Sustainability 101: Your Guide to Traveling Responsibly
Pros share their tips for planning a low-impact getaway.
Choose a destination that emphasizes eco-friendly values. (Getty Images)
Earth Day is fast approaching, and if you're feeling inspired to leave a positive impact on your next trip, there are plenty of ways to become a more conscientious traveler. "It begins with being aware and mindful of your travel choices," says Ford Cochran, director of programming for National Geographic Expeditions. Prioritizing sustainability and supporting the culture, people, natural beauty and ecosystem in the destinations you visit will elevate your travel experiences, Cochran says.
Whether you're passionate about supporting local communities or preserving wildlife and natural resources, there are plenty of locales, tour operators, hotels and travel companies championing locally driven and sustainable practices – you just have to know where to look. With this in mind, we spoke with sustainability experts to gather tips for going green and identified destinations and operators that are elevating the sustainability concept with forward-thinking initiatives. Here are the top ways to minimize your footprint on your next getaway.
Do Your Research and Know Where Your Money Is Going
Sustainability can be defined in many ways, says small-group adventure travel outfitter G Adventures' founder Bruce Poon Tip. It's important to remember that a key component of traveling sustainably goes beyond aiding the environment. It's also important to foster social well-being by utilizing local guides and suppliers, he says, highlighting that recently, the United Nations announced 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, calling attention to the powerful economic, environmental and social contributions people can offer through travel.
And before you choose a tour operator, it's essential to question whether your money will support and benefit the local community, Poon Tip explains. Beyond closely evaluating the ownership and relationship that the operator, hotel or expedition has with the local residents, it's also critical to assess other factors such as environmental welfare, social welfare and animal welfare policies. "There's a right way to appreciate wildlife," Poon Tip says, emphasizing the importance of choosing an operator that puts welfare at the forefront to ensure all animals are treated humanely. If you inquire about the welfare policy, "they have to be able to answer these questions," Poon Tip says. For example, G Adventures features its welfare policy directly on its website to offer greater transparency. Make sure that the operator discourages illegal practices and promotes the five pillars of animal freedom outlined by the Association of British Travel Agents: freedom from discomfort, distress, pain, fear, thirst, hunger or insufficient space. Some operators, including G Adventures, also advise against elephant-riding or trekking experiences to promote animal safety.
James Thornton, Intrepid Travel's managing director, echoes similar sentiments, emphasizing the importance of travelers understanding how travel partners operate. "The local connection comes with knowledge, but also a sense of responsibility to give back and protect the community they benefit from. When you stay in a small-scale, locally owned accommodation, you know the money is staying in the economy," he says. He also advises using local transportation options, eating at local restaurants and relying on knowledgeable local guides to leave minimal impact on the destinations you visit. "Local partnerships and interaction is a key characteristic eco-minded travelers should look out for," he adds.
[See: 10 Memorable Camping Trips.]
Embrace Local Traditions and Culture
"Initiatives that were once considered an inconvenience have now been reimagined and reworked through the travel experience seamlessly," Thornton says. He points to the Community Tourism Project as an innovative community-based initiative forged in a partnership between ActionAid and Intrepid Travel that allows for cultural immersion. For example, in Myaing, a small township in Myanmar, Intrepid Travel has "created a community-run lodge where guests are housed in local-style accommodation, adjacent to villages," Thornton explains. And during the Intrepid Travel tour, visitors can enjoy activities spearheaded by the community and learn about the area’s ecosystem, he says. "The goal of this project is to create economic opportunities that are sustainable, local-led and that provide benefit to the community as a whole, all while creating minimal disruption to the local environment or existing way of life."
When it comes to supporting local residents while traveling, Cochran recalls a trip to Cusco, Peru, where he learned firsthand about the Andean region's 2,000-year-old weaving tradition from native Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez. To help revive the centuries-old tradition and contribute to the community, Callañaupa and other artisans began weaving beautiful tapestries, textiles and apparel. And thanks to financial support from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council, Callañaupa created the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. "When we come to Peru, part of the story of the Andean culture is the story these women have done, and what she and our weavers have created," Cochran says. The proceeds from textile sales help support the weavers and their communities, making it a win-win for visitors and the local community, he says. Seeking ways to learn about and aid local communities is not only going to help promote long-term sustainability, but will also allow you to have meaningful and enriching travel experiences.
