Travel is more than a beloved hobby for some people; rather, it’s a veritable lifestyle. Travel is something that enlightens souls, expands horizons, and as the old cliché goes, is one of the few things in the world that makes you richer as you spend money on it.
Responsible tourism is important as it unfortunately takes a tremendous amount of resources to make travel possible. From all-inclusive resorts razing natural vegetation to make way for manufactured white sand beaches while paying local staff a pittance, to national parks being destroyed by careless visitors, to locals being priced out of their neighbourhoods by entrepreneurs looking to rent whole apartment buildings out on AirBnB, travel is not without its downsides. And none of those examples even touch the problem of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are required to transport a person from point A to point B.
What is Responsible Tourism all about?
So what is a traveller to do? We here at Zen Travellers are aware that our passion/hobby/lifestyle has both the potential to benefit local people and economies by injecting cash directly into them and stimulating investment in improving infrastructure. But travel can also result in damages to fragile ecosystems and overburdening of local infrastructure when it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate an ever increasing influx of visitors.
With this in mind, we will turn the focus of our first post in 2019 to Responsible and Sustainable Travel. When we’re not travelling, Mr. Zen and I live and work in an energy producing region, so we’re well versed in the challenges of balancing the need to provide the energy that people use every day with the huge environmental cost of doing so. In spite of these challenges our goal for 2019 is to try to lessen our impact on the world as we continue to travel through it.
We are operating under the assumption that climate changed is human caused and that individual travellers have a responsibility to minimize their own impacts. There is a lot of information below and we understand that it will be challenging to do all of these things every time, so the important thing to keep in mind is that even doing a few of these things some of the time is better than never doing any of them.
We also use a lot of Canadian examples because that is what we are most familiar with, but a lot of this rings true the world over. So without any further introduction, here are our top tips for responsible travel.
How to be a Responsible Tourist: Transportation
This is the big one. According to some scientists, Air travel is one of the worst things an individual can do to the planet. It burns positively crazy amounts of GHGs to move a person across an ocean or continent. But there are very few alternatives. A person could take a cruise instead, but that is not considered a sustainable way of travelling either. Barring being very creative and propelling yourself by two wheels or a sail to get somewhere, you are going to have to fly to travel. There are however, a few things that you can do to reduce your impact while flying.
Sorry big spenders, if you book a business class ticket your personal GHG consumption accountability goes way up. If you fly economy, you’re using the space inside the plane efficiently but in business class you’re not. If you absolutely must fly first class, at least buy some offsets afterwards.
Planes burn the most fuel when they are taking off, so flying direct and for a long haul it is a good way to make the most out of the inevitable emissions associated with air travel.
Choose Responsible Airlines
Some airlines have made more of a commitment to improving the environment than others so fly with them whenever you can. For example All Nippon Airways, Air France-KLM, China Airlines, and Latin American Airlines were recognized by the DJSI for their sustainability initiatives in 2018. In January 2019, Hi Fly an airline from Portugal performed the world’s first plastic-free flight and we were delighted to see some waste reduction strategies being used on our recent flight with South African Airlines. Let’s hope more airlines follow these companies leads. If you choose to support airlines that make the environment a priority, more airlines will see that they need to do so as well.
Unless you live in Europe and want to travel everywhere by train or bus, you’re probably going to have to fly places. We live in Canada so unless we’re travelling to somewhere in the US or Central America, we almost always need to take 2 flights to get somewhere, especially if crossing an ocean is involved.
One of the most important things that you can do to reduce your flight emissions besides well, not flying, is to buy offsets for your flights. Some airlines will show you what your carbon expenditure is on the flight, but if not there are plenty of online GHG calculators to help you figure it out. Once you have your tonnage figured out, you can go buy the appropriate amount of offsets. Many times it will only be in the range of $10-50usd and that money can go a long way to funding projects around the world that have the aim of reducing environmental impacts.
We have used The Gold Standard, Tree Canada, and South Pole Group in the past. If you absolutely cannot wrap your head around buying offsets for your GHG consumption, you could always donate to your favourite conservation charity as grasslands and forest are the lungs of the planet so keeping them in intact can keep the planet healthy.
