We live in an exciting time, in which the world is at our fingertips. In decades past, it seemed that travel was something that was experienced in either one of two extremes: 1: as something the very wealthy did for pleasure (eliciting images of the bourgeois wearing designer safari hats while glamping in the Serengeti), or 2: an act of rebellion by the free-spirited outcasts of society (eliciting images of hippies backpacking their way through Morocco smoking kush).
Modern day travel is no longer reserved for the elite. It has become an important part of life for people of many different budgets and backgrounds, and it is most definitely here to stay. Many couples, families, and individuals budget travel into their lives just like they do rent, groceries, and car payments.
We need to understand what a privilege it is to be able to see the world. To grow up in a time and place with such a wealth of opportunity. And with privilege comes responsibility. We have a responsibility to tread lightly upon the earth, to respect our neighbors near and far, and to approach other cultures with curiosity and open-mindedness. In this article I will be sharing 8 ways to be a responsible traveler, so that you can go out into the world armed with a better knowledge and understanding of your impact.
1. Leave No Trash
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Leave No Trace principles. They are guidelines to follow when out in nature, to ensure that you leave things the same way you found them. I coined the term Leave No Trash to encourage travelers to be mindful of their waste when abroad. In the westernized world, we’re used to having compost bins, recycling, and other systems intact to help us separate and dispose of waste properly. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case everywhere. Many third world countries lack proper waste management and recycling systems. Most of their trash either gets burned (which is extremely toxic to breathe in) or it ends up in local waterways, ultimately making its way into the ocean.
Did you know that just 10 rivers contribute to 90% of the plastic in the oceans? This alarming statistic was put out by The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. All of these 10 rivers are located in various countries throughout Asia and Africa. The devastating effects of a lack of recycling and waste management systems throughout the world is the biggest contributor to ocean plastic. We need to wean ourselves off of plastic both at home and abroad, but it is a much bigger problem in third-world countries.
Reduce, Recycle, REFUSE, Reuse
We all know about the Three ‘R’s of sustainable living: Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. Another ‘R’ that we should really throw in there is REFUSE. If you don’t need a plastic bag, fork, or straw, kindly refuse it. Show someone that you brought your own, if they don’t understand you. It’s such an instinctive reflex for shop owners to automatically throw your items in a plastic bag, or for food stalls to hand you a plastic fork. Hopefully the more we kindly refuse these items, the less automatic it becomes for disposable plastic to be offered to us.
Bring a Reusable Tote, Cups, and Cutlery With You
When I travel, I always bring with me a reusable tote, water bottle, coffee cup, cutlery, and smaller bulk/produce bags with me. I don’t want to add yet another disposable bag, fork, or straw to the billions of pounds of plastic already in existence. Being prepared and thinking ahead is the most important component of Leaving No Trash.
I created the Leave No Trash Travel Kit for this very reason. It comes with all of the essentials to help you travel the world while leaving a minimal amount of waste. Living ‘Zero Waste’ while on the road is a pretty lofty, if not impossible, goal, but it’s certainly something to strive for.
Ditch Plastic Water Bottles
Possibly the biggest contributor to plastic waste is in the form of plastic bottles. Plastic drink bottles are sold at a rate of one million per minute. Now, we obviously all need to drink water, and tap water isn’t always safe. This is why I love the GoPure pods for traveling. One pod filters the equivalent of 2,000 bottles of water. You just fill your canteen or reusable water bottle up with any potable tap water, drop in the pod, and let it work its magic. The ceramic GoPure pods work by the power of diatomaceous earth, a natural, positively charged material which attracts and neutralizes contaminants while releasing important trace minerals.
2. Planes, Trains, Or Automobiles: Which Is Best?
Certain modes of transportation have a heavier carbon footprint than others, and the best choice will depend on the route, the distance being traveled, the infrastructure of the country you’re traveling to, etc. As a general rule of thumb, air travel has the heaviest carbon footprint, followed by car travel. Traveling by train when possible is a great alternative, and sometimes it’s simply fun to switch things up! Not only are trains usually more comfortable and roomier than airplanes, you can also enjoy the scenery passing by (which is pretty hard to do when you’re stuck in the a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air).
Europe has a beautiful train system that goes just about everywhere. It is relatively affordable, clean, comfortable, and roomy. Train travel still isn’t mainstream in the US, but it’s definitely gaining traction. And while the Amtrak doesn’t go everywhere, it does go a lot of places! Just look at the map below. Yes, it will take you a lot longer to get where you want to go. But sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?
3. Eat Local, Seasonal Foods
Eating is the one thing that we do every day, multiple times a day, which has a significant impact on the planet and its inhabitants. I’m not here to preach about what you should eat, nor am I one to throw around diet dogmas. But eating a primarily plant-based diet is the single easiest way to lessen your carbon footprint. No matter what you choose to put in your body, make sure it is mostly unprocessed, unpackaged, natural food from the earth.
In my city guides, I always make a point to include a variety of restaurants that are inclusive to all types of eaters. The common thread that they all share is that of supporting local farms and focusing on seasonal ingredients. Restaurants with a farm-to-table ethos typically source their meat, dairy, and produce from local farms and many prioritize organic ingredients. Whatever you do, make it a point to visit and support locally owned restaurants with a deep commitment to their local community. Both your body and the Earth will thank you for it.
If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, Happy Cow is also a really helpful app. It has led me to some amazing plant-based restaurants around the world. And while I don’t consider myself a “vegan” or abide to any dietary rules, I find that eating a primarily plant-based diet is what truly makes me feel the best and is most in alignment with my personal moral code.
