15. Things travelers can do to make their vacation more sustainable
To lower our carbon footprint from traveling it is important to travel more conscious. Not all our travels have the same positive or negative impact on the environment. I already explained the big positive impact that traveling can have on developing economies and as a secondary effect on the environment. On the other hand, there is no such benefit from short city trips where you fly for the weekend from one developed city to another to go shopping. Below we provide a list of useful travel tips for the sustainable traveler.
15.1 Fly responsible
A lot of fuel is used for taking off, so try to fly direct, or at least with as few stop-overs as possible. So those who want to fly should be more conscious about where, when, and how to fly. An alternative can be to only travel once a year for a longer period to a developing country, instead of flying a couple of times a year for short city trips.
Consuming and using public transport for a few weeks in a developing country reduces your carbon footprint from consuming energy in your own developed country. According to the United National Environment Program (UNEP) and Our World in Data the consumption of energy is by far the biggest contributor to CO2 emission. Saving the energy most people spend on temperature regulating in their homes and commuting to and from work, can contribute to reducing your carbon footprint while traveling. This could be a positive rebound effect. According to an article in You Matter, commuters who on a daily base wait alone with the air-conditioning on in a traffic jam might produce a bigger carbon footprint driving than flying. Another way to lower your domestic carbon footprint is traveling during winter to a warmer country, or traveling during a hot summer to a cooler country. This way you won’t need to heat your house or use air-conditioning. As mentioned earlier a popular way to deal with contamination caused by flying is to invest in CO2 offset schemes, but how does this exactly work? You find the answer in our article about carbon offset.
15.5 Be a more sustainable tourist while traveling
So what else can we do as a tourist besides compensation for the CO2 produced by our travels? What can we do to directly reduce our carbon footprint, reduce climate change, and make tourism more sustainable? Organizations like Impact Travel Alliance, Sustainable Travel, and Green Global Travel try to guide tourists into being more sustainable. Below you find a list of useful suggestions from their websites, combined with personal experiences and other travel tips.
• Pick the right destination
If you want to travel in a sustainable way, be conscious of your destination and why you want to go there. For some tourists nothing is off the limit in their search for cool and original destinations. Currently (early 2020) I still read posts on Social Media from people who want to travel into mainland Venezuela. Foreigners who travel now in Venezuela need protection for their safety, which is likely to cost more than the money they bring into the country. Also, countries fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, countries at war, or with high social unrest can better be avoided. Some destinations or attractions might be less obvious to avoid, like bullfights in Spain, a cockfight in Peru, or even an orphanage in Nepal for instance.
To visit the Amazon Rainforest can both be good and bad, depending on where and how you travel. Some parts are designated (intangible) for conservation to either protect the local indigenous communities or the flora and fauna in that area. Please respect (local) restrictions for places that shouldn’t be visited.
A tricky, but interesting recommendation is to consider traveling to destinations rebuilding after a disaster. Puerto Rico, for example, has developed a robust tourism sector since weathering a devastating hurricane in 2017. The boast in the economy from tourism was very helpful to help to rebuild the island. An important recommendation here is to only go when a location starts inviting tourism again. Don’t take part in disaster tourism!
• Pick the right time to travel
Try to be conscious of when you travel. Many popular tourist destinations are literally run-over during high season, while they receive hardly any tourists during the low season. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend traveling in the middle of raining, monsoon, or even hurricane season. Many tourist destinations still have an ‘off-season’ with good weather. When traveling off-season your visit will pose less of a strain on the local resources. Besides being way less crowded, traveling off-season will often save you money as well and will help small local businesses to survive the low season without tourists.
• Pick the right way to travel
Be conscious about how you travel. Flying still has a huge negative impact on the environment, but even if you don’t fly, your carbon footprint can be just as bad. Traveling by yourself for long distances in an old car on gasoline and with the air-conditioning on, is likely to have a bigger carbon footprint than flying the same distance in a modern plane full of other people. Traveling by train is often better for the environment than flying. But as with flying, the exact carbon footprint will depend on the number of passengers and even on the power source of the train. Is it a new electric train on renewables, or an old diesel train? The train between London and Calais runs mostly on electricity generated from nuclear power plants in France.