Wherever practicable just don’t fly. If there’s the option to take a train or a bus go for that instead. It comes down to the amount of GHGs that need to be burned to move you to a particular place and buses and trains simply require way less than planes. They still however, burn GHGs so feel free to offset them too. Recently, we used FlixBus to take a bus from Paris, France to Bruges, Belgium and were given the option to offset our tickets. For only 1.57EUR we opted to do so. We used buses to get around South America, including great hop on hop off options like Bolivia Hop. Buses can also double as a place to sleep if you take an overnight one. Stay tuned for tips on surviving long bus rides!
Drive Less Too
Driving is almost as bad for the environment as flying in certain cases. Some studies have shown that a cars make 21 pounds of CO2 per gallon while planes produce 20 pounds per gallon. Compounding this problem is that cars transport fewer people per distance travelled and more people drive around the world. The sum of everyone in the world driving their cars is one of the largest portions of global GHGs, so jump on any opportunity to drive less.
If you must drive, opt for the smallest and most fuel efficient vehicle that will meet your needs. Don’t be like the average Canadian and buy that stupid SUV to drive in downtown Toronto when a small car will do just fine. In fact, the trend of people driving larger vehicles in North America is a good example of what is called the “rebound effect.” This is when something becomes more efficient, such as vehicles in general becoming less gas-guzzling but it ends up backfiring because instead of reducing overall transportation emissions, people simply upgrade the size of their car.
For this scenario to work, people would need to forego driving the SUV and opt for a fuel efficient small car, but they don’t because larger vehicles are more fuel efficient than they were in the past. In 2018 we travelled through the Andes in South America and couldn’t help but notice that small cars still reign supreme there, even in the mountains, likewise in Nozawa Onsen, Japan which is a place that gets average snowfalls that would make some wintry Canadian towns blush.
Canadians love to convince themselves that they need a large vehicle for the winter roads, but they don’t. Driving defensively and using good quality winter tires on a small vehicle should suffice. Take us for example, we used our remarkably fuel-efficient on the highway Monte Carlo as our mountain vehicle for many years. It can be done, reclaim the small car! They are also easier on the wallet than an SUV or truck. I think it’s really sad that many Canadians say they can’t afford to travel because they are making astronomically high car payments.
Once you’re on location, opt for people-powered transportation such as walking, cycling, or even paddling around your destination. The slow pace will allow you to take in more of the sights and sounds of a place and will reduce your impacts. Walkable cities are more than just beautiful to look at, they are good for the environment, the economy, and a person’s well-being.
Take Public Transit
In a similar vein as the above, taking public transit wherever it is safe to do so will give you a more authentic glimpse into real life than hiring an Uber will. Single person commutes are terrible for the environment as well as your health and have led to the hideous never-ending sprawl that plagues a lot of cities around the world. By taking public transit, you are sending the message that mass transit infrastructure is what you want a city to invest in, not more unsustainable asphalt roads.
Whenever you must drive, try to carpool. Share a taxi with people from your hotel or hostel. Use Uber’s carpool function if you can. There are even apps like BlaBla Car that are supposed to be good for sharing car trips. If you rent a vehicle, ask around if there are any others who are travelling the same way as you. Get creative and social. You’ll probably make some new friends and save some money for future travels.
How to be a Responsible Tourist: Accommodation
For tourism to be sustainable, it has to benefit the local population. This is where getting accommodation from a local business is best. Many large hotel chains keep profits in the countries where the headquarters is based at best and use exploitative practices with their local staff at worst. Booking accommodation once onsite, or by using websites like Booking.com is a great way to connect with smaller business owned by local people.
In many places the so-called “sharing economy” has become a caricature of itself and websites like AirBnB went from being an amazing place to connect with locals, to a juggernaut where entrepreneurial types who already have a considerable amount of wealth snatch up whole apartment blocks to rent them out at enormous profits. Longtime residents are thus driven out of their neighbourhoods as rental prices skyrocket. This doesn’t mean you can’t use AirBnB and we still do. We just make sure to look for places that are more akin to a small family business, than a $15 million dollar per year empire like this one in London.
We used Booking.com almost exclusively for our 7 months of travel in South America and were happy to support local small businesses who often lived where they worked. This meant we got to put our tourism dollars directly in the hands of local families as well as having the chance for cultural exchange during our travels.
