When was the last time you went on an overseas trip? I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t that long ago, and you’re not the only one. The World Tourism Organisation reports that we are travelling more than ever and The World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation tracks a trend of longer trips.
Travelling isn’t a luxury anymore.
Low cost companies make travelling cheaper and new routes, like the nonstop Qantas flight from London to Perth, make long distance travel easier.
We go further, for longer and we do more whilst exploring this big blue planet that we call home.
I went on my first long distance travel over a decade ago and I have never looked back. From teenage me exploring Down Under, I slowly made it my mission to chip away at the world, one trip at the time. Multiple expeditions to the US, backpacking Central America for months, exploring the South Pacific for years, surfing in Indonesia and checking out the big metropolis of Asia, understanding the meaning of dry heat in the Middle East, soaking up the culture in Europe… long-term travel is my reality, day in, day out.
This nomad lifestyle has shaped me, and I would push anyone who’s thinking of going on the road to take the plunge. Travel opens the mind and makes us realise that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. When you have been somewhere, you are made to care, you have a connection with the faraway. Travel is how you become a “world citizen.”
On a personal level, travel is amazing, but it comes at a cost. The destruction of national treasures, the trampling of fragile natural habitats, the pollution and littering, local infrastructures that can’t keep up, crime and the headlines that go with it. Anti-tourism campaigns aren’t unheard of, be it in Venice or in Barcelona, Iceland is now begging “influencers” to be respectful of the fragile environment they disregard for the perfect selfie and the prostitutes of Amsterdam’s Red Light District might be relocated due to tourists’ harassment.
Sustainable travel might be touted as the answer, but it often doesn’t take into account the entirety of the problem. Of course, it would be great if we stopped buying plastic bottles, refused plastic straws and avoided the overcrowded attractions. If you can afford it, staying at eco-lodges and finding an alternative to short-haul flights is definitely a good idea. But should I really be satisfied with my refillable bottle and feel like “I’ve done my bit?”
Sustainable travel isn’t only about the trash that accumulates on the beaches of Corfu or the sewer-like ocean I had to surf in Bali. To be truly sustainable, the social, environmental, economic and cultural impact have to be taken into account.
And that’s when it becomes a bit harder to understand what we, as travellers, can do.
The bad news is there is no definitive list of things that make you a sustainable traveller. The good news is that you can do your bit without having to radically change your travelling style. Whether you’re into adventure, relaxation on a beach or soaking up the culture, your travels can be sustainable whilst still being fun.
There are thousands of sustainable businesses all over the world that will make exploring that much more enjoyable, knowing you’re not destroying the places you’re in. For some cool excursions in Central America, why not check out the Plastic Bottle Village in Bocas del Toro, Panama?
You can even drop off the pesky bottles you might have had to buy due to the lack of clean drinking water on the islands. Also in Panama, stay at Hostal Familiar Rolo. It overlooks the beach and is owned by a family of surfers. You can rent a board for cheap and get the best surf forecasts from the mouth of the locals who’ve surfed Santa Catalina’s breaks since they were in diapers. This is also what “buy local” means.
In Belize, check out the ATM caves with Emil, an independent guide you have to WhatsApp. His Mayan stories come straight from his grandmother and he’s been known to disappear (on his own) down the cave’s system for days on end. If snorkelling is more your thing, walk down the main street of Caye Caulker, away from the Split. You’ll find a couple of sustainable captains who will take you on an adventure around the amazing waters of the Barrier Reef without feeding the wildlife or generating a crazy amount of thrash.
CHILL BY THE BEACH
No uproar necessary, the new law is there to protect the marine ecosystem of a state entirely composed of islands. For those of us who spend a lot of time in the ocean, this is very welcome news, as we’ve long been embracing an alternative way to protect ourselves on boat trips, surf sessions and downtime by the beach. The answer isn’t to get cancer for the sake of the environment. Buy Zinc (a mineral paste that is eco-friendly and wallet-savvy, as it really lasts for ever, even in places like Australia) and eco sunscreen to protect your skin AND the ocean. Whilst Hawai’i is making it into a law, investing in some sustainable sun protection will definitely get you cookie points all over the world. The Great Barrier Reef that’s dying? You’re no longer (directly) part of the problem!
GET IMMERSED IN THE CULTURE
If you’re headed to Mexico, check out Rutopia, which will help you arrange a stay with local communities. Less Spring Break, more handwashing and reusing every scrap of what you have. Some Spanish will definitely help to get the most out of your experience. You’ll learn about a different type of sustainability. Get ready for a love of plastic. But none of it is going into the trash.