The most environmentally friendly ways of traveling include walking, biking, sailing, or even traveling with four persons in an electric car powered by renewables. Currently, Lucy and her dog Wombat (Tangles & Tail) are walking the whole length of the American Continent, from Ushuaia in Argentine, to Barrow in Alaska. This is the most sustainable way to travel from A to B, but only a few people will have the time and strength to undertake this journey on foot.
Some long-distance recommendations for people more like myself include: fly intercontinental in economic class and travel on the continent by local train or bus when distances and time allow so. For example, in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentine I rather travel for 10 hours on a very comfortable overnight bus, instead of flying for an hour during the day. Not only this bus journey cheaper, it often even saves me time. Instead of losing time during the day with travel to and from the airport, which is often far outside of a city, checking in, flying and checking out, I now sleep in the bus and have the whole day available.
• An important travel tip is to pick the right place to stay
Be conscious about where you stay. If you stay at places that are locally owned then most of what you pay is likely to stay in the community. As mentioned earlier this doesn’t mean that the place has to be owned by local people. Contradicting to what you might think, it is frequently better to stay and eat at small foreign places with local employees, than at some of their local neighbors. This is because they often pay their employees better than at businesses that are owned by local families. Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon that well-known local families pay their employees even less than the minimum wages. Their political contacts allow them to get away with this. Small foreign-owned businesses will not be able to get away with underpayment. I know of local hotels and restaurants in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia that are (partly) owned by foreigners (including Izhcayluma), who treat their employees better than most local companies. When possible try to avoid staying at big international hotel chains. Usually the bigger a business, the more profit leaves the community or even the country.
The so-called ‘Green Hotel Chains’ are an improvement to regular hotel chains. But it is difficult to check how many of those green hotel chains are more about green-washing their image? Organizations as Green Hotelier and Earth Check, Green Globe, STEP, Rainforest Alliance, Green Key, and even Tripadvisor now offer some type of green ratings for businesses. However, they might not be fully objective. Most of us should know by now that opinions on Tripadvisor aren’t very reliable and can even depend on sponsors. The organization Green Key is sponsored by Expedia, Travelocity, and Tui and even qualifies the luxury hotel chains Radisson Hotel and Wyndham Group as being so-called Green Hotel Chains. Although there might be a conflict of interest, the previous websites can at least provide some guidance. Besides these guidelines, it is still always good to check out the website of the hotel where you want to stay to get a feeling for the place.
For reasons mentioned earlier, I would recommend not to use accommodations from Airbnb. If you’re looking for a homestay environment and more interaction with local people you will be better off when staying at someone’s ‘couch’. Couchsurfing is a community that lets you stay for free with local people in every country on earth. Travel like a local, stay in someone’s home, and experience the world in a way money can’t buy. While the main goal of Airbnb is to earn money, the Couchsurfing community focuses on connecting people and sharing experiences.
• Try camping as an alternative
Camping as a tourist activity deserves special attention as it belongs to one of the most environmentally friendly ways of exercising tourist activities. Recently camping is gaining popularity again, especially among Millennials and Gen X-ers. Camping is proven to have an impact on reducing stress and contributes to emotional and physical health but this doesn’t seem to be the whole reason. The increase in new campers (both younger and more ethnically diverse) seems to be due to several factors, including general accessibility to camping, and various forms of unique camping accommodations, along with increased access to Wi-Fi and cell service. The tourist industry is picking up on this new trend by offering more exclusive destinations and more comfortable ways to go camping. Like camping in comfortable Airstream caravans on the unique salt flat of the Salar de Uyuni at 3000 US$ p.p. for three days and two nights! This type of camping is called Glamorous Camping, or simply Glamping. Instead of the hard ground and too-cold sleeping bags, glamping usually includes feather beds, comfy blankets, and yes, sometimes a flushing toilet. When you glamp in tents or yurts, you get all the amenities of high-end hotels set in a natural environment that’s miles away from any city. Glamping is less environmentally friendly than normal camping and one must be careful with camping in undisturbed natural areas. Still, the concept of camping and glamping as environmentally friendly tourist activities is an interesting concept to explore further in the future.