Stay Close to the Action
Wherever possible, try to stay close to the sights that you want to see so you can walk, bike, or take public transit everywhere. Staying faraway might seem like a way to save money on accommodation but you will likely eat up those savings on transportation costs (the same story plays out for people who choose to live in the suburbs rather than closer to where they work).
Choose Sustainable Resorts
We’re not a fan of sprawling resorts that pay their local staff a pittance and convert public beaches to private ones so we don’t tend to travel on the all-inclusive route. That said, there are some companies that are better for the all-inclusive circuit than others so choose to support them. Pay particular attention to the hotel chain’s commitment to water usage as that is often one of the biggest draws of local resources, as well as how they treat their staff.
Decline Daily Washing
Do you really need your towel and bedding washed every day? Do you even do that at home? Many hotels have a system where if you hang up the towel rather than leaving it on the floor they will take that to mean that you will reuse it. If the hotel does not have such a system in place, make your wishes known to the front desk agent or talk to the cleaner directly.
How to be a Responsible Tourist: Pollution
There is no doubt that travel causes pollution both in the form of burning fuel for transportation as well as in creating waste such as plastic water bottles, single use cups and utensils, and hotel soaps and shampoos. In many cases, the only way to prevent this kind of pollution is to simply say no.
Having too much stuff is having a day of reckoning right now with the popularity of minimalism and the Marie Kondo method, but I think a lot of the time these movements neglect to contemplate the environmental impact of sourcing raw materials for stuff, shipping it to a coal-fired factory in China to be manufactured, and then putting it back in a supertanker to be shipped to port cities all over the world before it ends up in a truck or train to your local Wal-Mart’s shelf. Simply put, stuff pollutes.
Don’t Accept Single-Use Plastics
Say no to hotel shampoos and soaps by bringing your own. Pack your favourite beauty products in reusable, refillable containers and bring your own soap or pick up a solid shampoo bar. If you use the hotel’s soap, leave a note saying that you don’t need it replaced every day. Most small bars will last for up to a week long stay.
In restaurants, say “no straw please” and choose restaurants that serve food on reusable plates with reusable utensils. You can also bring your own with you everywhere you go, but I find that requesting “no straw” or something to that effect is often lost on people where there isn’t as much awareness about plastic pollution. What works for us is to show them that we already have stainless steel straws like these, and titanium sporks like these. It often sparks an interesting conversation and more often than not we are asked where we got them.
On the airplane, fill up your reusable water bottle after security but before boarding so you can decline the water in a plastic cup that they offer you. This has worked for us the world over with the exception of one United Airlines flight where they made us dump our water out during their second stage of security at the gate. There’s a first time for everything I guess. :/
Sit and Drink
Unless you’re carrying a reusable drink cup, sit and enjoy your coffee or soda. In many parts of the world you will get your coffee, juice or soda served to you in a refillable glass bottle if you do this. Besides, you’re on vacation so what’s the rush? Sit and sip so you can watch the world go by as you do. Otherwise, you can pack a reusable cup like this which is small enough to fit inside a purse.
That said, there’s no need to rush out and buy something as we’re currently using a reusable cup that we got from a Christmas Market in France as our go to mug. This was especially useful in Senegal where the garbage problem is the worst I’ve ever seen and every coffee you get will be served to you in a small, poorly made cup that just ends up on the street and maybe even in the ocean when you’re done with it unless you provide your own.
Bring Reusable Bags
Use reusable bags to shop or refuse a bag if you truly don’t need one. If you’ve ever driven the road to Ourzazate in Morocco you’ll understand why this is of crucial importance. There plastic bags swirl in the desert breeze making for a surreal and regrettable scene. We love these ones and this handy backpack that can easily fit in a purse or a pocket.
Use a Reusable Water Bottle
Tap water is not scary! In many places of the world it is perfectly safe to drink. If you’re not sure, boil some and then chill it to put in your reusable water bottle. We also recommend using one with a filter so you can avoid the never-ending dumping of water bottles that happens every day.
For instance, the hike between Hidroelectrica to the base of Macchu Picchu is a positively disgusting one. The whole way is covered with trash with the most common item being plastic drink bottles. The locals were understandably rather salty with some of the tourists for this reason.
Using a filter bottle is also a good economic decision. For example, our filter bottles will safely filter 1000 litres of water meaning that if we were to pay $1 a bottle for water, we have effectively saved $1000 less the cost of the bottle. In addition to saving almost $2000, we will also have prevented 2000 pieces of plastic trash from accumulating on the planet forever. Win-win for us and the earth!
