors after they damaged his field. In South Africa, there are signs asking tourists not to share the locations of the wildlife photos they take, as it can lead to an increase of poachers.
While geo-tagging seems innocent and a fun way to share your travels, it has a drastic impact on the earth and we have to think about how much this matters. Tagging hotels and cafes is totally fine, as we should support local businesses. But when it comes to fragile natural areas, we have to be discerning and think about the impact it’ll have.
Some Other Environmental Things to Consider
- Always turn off the air conditioning, light, etc. in the room before you leave
- Take shorter showers, especially in water-scarce areas like South Africa and Hawaii
- When scuba diving, scoop out as much trash as possible and keep a collection bin on the boat. Also, don’t touch any of the delicate reef while underwater
- Volunteer at a local beach clean up one morning of your trip as a way to give back to the area, and to ensure future tourists have a clean beach to vacation on
- When moving around within a country, opt for greener methods of transport – instead of flying everywhere, try trains, local busses, or boats
- Always ensure you’re using reef-friendly sunscreen
- If you are on a trek or hike and you see lots of litter on your path, pick it up! Bring an extra bag with you and help remove the trash you see, for an easy, zero-cost way to give back and help
- Don’t pick any local flowers or plants, and just leave them be. This also goes for sand, shells, rocks, etc. Taking beach souvenirs can drastically alter and affect a local environment. It might seem harmless when it’s just you, but when multiplied by millions of other people doing it too, it can have devastating effects. Also, when visiting nature areas, make sure you stay on the designated trail – this helps lessen the foot traffic and impact on delicate wildlife and foliage.
- Avoid animal tourism – try to bypass popular tourist activities like elephant trekking, tiger temples, camel riding, animal performances, Luwek coffee farms in Indonesia, etc. Your rule of thumb should be to avoid anything animal centred when travelling if the animal’s well-being, protection and freedoms aren’t explicitly and ethically stated (look out for lots of greenwashing here). Also try to avoid zoos, marine/sea worlds and circuses.
Support the Local Economy and Culture
1. Consider When You Visit:
Visiting a place during the off-season helps relieve some of the burden on the area from the high-season. This helps local establishments sustain an income during the slow season, while also giving you a less overwhelming and more expansive experience
2. Shop, Stay and Eat Local:
It can be tempting to grab a bunch of the cheap, plastic souvenirs from kiosks and shops that dot the busy touristy areas. These trinkets are usually mass-produced in China, giving very little to the local economy, while also filling your suitcase and house up with poorly-made junk that will eventually end up in landfill then next time you do a home edit. Instead of this, try buying only one or two souvenirs, but that are well-made, locally-crafted and that actually represent and support the people of the country you visited. You will definitely treasure these items for far longer.
When it comes to accommodations, Airbnb has had quite a lot of backlash from locals in cities all over the world. While it’s a genius idea, in a larger aspect it’s not great for the locals. In cities like Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York apartments are beginning to exist to solely to house the large number of tourists, exiling young people and artists from the downtown neighbourhoods. This forces them to live on the outskirts of the city, while driving up in-city housing prices. As a traveler, try to avoid the Airbnb route and instead, opt to stay in a locally-owned boutique hotel, a bed & breakfast, a locally-owned apartment rental service, or hostel.
Instead of finding salvation from foreign cuisines in places like McDonald’s, get adventurous and try the local delicacies and restaurants. This greatly helps your tourist dollars go towards actually helping out the local economy, not to mention the sensory delight for your taste buds! Try everything from local eateries, home-cooked meal programs, traditional cooking classes, food stalls, street food, and boutique restaurants that make a point of using only locally-grown ingredients. You can also go to farms and farmsteads to learn about the region’s culture, food history, and traditional cuisines.
3. Avoid Day-Trips or All-in-One Tour Busses:
These kinds of trips gloss over the surface, whipping tourists in and out of a city without really letting anyone actually experience anything. They also don’t bring any kind of contribution to the local community. Instead of a day-trip, stay a few nights, soak in your surroundings, and be present. Not only will you enjoy your time more, but you ensure that you’re not just taking from the community, but giving back as well.