For the real Samoan experience, stay in a village. You’ll have to go to Church – they don’t care that you’re Jewish/Muslim/Atheist…) and yes, you’re required to chip in during the collection at the end. Beware the wagging tongues if you don’t. This is all part of the experience. And if you’re ever around the South Pacific islands, bring books. The local schools will love you for ever.
VOLUNTEER WITH A TWIST
Volunteering has been getting a bad rep lately. However, it should be noted that the volunteering coming under fire from academics, past volunteers, associations and journalists alike mostly has to do with agencies taking advantage of this multibillion dollars industry. If you’re still keen on helping out, local volunteering opportunities abound. There is a somewhat eccentric man in Bahia Drake, Costa Rica, who appears to always be looking for volunteers to help out with the local turtle population. Local is best, always, but if you need something a bit more “official,” you could help Te Papa Atawhai, the New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, with their Kakapo (nocturnal, local parrot) Recovery efforts, as well as an array of other wildlife projects. It’s local but still backed up by the government and you can be sure that your efforts won’t be doing more harm than good.
Awareness around sustainable issues is half the battle. Whilst it is easy to get informed, not enough people actually want to know what’s going on or care enough to do the research. Looking up your destinations and understanding what their main problems are is a small thing, but it will not only raise the profile of some under the radar causes, it might put you on the right track to help on the ground, or at least to stay out of the way of local efforts.
If you’re headed to Zimbabwe, you should know about the Pangolin Men and the Tikki Hywood Foundation. Before your big backpacking trip throughout Asia, go see what the Wildlife Rangers of Asia are doing and what species are currently protected. Learn about the Indonesian dream of sustainability and choose your travel adventure accordingly. It won’t take much time but it will make your travels more rewarding and lessen your impact.
SOMETIMES IT’S NOT WHAT YOU DO BUT WHAT YOU DON’T DO
Your hard-earned cash is financing the local economy, so make sure the businesses you buy from align with your beliefs. It’s often been talked about, but if you’re watching your sustainability footprint, paying to take selfies with drugged animals (most notably in Thailand, but really, anywhere) is a big no-no. So are those ride-an-elephant tours available all over South East Asia.
Animal cruelty isn’t sustainable. Especially when those animals are endangered. On that note, do avoid buying souvenirs with bits of exotic species in it (shark teeth, ivory…). I know that bracelet is beautiful and the man at the market said he made that necklace by hand “like his ancestors.” Think about what you’re buying: dead bits of animals from species that are already struggling.
The water resources of the world are dwindling. Don’t shower for hours, anywhere, even at home. It’s more obvious in some places, like Australia, Africa or the Middle East, but cutting back on your shower time wherever you are is a big help.
STARE AT YOUR PHONE
Granted, you won’t save the world by staring at your phone – that I know of – but there is something to be said for the power of Social Media. Again, knowledge is key. However, this is about becoming part of a global community of like-minded people, participating to (or listening on) conversations and truly embracing your new world citizen identity. Frankly, it’s also the perfect place to moan about that plastic bag you refused but were still given at the grocery store and to take action and raise awareness of some things you come across that either make you want to weep (Bondi Beach after the Holidays) or make you super happy (like the bamboo straws in a random, tiny town’s café in Mexico).
If you want to get active, go follow 4Ocean and buy them a bracelet, or better yet, join a beach clean-up. Surfers Against Sewage is always up to amazingly good things and World Tourism Association is a must. To see what people like you are saying, check out #sustainabletravel and #greentravel, as well as the more general #TravelTuesday and #traveltribe.
Sustainable travel shouldn’t be a chore. Travel is widely accessible, but the days of the one-week resort holiday are over. We do travel more, farther, longer and hopefully, we can now also travel better, one beach/mountain/city at the time.
Sustainable travel is sustainable living. It is about making a positive impact on our world whilst on the road, but also at home. It is about the emergence of the global citizen, understanding that whether you’re in San Francisco, Paris or Sydney, Tokyo, Jakarta or Abu Dhabi, your choices have more impact than we have, historically, given them credit for.
Wherever you are in the world, act like the new traveller I know you really want to be. Seek out the knowledge you need to leave only footprints and help out the locals. Join the global community of world traveller. It all starts in your backyard.