You can dramatically reduce the impact of a single-use plastic item if you reuse it. There are times where you will not be able avoid plastic, so if you are given something reuse it for as long as you can. The longer you can keep it out of the landfill the better. When you travel long term, you will be surprised at how resourceful you will become. We bought some nuts in a plastic clamshell in Ecuador and reused it all the way down to El Chaltèn, Argentina where it was unfortunately thrown out by an unwitting hotel staff who didn’t realize that we would have continued using it.
Buy Quality Items
The old adage “buy cheap, buy twice” rings true. Wherever possible, buy quality items that are built to last. Wear the crap out of them and re-purpose your fabrics into rags or donate them instead of throwing them out. The fast fashion industry is a huge draw on resources as well as a massive source of pollution worldwide. Instead, look for clothes made by 1% for the Planet companies that donate 1% of their profits to environmental causes.
If you’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to purchase new quality goods, check your local gear swap and thrift stores. Many items will have lots of life left in them. Patagonia even has a webstore for discounted used clothing ,
Repair rather than Replace
Many items can simply be repaired to give them much more life. I have sewn up holes in my clothes to go on using them for months or even years afterwards and have had shoes repaired saving me both costs and waste. Once while getting out of a taxi in Bamako my cheap, $1 flip flip tore. I assumed it was a goner but the driver took it around the corner to have it stitched back together and I got another 3 months of use out of it. So far some unexpected MVPs of our trip have been a package of Tenacious Tape which has repaired my down jacket and small leaks in our water bottles, as well as a small sewing kit with needle and thread that has given life back to many items.
Don’t Buy It
Before you purchase anything, ask yourself if you truly need it. Everything you buy has an environmental footprint and simply saying no is a great way to reduce waste. There are many other ways to support a local economy than buying a cheap souvenir. However, if you truly do feel you need something, then why not support a local artisan instead of some major corporation that may exploit its factory workers? Say you’re in the market for a new bag or a sweater and a local vendor is selling a beautiful handmade one that like, go on and get it. In doing so, you’ll be making both your and the vendor’s day!
Use Reef Safe Sunscreen
Many conventional sunscreens have been proven by scientists to harm coral reefs and bio-accumulate in sea life. There are many reef-safe sunscreens that you can use instead, such as Think Sport+ which is one that we’ve tried and like because it will actually blend in with just a little extra work over a conventional sunscreen. Other options include wearing UPF clothing which is what my alabaster skins prefers. I find that the Patagonia capilene long sleeve sunshirts work well and don’t cause you to overheat.
Take the Plastic Pledge
National Geographic challenges anyone to reduce their plastic and has a handy counter to show how many items you can keep out of the oceans and landfills if you commit to reducing plastic throughout the year. Sign the pledge to see how many items you can keep out of landfills and oceans in a year.
Responsible Tourism with Captive Animals
Many animal encounters while travelling whether captive or wild are unethical and there is no way to go about having one in a responsible way. The only way to avoid causing harm to animals is often to not participate in their mistreatment. Some examples of encounters that are absolutely to be avoided are:
- Elephant Riding
- Baiting Birds for Photographs
- Any tour where the animal works in the hot sun without breaks and/or carries too heavy of a load
- Swimming with Dolphins
- Trafficked and chained tigers at the Tiger Temple in Thailand
- Animal souvenirs that are likely illegal to export out of the country you’re visiting as well as importing to the one you’re from.
- Tourist Destinations Posing as “Sanctuaries” (Ie: if the whole purpose of the “sanctuary” is for you to get a selfie with a sloth, it’s probably not overly concerned with conservation and the animal’s well-being).
The above examples put profits ahead of the animal’s well-being and are not committed to conservation efforts. That said, there are ways to view animals in both a wild and captive setting in a responsible way. Unlike some travellers, we don’t take the position that all zoos are inherently bad because we’ve seen how responsible zoos can play a role in conservation.
For example where we’re from, the Calgary Zoo ran a very successful captive breeding program for whooping cranes which is a species that was once on the brink of extinction but has a recovering wild population now thanks in part to the zoo’s efforts.