A growing argument for camping comes from environmentally conscious travelers who are worried about their carbon footprint from especially flying. It is a good argument and surely camping has a much lower negative impact than staying at a 4 star hotel. Many campsites are accessible by car or even bicycle, which greatly reduces the carbon footprint compare to having to fly to your destination. Another advantage of camping is that most people who camp tend to stay longer at the same place, reducing the amount of traveling.
• Pick the right way to book
For a hotel, the most economically sustainable way to receive clients is by direct bookings through email or their website. This way they will be able to get a higher net profit. For clients, direct bookings can result in better and more personalized service. As I wrote earlier, one of the reasons why booking websites became so popular is because many hotels lacked good reservation services. Part of the reason can be a difference in language and culture, especially in smaller local hotels.
An alternative can be to book with small (local) travel agencies. Small travel agents often speak English, know what their clients want, and provide a more personal service. They know the layout of the hotel and have good relations with the hotels they work with. This way they will be able to provide special services, including better rooms and the location of your room. If you travel for a special occasion, like a honeymoon or wellness trip, the inside knowledge from a travel agent can be very useful. This extra knowledge can also be useful for people who travel with limited capacities, a baby, or even a dog.
• Don’t hurry, enjoy the experience
Traveling as a tourist is meant to be enjoyed. Travel with a plan, but not with a ‘have to do list’, just relax and enjoy. Probably you might not be able to visit all destinations during your trip, but in return you will have a much deeper and more authentic travel experience, and a good reason to go back next year. Besides, if you travel at a slow pace, you will produce a smaller carbon footprint.
• Try to learn the local language
Learning a few words in the local language will make interacting with the local people and therefore traveling in their country easier. Just being able to say: “Good morning, good evening, thank you, how much, where to go”, in the local language will be appreciated. Learning more words will deepen your cultural and social experience and improve your overall travel experience.
• Eat sustainable!?
This means eating what the local people eat. Most important is that you eat locally produced seasonal food, as long as this is produced in a sustainable, animal-friendly way. For example, don’t order shrimps while staying at an Andean mountain resort. At this Andean resort, you will be better of eating lama meat or vegetables that grow in the area. When At the coast try to eat fish from the local fishermen and when in the Amazon Rainforest, wow, you will be in for a treat! The rainforest produces so much food that it will almost be a shame to try to eat anything that needs to be imported. It is also better to try to avoid eating in buffet restaurants, especially for lunch and dinner. Those buffet meals produce a lot of waste.
• Travel light and purposeful
Try to limit the number of things you bring along for your travels. What you should, or shouldn’t bring is personal and depends highly on where you go, when you go, and for how long. Alden Wicker recommends another way that might help to reduce your travel weight. She recommends to pack cloths of natural materials including cotton, linen, and wool; and items that can be easily hand-washed and air-dried. Consider that clothes you travel with are likely to get dirty, worn, and washed often, so choose clothing that is built to last. When your clothing is still good before you go home, you can consider donating part to local organizations. In South America, several hotel receptions in the big cities have their contacts.
Bring reusable items with your while traveling. These include, but are not limited to: your own water bottle, coffee or teacup, a small food container, etc. Try to use biodegradable refills for your toiletry, instead of buying small travel packages and consider what type of sunscreen you bring. Many sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which is toxic to the symbiotic algae that live within corals. Bring along a reef-safe option.