Pick a Place That Prioritizes Sustainability
Apart from selecting the right tour operator and experiences, it's also key to choose a destination that supports eco-friendly practices. "Sustainable living has been a big part of our DNA," says Carol Hong, the area director of business development, brand and communications for Singapore Tourism Board Americas. Hong highlights the city's advancements in urban planning and development. Often called The Garden City, Singapore boasts 18 Supertrees featuring photovoltaic cells that power solar energy and collect and recycle rainwater, she adds. "[Singapore is] first and foremost a city that's green" she says.
Nepal is another place that "strongly recognizes sustainability, not only as a mechanism for improvement but a crucial tool for getting back on their feet," Thornton says. After the 2015 earthquake, Intrepid Travel launched a Namaste Nepal campaign that urged people to visit Nepal, with all proceeds going to rebuild the country, he says. "It was work with the government, local partners and NGOs that allowed for these first tours to take place, realizing that through sustainable tourism, the economy would benefit without adversely affecting a tremendously damaged region."
In terms of lodging, you want to pinpoint a property that employs the local community, promotes sustainable, green-friendly initiatives and offers enrichment and educational opportunities to learn about the native environment and culture. Also, look for hotels that monitor water usage, clean the water supply and offset their energy use, Cochran says. For example, the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, one of the properties selected in National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World collection, uses "cod pots," an inventive fishing tool that reduces the impact on the area's marine ecology and simultaneously yields higher-quality fish to chefs in the area, plus it gives travelers the chance to connect with a community host and learn how to build boats.
Reduce Your Carbon Emissions
"There are many ways travelers can reduce their carbon footprint while traveling. Everything from choosing reusable water bottles, minimizing plastic waste and using public transportation helps," Thornton says. Beyond these steps, selecting companies, hotels and airlines that enforce sustainable practices is critical, he adds.
And before embarking on your trip, there are actionable steps you can take, Hong says. Packing light, consuming local products and finding the most direct flight route are just a few ways to reduce your carbon footprint, she adds. And if you have the means, she suggests taking carbon credits to offset the cost of your trip. For instance, when you book your hotel or tour, you can choose to counteract your carbon use by investing in sustainability-driven companies that build solar power facilities, purchase windpower renewable energy credits or plant trees.
There are many small adjustments you can make, Poon Tip says. He recommends carrying plastic reusable water bottles and considering active biking or hiking trips or train travel, which have lower carbon emissions than cruises or planes. Also, keep in mind, some major airlines, including United and Delta, enable you to offset the carbon from your route. For example, United has a partnership with Sustainable Travel International that allows you to donate money (or miles) to greenhouse reduction projects such as reforestation initiatives in Peru and producing renewable wind power in Texas. And in honor of Earth Month, throughout April, Delta is matching donations consumers make to support conservation projects with partners like The Nature Conservancy.
Apply the Same Values When You Travel
"People are starting to match their values with their holiday values," Poon Tip says. Rather than suspending beliefs while traveling, people are making conscientious decisions, he adds. He advises following the same practices you would at home such as using a reusable, refillable water bottle and conducting diligent research to ensure you know that your spending habits and activities align with the values that are most important to you.
According to Thornton, "Sustainable travel is decided more by the traveler than the destination." Though some destinations offer greater convenience and access to sustainable options, "the commitment lies in the hands of the traveler to choose local accommodations, public transportation and immersive programs that give back to local economies," he adds.
Continue Protecting the Places You Care About
"We're sort of at a tipping point," Cochran says, noting that increasing evidence that the Earth is changing is all around us, and with greater connectivity than ever, people are increasingly inspired to preserve the places they care about. "The power of those connections is a really great force for good on our planet today," he says pointing out that travelers, journalists, filmmakers and photographers have acess to smartphones and social media platforms – the most powerful storytelling tools – in their pockets, empowering them to connect and influence others to travel responsibly with short videos from the field.
To travel sustainably, "feel free to adopt a destination," Cochran says. In other words, if you love America's national parks, commit yourself to lending a hand to help preserve them. "They're only as protected as every generation chooses to make them," he says. Return to your favorite national park, marine sanctuary or other destination you care about, and don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and contribute with a project or join a foundation, he adds. Bring your family members and friends and "experience it in all seasons," he adds. "Keep coming back."
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