Likewise, the Vancouver Aquarium has rescued injured marine animals and provided them with a comfortable life when they surely would have died if left in the wild. I have mixed feelings about the decision to cancel the captive cetacean program as they were not capturing wild animals and the captive whales could help scientists understand the plight of wild whales.
For example, a captive beluga can be trained to tell a scientist when it hears underwater noise, whereas a wild one won’t be able to. As oceans become more busy with increasing traffic from cruise ships, tankers, and whale-watching boats, this research is more valuable than ever. In short, a responsible aquarium like the one in Vancouver does not deserve to mentioned in the same breath as Sea World of the Blackfish fame.
Lastly, many people simply won’t care about what happens to animals unless they see how wonderful they are for themselves. This is why certain zoos and sanctuaries remain important for conservation. If you’re unsure about whether a zoo is responsible or not, check to see if it has received accreditation from reputable organizations and whether or not it participates in conservation initiatives.
Responsible Tourism with Wildlife
While zoos and aquariums may not be for everybody, seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is one of the most magical sights in the world. We are lucky enough to live next to one of the most beautiful places in the world, Banff National Park, which draws tourists from all over the world to gaze at its granite peaks and turquoise waters in wonder.
Many others come in search of seeing some of our iconic Rocky Mountain species such as grizzly and black bears, elk, and bison. With nauseating frequency, we see tourists trying to get irresponsibly close to these wild animals, sometimes with devastating effects. For example, “bear jams” where people stop their cars to get a better look at a grazing bear have caused deadly traffic accidents.
In other cases, people have been careless with their garbage, or as in the case of these eejits, have purposely fed bears which results in them making a habit of coming too close to people and the difficult decision is made to put them down. If you love animals and want to see them survive and thrive, you need to take care of their environment and practice responsible tourism around them.
Book Tours with Responsible Operators Only
Many agencies will offer animal viewing tours, but not all of them will commit to conducting themselves responsibly. Always ask what an agency or operator’s policies and protections are before signing up for the tour. Many will be happy to explain their initiatives and accreditation to you. If you’re unsure, err on the side of caution and don’t go.
Nevertheless, be cautious of greenwashing with things that call themselves “eco-tourism.” For example, there is controversy on the west coast of Canada, where a highly endangered subspecies of killer whales live. They feed exclusively on chinook salmon which is a fishery under threat of collapsing because of overfishing. Compounding the problem is that even a kayak in the water when the whales are trying to feed will interrupt them and many have starved to death.
While people on the west coast love to blame their demise on big industry (both tanker traffic and fishing), an unfortunate fact is even their small-scale eco-tourism whale-watching is affecting the survival of the species because the boats have been proven by scientists to interrupt the whale’s feeding. It sucks, but I think that until the population recovers to a more healthy number, people should avoid whale-watching in that part of the world and try it in another locale.
A healthy population of Beluga whales can be seen in Canada’s Hudson Bay and it’s a less frequently visited place which makes for more sustainable travel by reducing the risk of overtourism which I’ll discuss later in this post.
Follow the GD Rules
Parks and conservation areas often have rules in place for responsible wildlife viewing but sadly many people don’t follow them. In the Galapagos Islands for example, you are supposed to keep at least 2 meters away from the wildlife but so many people didn’t think twice about shoving a selfie stick into an endangered tortoise’s face. The exasperated naturalist guides would tell them not to over and over again, but they ignored them. Don’t be like these people because they are the worst.
If you have to harass an animal for a picture, don’t take it. If you do anyway, please go contemplate your life choices. Likewise if you’re asked to stay on a designated trail then do so. We saw people walking off the established track in Antarctica which could end up being deadly for a penguin. People left deep footprints in the snow which a penguin could fall into and not be able to get out. Once again, we saw exasperated expedition leaders filling in the holes behind the people who left them, which could have been prevented if those people had followed the rules.
Photograph Safely and From a Distance
Baiting owls with mice so you can get your “National Geographic-worthy” shot is not National Geographic-worthy behaviour. In many cases, the animals get used to human handouts which makes them leave their natural habitats to come in closer contact with humans where they run the risk of being hunted or killed by a vehicle. People must take precautions not to disturb animals while shooting them, this is especially important while they’re nesting and raising their young. No picture is worth endangering the life of an animal.