• Spend your money locally
It’s a returning recommendation in our travel tips that locally spend money is more sustainable. Try to buy locally produced things in local shops and markets. Again this will be easier if you could learn at least a few words of the local language before you travel to another country. If your language skills aren’t very good, or you simply don’t have enough time to learn another language, sustainable travel agents and local guides can help. The online travel agent ‘I Like Local, has set up a new platform where local entrepreneurs can freely advertise their services to international tourists. When tourists are interested I Like Local will make sure that the local entrepreneur and tourists will meet and understand each other.
On an additional note: In South America, many of the small local tour operators pay their employees less than foreign agents do. This is mainly possible ‘thanks’ to the presence of a big informal regulation system. Don’t try to shop for the lowest price, but try to do research about which tour agency provides sustainable prices and services for everyone involved.
• Don’t give anything to poor children
When tourists encounter poverty, and especially poor children, some close their eyes, but many want to give something. It used to be quite common for tourists to give away sweets to poor local children. Then health organizations and NGOs started to inform tourists about the negative effects. Unfortunately, most of their focus was on the negative effect of sugar on children who hardly receive any dental care. More and more tourists then started to give the children bread and fruit. Some badly informed tourists, including myself, even brought (are still bringing!) pens and other school supplies from their home country to hand out to poor local children. After traveling for more than 17 years I sometimes wonder how I could have been that silly to travel with a pack of 50 blue school pens from the Netherlands to Thailand (my first trip alone)?! As if they wouldn’t produce school pens in the whole country. Buying those 50 pens in Thailand would have been better for the environment and the local economy. But actually, I shouldn’t have bought those pens at all, because the way I distributed them wasn’t sustainable. More about the two main reasons why children beg you can read in studies from Cairn and ‘Child Street Live’ in Peru.
As it turns out by giving pens away I was contributing to the creation of an environment where begging might be more profitable than actually working for your money. If you consider that the official minimum salary in Peru is around 1.40 US$ an hour it might not surprise you that some children earn more during a day’s begging than their father earns while working the land or in the mines, often even earning less than the minimum wage. If you want to help the poor while traveling, then buy something from them. This can be a souvenir, fruits, or even a service like cleaning your shows or showing you around in their town. The following studies in Research Gate and Placing Latin America show that money made by children working the streets in Ecuador and Peru often helps with paying for their study. Another good example are the children in the Colca Canyon in Peru. They dress up in traditional clothes and try to sell souvenirs to tourists. They work in the mornings until just after lunch and later in the afternoon/ evening they go to school, which is partly paid for from their earnings. Good education is better for the environment.
• Avoid animal abuse!
Over the past years, most of us have learned how bad it is to ride elephants, even if they are from so-called ‘sanctuaries’. However other abuse of animals is often less clear. At some places in South America, you’re better off not to go on a horseback riding tour, because the horses are underfed. Another type of animal abuse happens in the Colca Canyon in Peru, where I still often see tourists posing with eagles. Many tourists don’t know (while others don’t want to) where these majestic birds come from. Some of them were captured in the wild and then got their wings clipped, while others were stolen from their nests and forced to pose with tourists. Paying for pictures with these eagles will only continue to encourage this type of animal abuse.
• Respect local culture, religion and regulations
Of course, always be respectful of the local rules and religion. It’s important to orientate yourself before and during your travels on local situations, prices, minimum salary, culture, customs, and religion. The more you know about your destination, the easier it will be to blend in and not offend the local people. When you blend in and show respect for them, they will be more likely to show respect for you. This will help you to become a participant of your surroundings, not just an alien observer through a camera lens247. Taking pictures can be very invasive. In some indigenous communities from the Amazon, Native Americans, and African cultures people still think that a picture not only takes their image but also steals their soul. On the other hand, traditionally dressed women in Peru and Bolivia who’re working the land, or visit a market often don’t want you to take their picture because they don’t feel that they’re properly dressed for this.