Release the idea that you need to eat out for every single meal. Go to a local food or farmer’s market and see what new and interesting foods you find. I love going to markets when I’m in a tropical destination like Southeast Asia or Central America, because there are so many amazing fruits and vegetables to try. I’ll usually snack on fruits in the morning and then eat out for lunch and/or dinner. Food markets are also a really great way to immerse yourself in a new culture, because everywhere you go they are gathering spots for both locals and tourists. If you can, try and book accommodations that have a kitchen available so that you can do some cooking at home, using fresh, local ingredients gathered from the market.
4. Stay at Sustainable Accommodations
Many hotel brands are severely lacking in sustainability initiatives, and until they clean up their act I will continue to stay at and promote smaller boutique hotels with a commitment to sustainability. Fortunately, there are now tons of resources available to help you find eco-conscious accommodations for your travels.
Eco Accommodation Booking Sites
Kynder Travel is a platform that highlights eco-conscious and socially-conscious places to eat, drink, and stay in many different destinations around the world.
A firm conviction that most people would like to choose a better option, like us, but didn’t know where to look, got us going!
This is the mission behind Manana Travel, to highlight the sector of the tourism industry that cares about people and the planet. Manana Travel is a hotel booking website that covers nearly 100 different destinations. Think of it as the hotel.com for responsible travelers.
5. Maintain Cultural Awareness
When you travel to new, foreign countries, you are going to see, hear, smell, and taste things that are unfamiliar to you. This is the beauty of traveling. Some of it you will embrace, some of it will make you uncomfortable, some of it will make you want to run in the opposite direction. It’s important to maintain a sense of open-mindedness and respect for other cultures. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s “weird” or it’s “wrong.”
Before you travel to a new country, learn a little bit about the customs and traditions of their culture. Commisceo Global is an excellent resource for this. It is a company that is committed to increasing cultural awareness and breaking down barriers between different countries. They have guides to nearly 100 countries which break down social etiquette, business etiquette, family values, and other cultural norms that represent each country. It’s also not a bad idea to learn some basics of the native language where you’re traveling to. There are so many free resources available, and I personally love the language learning app DuoLingo. You don’t need to get carried away, but locals really appreciate it when you make an attempt to speak their language. It’s also a good way to show respect and interest in their culture.
6. Support Local Artisans
Tourism has become one of the largest industries, contributing to the equivalent of around 8 trillion US dollars each year. While it is certainly not an industry without its faults and shortcomings, there is no doubt that it has helped redistribute wealth throughout the world. The souvenir industry has helped pull many communities out of poverty by giving them a means of earning money. Souvenirs, also called “tourist art,” comprises of the art and artifacts that tourists bring back home with them after visiting a foreign country. It’s the woven baskets that are brought back from Africa, the Turkish towels from Istanbul, the tea pots from Japan. Tourist art has given artisans a purpose and a means of supporting themselves and their families.
I like to think of souvenirs as an example of “cultural exchange,” in which two cultures both benefit from an exchange (this is not to be confused with “cultural appropriation,” which happens when a dominant culture steals from another culture for its own profit).
Local markets are a great place to go to look for locally-made art and hand-crafted goods. When traveling throughout the US, Canada, and other westernized countries, Farmers Markets will usually have booths with local, handcrafted items. Talk to the makers about their craft. Nothing lights artists up more than the opportunity to talk about their work.
7. Don’t Ride Animals or Engage With Wildlife
According to a study by the World Animal Protection, 75% of wildlife tourism activities have a negative impact on wildlife. As an animal-lover, I understand the appeal of interacting with wild animals. But you need to understand that in most cases you are contributing to animal cruelty and exploitation by supporting these places. Riding elephants and petting drugged-up tigers are pretty obvious “NO’s” but even the tourist attractions that seem to genuinely care about the welfare of the animals, are really more concerned with making money.
Here is my advice to you. If you truly care about wildlife conservation and want to be a part of it, I would look into volunteering with ethical wildlife conservation organizations. The website TravelGig has a great resource for ethical animal volunteer programs, from working with elephants in Namibia to helping save endangered rhinos in Australia.
8. Avoid Traveling To Places Dealing With Over-Tourism
Over-tourism is essentially the point at which the negative impacts of tourism start to outweigh the good. Over-tourism can lead to a decaying of natural lands and landmarks, it can contribute to locals being pushed out of their neighborhoods, and it overall just totally kills the vibe of a really cool place. Machu Picchu is one example of a destination that has struggled with the implications of over-tourism, and has begun enacting policies to help mitigate the effects. They recently introduced a ticketing system to help space out the times when tourists are able to visit the famous landmark . The system caps daily visitors to 4,300 (still no small amount!).
Opt for smaller, lesser known cities; places where you can feel more connected to the local culture and not have to fight thousands of other tourists for a selfie. The following destinations are struggling with over-tourism right now, and while I’m not going to tell you not to go there, I highly suggest saving most of your travel/ vacation days for places a little more off the beaten path.
- Italy [Florence, Rome, Venice]
- Barcelona, Spain
- Amsterdam, The Netherlands
- Machu Picchu
To cope with the influx of travelers, tourism boards and local governments are going to have to start implementing creative strategies and policies to make sure tourism doesn’t negatively impact a place and its locals. Implementing stricter regulations for AirBnB will ensure that people aren’t buying houses and apartments in a city and running them as hotels, thus jacking up rent and pricing locals out of their neighborhoods.