Pay Your GD Park Fees
It makes my blood boil to see bloggers offering tips for how to sneak into protected areas without paying the park entrance fee or the campsite’s nightly rate. Even as a broke backpacker, if you’re rich enough to travel the world, you’re rich enough to pay your park fees. This may mean choosing different activities or destinations until you can visit protected areas and view endangered wildlife responsibly without ripping off those who are tasked with protecting it. Now if you’re truly low-income, then I understand that these fees may be a barrier to reaping the benefits of time spent in the wild, so check to see if there are organizations that offer accessibility assistance in your community. Everyone should be able to enjoy the parks, but if you can pay then you must.
Practice Leave No Trace
We’ve written before about how awful it was so see how people had decorated a beautiful backcountry trail in Jasper National Park, which is also endangered caribou habitat, with their garbage. These people didn’t adhere to principals of Leave No Trace so they were not using the backcountry responsibly. In Canada, we are so privileged that these places exist at all so it is absolutely incumbent upon all users to keep the wild places that they love pristine.
Many places in the world, including a number of European countries have very little wilderness left so it is a precious commodity around the world. Packing garbage out (including organics), burying human waste and toilet paper (or taking care of the backcountry toilet), camping in designated sites, staying on trail, and taking care not to pollute water when cooking and cleaning are essential backcountry behaviours.
I was horrified to see how a bunch of Dutch and German tourists had turned the backcountry campgound in Jasper’s Tonquin Valley into a glorified trash heap…garbage left everywhere, toilet paper hanging off shrubs, tea bags left on the ground, and then they had the nerve to complain that the toilet (which is in the middle of a very large nature reserve BTW) was too gross to use.
Sorry Europeans, we don’t helicopter in Parks Canada employees to do toilet maintenance all summer, that’s on you as backcountry users. It’s easy enough to swap the barrel out and if you still refuse on doing that at least pack your TP out. Also don’t remove anything from a park or wilderness area unless it’s garbage. Every rock, shell, leaf, and wildflower has a purpose in nature and will be sorely missed if you take it. It’s also generally illegal and could result in a fine.
Volunteer Responsibly with Animals
As mentioned above, there are many organizations that claim to be wildlife sanctuaries but are actually profit-driven enterprises that care very little about the welfare of the animals they keep. If you still want to interact with wild animals outside of observing them from a responsible distance, then volunteering with a reputable wildlife sanctuary may be right for you.
Be sure to do plenty of research before signing on to ensure the organization is a responsible one. One big hint is whether or not it charges a large “volunteer” fee. If your volunteering is going to cost thousands of dollars for a couple weeks, it’s probably a profit-driven experience rather than a conservation-minded one. Many legitimate animal-welfare organizations will only charge a small stipend to cover the cost of housing the volunteer and will focus helping the animal rather than marketing a “wild animal encounter” experience.
If you do go this route, be prepared to get dirty. Volunteering with animals when it’s done responsibly is hardly a glamorous activity. Phil and I volunteered with coatis and birds respectively with a rescue organization in Bolivia and it was an incredible experience, but it also involved a lot of cleaning cages, shoveling poop away, and scraping away termite nests (believe it or not that was probably the worst part).
Lastly, regardless of what kind of volunteering you do, I always recommend contemplating your intentions first. Are you there to put the welfare of the animals first or because you want to get some pictures for your social media accounts of you with a wild animal? If it’s the latter, you might want to get creative with angles at your local responsible zoo instead.
How to Practice Responsible and Sustainable Travel
Support Local Businesses
Many trips that are arranged entirely from home before heading to a given country can be booked directly through a local business once onsite. Doing so puts more money directly into the local economy and often saves you lots of money which is an added bonus. For tourism to be responsible it has to benefit the local economy and supporting local businesses is one of the best ways to help a host community.
This graphic below from the Charles Darwin Interpretive Centre in the Galapagos demonstrates how booking cruises and arranging tours with local operators is better for the host community.
Take Care Around Children
Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation by tourists and child sex tourism is a very real, very ugly thing. Many children in orphanages that attract people to volunteer with them end up being trafficked. Giving handouts to children who approach you when travelling creates a dangerous habit that could lead to them being taken advantage of by people with bad intentions. If you wouldn’t want your own children coming up to strangers, then it’s not ok to do it to other people’s kids. If kids do come up to you, simply wave hello to them.