One of the first experiences I remember where some tourists disrespected local culture and tradition was on a tour from San Cristobal in Mexico. We went to visit a small local church in San Juan Chamula. This church is very special, as inside it combines Christian religion with ancient local traditions, including shaman rituals. We were only allowed inside if we would dress appropriately and not take pictures. Still, some girls would try to enter with short shorts and tank-tops, while other people sneaky tried to take pictures inside. Those who were caught had to give their camera to the authorities of the town and didn’t get them back.
A few years ago I did a survey in Vilcabamba, the small Ecuadorian town where the Izhcayluma Lodge is located. Since this town has become very popular with foreign hippies and expats I was wondering how the local population felt about this foreign influence. Although the inhabitants of Vilcabamba liked the money that comes in with the foreigners, they felt that many of them didn’t respect their way of living. There was little interaction with the expats, while the badly dressed marijuana smoking hippies had a bad influence on the image of their town and their children. Vilcabamba is only one example of many small towns in Latin-America where I’ve heard similar complaints from local people about foreigners who don’t respect their local customs.
• Having a budget is fine, but don’t travel cheap
If you want to support local economies of developing countries the best way you can help them is by spending your money within their society. I will never forget how two backpackers in Nicaragua went in discussion with the owner of a small local hostel. I was having breakfast at the patio of the same hostel and they had brought their own food in the supermarket to eat there. They didn’t want to pay for the breakfast of the hostel, but they ordered a coffee. The elderly woman went inside and came back with two coffee, sugar, and milk. After we all finished breakfast and coffee we had to pay and the lady asked the couple for around 25 cents extra for the milk. But the backpackers didn’t want to pay. They hadn’t ordered the milk but neither asked for coffee without milk, just coffee. They refused to pay. I felt sorry for the lady and ended up paying those 25 cents.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I have to laugh or cry when I see tourists from a cruise ship trying to get just an extra 1 US$ off the price from a local souvenir, while they just paid 50 US$ for a half-day excursion that’s worth less than 15 US$ and while they’re taking pictures with their expensive smartphone sold at maybe 6 times its cost price. I know that part of the reason that tourists bargain so much is because they have the feeling that all local people try to rip them off. Unfortunately, this is a real concern. As a tall white rich looking foreigner traveling in developing countries, they’ve tried many times to rip me off and this of course I don´t like it. My most extreme experience was when they asked me about 400% extra on top of the price for a souvenir of a locally dressed doll. This was on a market in Egypt where (tourist) prices could be quite extreme. In Latin America, the prices for souvenirs are generally not that much inflated. To bargain is expected at markets in Latin America, but generally, you get somewhere between 10 to 30% off the price, depending on what and how much you buy. If you’re on a tourist market, walk around a bit to check what prices other sellers ask. If the requested price is much higher than what others ask, you can negotiate or buy your souvenir at one of those other places. The price will include only a little margin to haggle with. Ask if they can give you a ‘special price’ and then pay that price if you think the souvenir is worth it. If you don’t think it’s worth the price then don’t try to force the price below its value. Once bought the product, don’t look back. Don’t try to check anymore at other places where you might have gotten a better deal. Just be happy that you helped to put food on the table of the person whom sold you the product.
• Buy sustainable souvenirs
Try to buy locally produced souvenirs. Some gift shops in Latin America sell “traditional” souvenirs that are either made in large factories or even imported from China to lower the production costs. Local village artisans who make souvenirs by hand charge more, but remember that locally made products supports authentic cultural heritage and provides needed jobs for the local people.
