The world won’t stop talking about sustainability: sustainable hotels, sustainable clothing, even sustainable octopus…. whatever that is. But, as many other concepts, sustainability is so big that the use (or abuse) can create a lot of confusion and, in the end, it empties.
So much, that at the recent World Travel Market. one of the attendants asked what did the chinese mean when they thought of sustainable travel. Don’t worry, most chinese think of sustainable travel the same as we do: a tourism that doesn’t only put the focus in nature, but is also conscious of the local culture, its cultural impact and the future of the destination.
So, how do we do our travels more sustainable? But not for the big picture, truly and for all sorts of budgets:
1.- Convey respect
If we’ve learnt anything from the images of “Tourists go home” in Italy, Spain and many other places around the world, is that there is a problem with the traditional concept of tourist. The impact of what we do when we travel has made us seem invaders instead of friends.
But, why? There are many factors, but one of the most subtle ones is respect. I’m tired of seeing grumpy tourists looking for things like they do it at home, criticizing what locals eat, do, dress or speak, ignoring social rules or even taboos. We forget, it seems, that we are visiting their homes and it shouldn’t be like that.
Learn more about the local culture, what to expect and what’s behind every activity you join. And remember that a smile will be better and that healthy curiosity is also a mean of respect in most cultures.
2.- Buy local
Do you know where you can eat the best seafood in the world? Galicia? Maine? Sure? Well, it depends on where you are, if you are lucky enough to live in Galicia, yes, that is. But if you are in Ireland, irish is. And not because the taste is better, but because it will always be the fresher one.
If this was not enough reason for you, eating local (and seasonal) is positive for the local economy: local shops, restaurants, artisans, farmers… they will all be benefited from you eating local. So if tourists start eating what locals do, what they produce and gift our friends with traditional crafts instead of buying those magnets from China, they might start looking at us in a different way (and it is a great way to show respect too.)
3.- Choose transport right
Being a sustainable traveler doesn’t mean walk everywhere nor using electric skateboards or renting a Tesla. Most of us don’t have the time or budget to do this and we can still be sustainable travelers.
Of course, we could aim to eliminate our carbon footprint completely and stay at home, but since we are talking about tourism, don’t let them fool you. Transport sustainability is not an absolute answer, it depends on the destination as much as the carbon footprint of the transport itself, the number of passengers and the number of passengers.
So, how do we make our transport more sustainable (in real life)?
- When you plan your next trip, research all of the available options and choose the one that pollutes less (taking into account all of your travel companions). You can calculate this at this site (distance in miles).
- Always prefer public transport over booking a car when available, you will help keep local public transport alive for the local population and it will allow you to get better recommendations from the people traveling with you (and a lot of the off-the-beaten track)
- Know that some places can only be reached by car (yes, I’m talking Iceland or Portugal for example) and if you dare to explore, choose the car that is most efficient and try to share the trip, so its impact is balanced.
4.- Choose your accommodation better
I was about to write “choose sustainable hotels” but there is so much fake sustainability in accommodation (I still remember a “sustainable hotel” where they gave us supermarket bread and imported apples for breakfast…) that finding “sustainable” at the description means nothing.
There are plenty of hotels with great initiatives in sustainability but you won’t find them at their descriptions at the comparison sites. So key here is not what the website says, but the impact of what you choose in the local economy.
If the hotel (or any other accommodation, I’ve reviewed Airbnb here) creates jobs at every level, from cleaning to management, it promotes local culture through food, decoration or communication, is not exclusively designed for foreigners and welcomes all sorts of people, you will be choosing right.
5.- Control the wast you create
Yes, sustainability is closely related with our impact on the environment. Eliminating one-use plastics is a must, but also promoting the classification and separation of garbage (still a dream at many countries), only buying what we will use, use returnable packaging…
I am not saying anything new, but just remember that what you must do at home is also applicable when you travel. So, think about it when you use those “supercute” shampoo bottles, slippers, etc that only have one use.
6.- Go paperless
Seems that this is part of the 5th step above, but it deserves its own paragraph because when you travel you really can go paperless. Plane tickets, hotel bookings, travel guides, museum tickets… all of them can go in your smartphone. Just remember to save a copy at a digital vault (drive or dropbox should be enough) if they are not in your email, and share them with one of your travel mates (just in case you run out of battery or get your phone stolen).
Some paper you can’t avoid (restaurant receipts, most museum tickets without reservation, maps…) but you can transform them in something nice, pass them on to other travelers or keep them to show them to your grandsons and granddaughters.
7.- Buy culture
It amazes me to hear fellow travelers say they never visit a museum. It is an option, but if traveling is a way to discover the world, one of the main ways to do this is about local culture. You don’t need to go a museum for this (it won’t hurt you), you can go to a local music show, a crafts’ shop, reading the books they are proud… there are infinite options and each destination has at least something we can learn from it.
8.- Add nature to your trip
Up to this point, you already know I don’t believe in sustainable tourism that only focuses in the environment. On one side, you can do sustainable travel in places like London and New York, and on the other side, if tourism doesn’t involve agents and local economy, its positive effects won’t be long-lasting, so it won’t be sustainable on time.
So, you can do sustainable travel even if you don’t go trekking for 3 days, but don’t forget about nature. It may seem hard to do it, but you will find a biodiversity spot nearby in many places in Europe or a different (and sustainable) way to explore parks, beaches and riversides.
By the way, when you add nature to your trip, use you analysis skills and choose only those places that revert into local economy (it would surprise you how many of the world renown reserves are managed by and employ only foreign biologists and directors, closing the area to the communities that have always lived and hunted there, and owned the land long before we even knew it existed.)
9.- Share it responsibly
I am tired of pink filters and long dresses on Instagram! Not because I don’t like the pictures, but because they are a symbol of those surreal images that have nothing to do with the reality of the destination (and that seem to be everywhere).
Do they attract a lot of people to destinations? Yes, and they are beautiful images, but then you go there and see how they’ve deleted ugly buildings, changed the natural colors and visited at 5 AM (otherwise it would be impossible to be alone at those places.)
I’m not against using filters or small edits, but showing a destination how it really is, is also part of responsible travel. Pictures might not get as many likes, but are we talking about art or travel? Ultra edited pictures create an expectation that won’t be reached and will impact travelers and the future of the destination.
10.- Don’t run around as a headless chicken
Many will tell travelers are better than tourists. That’s a lie! We are all travelers and tourists at the same time (sometimes one, sometimes the other) when we travel. Wouldn’t you enjoy coffee at St. Marks square in Venice if it wasn’t that expensive and birds weren’t trying to eat you cake?
The only true difference is between “slow travelers” and checklist travelers that run around all the time. If you cannot become one of the first (it takes time) try not to be from the second group. Lists should only be a guide, not something that stresses you out more than a day at the office.
How does this impact sustainability? If you don’t have to do everything on the list, you will be more relaxed, opened to things that are not there, new recommendations and off the beaten track. Plus, there won’t be hard times when you cannot make it, the transport delays or the spot closes. And you will have more time to eat local, speak to people and make your trip different from your friends’ and family’s. (your impact will also be more positive to the economy and people).
I will thank you forever, there is nothing worst than a pissed off traveler.