Tour buses clog streets, obstruct traffic and hamper pedestrian walkways. In Reykjavik, complaints from locals led to these buses no longer being able to access the city’s main streets, however the buses themselves are still operating, on non-major routes. Instead of a guided tour, take the metro, join a walking tour, or take the local city bus.
4. Avoid Cruises:
Cruise ships are a big problem for local communities. While convenient for travellers, cruise ships often illegally dump garbage into the waters they traverse causing major aquatic damage. In terms of pollution, the air quality on deck is similar to being in one of the world’s most polluted cities due to the toxic heavy fuel that is used. A single cruise ship can emit as much pollution as 700 trucks and a million cars, making the carbon footprint per person worse than flying.
They also take employment away from locals, as they take away money that could have been spent on accommodations and establishments on land. Tourists come to the island/port city, take a few photos, consume but don’t contribute and then are back on the ship in a whirlwind, leaving the residents to clean up the mess with hardly any economic gain.
Venice, for example, is an old and fragile city, so respecting the rules of the city is vital. Cruises however, off-load hordes of people who disembark for mere hours, swarming the city and clogging the streets trying to get their perfect Insta-selfie. Day-trippers and cruise-goers are often given pre-packed lunches which are eaten on bridges and ledges, blocking the city’s flow and stressing out the fragile architecture. With hardly any money spent, the residents stand to gain very little, but are left with a mess to clean up.
Instead of a cruise, opt for a few nights on land, staying in a hotel owned by residents of the town. This will definitely guarantee a less stressful experience, not to mention one that is richer and far more authentic.
5. Pay Attention to What’s Happening in the World:
Before booking a trip, pay attention to what’s happening in the place you’re looking to travel to. Some regions might be undergoing massive political demonstrations, while others may be facing water shortages, like Hawaii. Many native islanders are fed up with tourists descending on their shores, as the water crisis is becoming serious, where residents are being asked to only use water for essentials and can be fined $500 just for watering their lawn. The tourism industry however, is largely unchecked, with the islands catering to tourists instead of their own residents, with Indigenous communities often being the most impacted. With knowledge like this in mind, try your absolute best to avoid booking a trip somewhere just because you want to go. While conscious travel is about doing it better, it’s also just as much about not travelling if it might be detrimental to people or places.
Be Present and Go Slower
Some tips on how to make your trip more mindful, authentic, and slow, allowing you to come away feeling rested, inspired, richer, while also respecting the place you visit.
- Travel slower – instead of rushing to tick off your must-see list, slow down. Engage with locals, do fewer but better things, and really get into the heart of where you are.
- Instead of cramming in 5 countries or even cities in one trip, choose one or two places and spend the majority of your time there, getting to know the place and learning about the customs and people
- Respect the culture, traditions and language. Try to learn a few words, greetings, and phrases in the local language. This helps show that you’re making an effort, helps locals feel seen, and helps you engage with your surroundings better. Also using the traditional term instead of the anglicized one for a site or place is respectful to the Indigenous communities in the area
- Try to stay off your phone and be present in enjoying the experience instead of documenting every minute of it – we’re engaging less and less with the physical world and live for our online avatars. Try to really take a break, put away the phone, and soak in the beauty of where you are.
- Remember that when we travel, we are guests on foreign land, and that we must abide by the rules and customs of the country versus them catering to us. For example, rowdy tourists in Kyoto have been seen bothering geishas for selfies, invading private property for photos, and generally being inconsiderate by eating on the street, creating too much noise and disturbing “miyabi” – the refined atmosphere unique to Kyoto. Be self-aware and try to blend into the atmosphere, without demanding attention simply for being a tourist.
Our Luggage Recommendation
If you’re looking for luggage that’s aligned with your conscious travel mindset, we love Monos for their outlook on travel, as well as their sustainability efforts. Monos is Climate Neutral Certified, the first luggage brand to join this certification in achieving net zero carbon emissions. They’re also members of 1% for the Planet, donating 1% of revenue to organizations dedicated to preserving and restoring the natural world.
Their ethos is centred around excellent design and quality, where they believe in high-quality products that will accompany travellers on a lifetime of journeys, helping to reduce waste and excess. They source vegan alternatives wherever traditional leather is used, and their packaging is recyclable, reusable or both.
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