Avoid Human Zoo tourism
Slum tourism creates a poverty trap that makes people dependent on human zoo tourism dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. Again, if you wouldn’t want people from all over the world taking pictures of you from an air conditioned bus while you go about your daily business, you should ask yourself if it’s fair to do it to people in foreign countries.
There are many ways to help out people in these unfortunate positions that don’t have the uncomfortable element of exploitation that slum tourism has. Talking to local charities about how you can help and supporting businesses and artists from poor communities are just two examples of how you can engage with underprivileged communities responsibly.
Never take a job from a local
Many free accommodation schemes such as housesitting and work aways take jobs away from locals. While this may be good for the traveller’s pocketbook, it robs the local community of the benefits of tourism dollars, as well as depriving locals of a job that would otherwise go to them. Book your accommodation with a local family-run business instead through websites like Booking.com and Homestay.com.
Volunteer Abroad Responsibly
In a similar vein to the above point, volunteering abroad should never take a job away from a local, especially if you don’t have the skills to do the job in the first place. Many “make a school in Africa (the country?)” schemes put unskilled people to work on jobs that should go to local workers. In one particularly infamous experience, a volunteer realized that the library she was building was being taken down during the night and rebuilt by local masons before the unskilled students went back to work “building the library” in the morning.
This kind of volunteer work does not provide local benefits. For volunteer work to be responsible, it has to be done in solidarity with the local community and this may mean that volunteers will have to take a backseat to the host country. For example, an organization that I trust and have volunteered with twice puts volunteers to work with stonemasons in Nepal to help rebuild after the earthquake. The Nepalese stonemasons lead the work and often times all the volunteers are asked to do is bend rebar for them. While this work may not seem as glamorous as “building a school in Africa”, it is done in solidarity with the host community and that is something to be proud of.
Watch Out for Overtourism
Overtourism is a buzzword as of late and it refers to to the trend of places becoming too popular for their own good. Vienna does not have enough water for all the people who arrive on cruise ships daily. New Zealand receives twice as many visitors as its population and it doesn’t have the infrastructure to support this many people.
This leads to problems for the locals such as being driven out of their homes to make room for AirBnBs and hotels, resource shortages, and of course the dreaded trash problem. Beaches being littered with plastic bottles after a cruise ship docs, tourists using grocery store parking lots as toilets, popular sites like Machu Picchu and Everest Base Camp are so crowded that they’re at risk of degradation, overtourism risks closing off treasured places forever.
While governments around the world figure out how to address the issue of overtourism, the best way a traveller can combat this trend is to avoid these places in their busiest season or to consider heading somewhere less visited until the traffic is calmed. There are many worthy places in the world that are awaiting Instagram likes so don’t be afraid of switching things up.
Do Take the Time to Talk to the Locals
Many tourists keep themselves in a bubble when they’re travelling to a new place and they may miss out on an invaluable opportunity to meet with locals and see the world through their eyes. If someone offers you a cup of tea, sit and drink with them. Of course use discretion when travelling alone especially, but remember that stories of travellers becoming victims of violence are so attention-grabbing because they are abnormal. Instead, you will likely find that many of the people you meet when travelling are simply curious and looking to make a connection with you. So go off script and make some good memories with them and even snap a picture or two with them so long as you’ve gain their consent first.
Sustainability At Home
The above sections covered how to reduce your impact on the planet while travelling and how to make it beneficial for local people, but much of what a person can do to help the planet stay healthy is achievable at home. In general, people in the richest countries of the world have a much larger carbon footprint than people in the countries that they may like to visit, and this is largely because of their consumptive habits.
Now some people like the get hung up on whether or not it’s the company’s fault for manufacturing this crap in the first place, or the consumer’s for buying it. To me this argument is pointless as all are to blame. Companies continue to try to make profits based on our anticipated consumption and then we go on and consume as predicted. Companies need to be held responsible for their pollution as do individuals.
Since the industrial age, globally the average person’s energy use per capita has gone consistently up despite huge leaps made in energy efficiency. Part of this is undoubtedly because of corporate lobbying (ie: oil companies killing the electric car, single companies producing more GHGs than entire countries in the same timeframe, beverage companies lobbying governments to allow them to produce plastic bottles instead of refillable glass ones and the list goes on), but a large part of it is also on us and our insatiable consumptive habits.