NEVER buy animals, neither alive nor death. This might sound like common sense, but the lines aren’t always that clear. I met volunteers in Puyo Ecuador who wanted to save a poor monkey that was for sale at a local market. They decided to buy this monkey and bring it to a rescue center. Now they probably saved the life of this monkey, but they doomed the life of other wild monkeys. Their money will encourage the salesman to try to get another monkey to sell. If you notice illegal animal trade the best you can do is to inform the police, or even a zoo or rescue center. Be also cautious with buying products made from parts of animals. To buy an Alpaca woolen sweater or leather jacket made from cow skin is no problem. But in Bolivia, I’ve seen charangos (a sort of small guitar) for sale that were made with the shell from an armadillo and this is illegal. Many tourists are still unaware of the potential damage caused by buying shells. It isn’t uncommon that the best of those were not washed up on the beach, but instead stolen out of the water. For this reason, many countries don’t allow you to export nor import shells, even if you found them on the beach yourself. Once out of the water, it will be hard to prove where you got them from. I’ve also met tourists trying to take seeds or even small plants back home. They see this as a harmless act. However, no matter the size, bringing an alien species into a new environment could potentially cause agricultural pests, diseases, or even invasion to spread.
• Respect the wild flora and fauna
Never feed or try to touch wildlife. Not only will you alter their natural diet, feeding wild animals can make them dependent on us. Besides, it will take their natural cautions for us away and it can even make them aggressively starting to ‘ask’ for food.
Once I walked through a park in Panama eating a bag of crisps when I saw a capuchin monkey in a tree nearby. We looked at each other and I took my camera out to take a picture. To my surprise, the monkey slowly came closer. After taking my pictures, the monkey even ended up on the trail in front of me. I was surprised that it wasn’t scared when I noticed it was looking at my bag of crisps. He kept moving his head and started showing his teeth and making noises. He became more aggressive when he noticed that I wasn’t about to give any food. His canines looked pretty big… I decided to make myself big, wildly wove my arms and yelled at the monkey. He decided then to get back in the tree, but kept an angry eye on me when I continued my walk.
Hummingbird feeders are also not good for the environment, unless used temporarily and with caution when there isn’t enough natural food available. There are many reasons why hummingbird feeders aren’t that good. When inappropriately used they can cause the bird’s health more harm than good. Often the feeders don’t get properly cleaned, which causes bacteria to spread. When the sugar water is too sweet, or not sweet enough it can cause harm to the digestion system of the bird. Hummingbirds, like bees, perform the function of pollination and feeding the hummingbirds means they are not pollinating which has big consequences for the local flora.
• Sustainable use of water and electricity
Be cautious about the use of water while traveling. Try to take short showers, once a day, and don’t let the tap running while shaving, or brushing your teeth. Cities like Uyuni and La Paz in Bolivia, Lima, and Cusco in Peru, and Playa del Carmen in Mexico already don’t have enough water to support their own citizens. Most tourists don’t know that the local governments of these cities frequently cut the water supply for a few hours during the day, especially during the dry season. In the bigger tourist hotels, guests often don’t realize when the water supply has been cut off, because those hotels have big water tanks. Every time the water supply comes back, it will fill these tanks to the top. Therefore there is a change that these tanks directly extract a big part of the water budget that’s for that day available. Hotel owners and local governments should do more about informing and reminding visitors about water shortage. Use your towels and bed sheets more than once. This will not only save water but also reduce the amount of soap (chemicals) that are used for washing. On top, less time in a washing machine will extend the life of the towels, sheets, etc. When you leave the room, turn off the lights, the air-conditioning, or heating, and the television. Closing the curtains or blinds will help to conserve the temperature in your room. It is also recommendable to put the “Do not disturb” sign on your door. This might avoid that the housekeeping uses additional chemicals to clean your bathroom, or vacuum-cleans your floor.
• Sustainable hiking
When you go for a hike, stay on the trails. When wandering off the trails you risk harming native flora and fauna. You might also disturb local farmers and their animals. Some public trails go through private properties with grazing cows or other animals. When walking on trails like that, make sure to always close the gate behind you. Bring a small bag with you when you go for a hike, so you can pick up empty water bottles and other rubbish.
More sustainable travel tips you can find on: Carbon offset programs.