The average North American home is 1,000 square feet bigger (92 meters squared) than it was in the 70s and is more likely to have a GHG producing air-conditioner installed now. Where a family may have only had 1 fridge in their home in the past, they now have 2 as well as deep freezer and the same is true of televisions and computers.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy to power the servers that keep us connected enough to stream cute cat videos all day. Cities keep sprawling endlessly which requires new roads to be built with GHG intensive asphalt, and more homes made out of petroleum-based pvc siding, in neighbourhoods with sidewalks and driveways that are made with super-polluting cement.
While other forms of environmental disturbances can be reclaimed, cities cannot and the ecosystems that are lost to sprawl are gone forever. This means people have to take action at home to make both their individual households and communities more sustainable. In doing so, they will reduce their impact on the environment and climate. So how can you help at home?
The Big Ones
Driving less, having one fewer child, flying less, reducing meat intake, and changing some household habits are the biggest ways that people in the developed world can reduce their impacts as determined by scientists (so no, it’s not a neo-liberal conspiracy like some journalists like to suggest, it’s science).
I would add that taking advantage of any energy efficiency programs available to you, choosing to live in a smaller home, and supporting efforts to densify communties rather than allowing developers to keep sprawling endlessly would help too. These are things that individuals can and should do to reduce their environmental impacts, companies and governments will be required to take their own courses of action.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – In That Order
Our society made it really easy for us to just consume and throw our waste into a recycling bin. The waste was then taken away to become another person’s problem, but this has lead to pollution problems we are seeing today. Reducing waste in the first place needs to be the priority with the other steps following after.
China isn’t buying our plastic trash anymore to turn it into even more future plastic trash, so reducing what we buy in the first place is the single most important thing you can do to prevent future pollution. But won’t the economy collapse if people stop buying things and consuming so much? Mister Money Mustache explains better than I ever could why that is not true. While he takes his frugality to the extreme, I do think that the world just might be better off if we all became more frugal and invested our money rather than spending it to the point of carrying precarious debt loads, like so many Canadians do.
Reduce Food Waste
Some studies have indicated that if food waste were a country it would produce as much GHGs as the country that produces the third most in the world. Meal planning, buying produce that’s grown locally, and composting food waste will keep intense methane GHG emissions from going into the atmosphere.
Make your Views Known
If sharing Greenpeace articles on Facebook accomplished anything, we would have solved climate change by now. Instead, reach out to the people in positions of power and make your views known. Your elected official, whether you voted for them or not, is supposed to represent you in government but they can’t do anything for you if they don’t know what your concerns are. So write them a letter or give them a call to tell them what you want your world to look like in the future. Protect Our Winters has a handy toolkit that you can order from their website for more information.
Give Back to Your Community
Volunteer with vulnerable people, animals and ecosystems in your community. Become involved in your local community association so you can have a say over what happens in your neighbourhood. Join community cleanups. Raise money for conservation causes by doing things like the Alberta Wildlife Association’s, annual Climb for Wilderness. Spend your time doing rather than buying.
Alternate Trips Abroad with Trips at Home
Instead of going far abroad for every vacation, consider taking one closer to home every other year. Chances are there are plenty of incredible places right in your backyard that are worth discovering.
We encourage you to consult multiple sources and challenge any assumptions that you might have about climate change and how best to solve it. It’s not purely a political issue; rather, it’s also a human one. Here are some great books to read if you’re interested in learning more facts about climate change and responsible tourism rather than reading more rhetoric which is useless and abundant:
- Understanding Climate Change by Sarah Burch and Sara Harris
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken
- Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker
- Responsible Tourism by David Leslie
- The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann
Responsible Tourism Matters
The bad news is travel causes a great deal of GHG emissions, and a the same time it can endanger wildlife, destroy ecosystems, cause pollution, and engender negative impacts on locals. The good news is that travel when done responsibly and in a sustainable manner can have a lot of positive effects both on the local people and the environment.
Responsible tourism can result in infrastructure investment, well-paying and stable local jobs, and may lead to the creation of environment and marine protected areas among other improvements. Simply put, travel can be positive force despite its potential impacts. So all we ask is that responsible travellers try their best to reduce their impacts while travelling, as well as when they’re at home. It’s the Zen way!