Sustainable travel. Responsible tourism. Environmental travel. Anyone with even a passing interest in travel has seen increasing mention of these terms over the past several years. As a hashtag on your relative’s social media page, in a headline on your favorite news site, as a vacation package category…wherever these words appear, the answer to one key question is often missing alongside them: “What on Earth does it all mean?”
In fact, sustainable travel and its synonyms may mean many things. For example, the World Tourism Organization, a widely respected authority on sustainable travel, uses this definition: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
We love this simple, “golden rule” philosophy as it perfectly underscores one of the most important things to know about sustainable travel: Anyone can practice it. To prove it, we’ve outlined seven easily executable tactics to help you become a more conscious traveler on your next trip. Each idea costs not much (if any) more time, effort and money than its alternative, and those who adopt these practices often find their own travel experiences enhanced in the process.
- Research your destination: During a trip, learning about your destination’s history and culture is somewhat inevitable, but why not start sooner? Research your destination to learn about its past, present and future. Not only may doing so increase anticipation for your trip, but it may also improve the journey, as you spend less time “ramping up” at your destination and more time experiencing it. There are also practical reasons to do your research – taking a peek at weather, traffic and basic phrases ahead of time may cut down on the incidence of travel fumbles, such as poor packing, and help you navigate your destination.
- Reduce energy consumption: Even those who are relatively environmentally conscious at home can tend to be lax with the eco-friendly habits of their daily routines while on vacation. More than just friendly advice on hotel door hangers, simple actions – such as turning off lights, reusing towels and unplugging chargers – take virtually no effort and may make a huge difference.
- When in Rome…: As flight prices trend downward and international travel becomes more accessible, the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” may be more relevant than ever before. Some say that with the benefits of globalization comes an increased responsibility to take advantage of opportunities to learn about others and develop more nuanced perspectives on the world. While at a new destination, engage in its local culture – talk to its people, eat its food and shop its markets. After spending time, money and effort traveling to your destination, you owe yourself an experience you couldn’t have at home.
- Pack a reusable water bottle and skip the straw: In the realm of green travel, packing a reusable water bottle may seem so elementary that many people overlook this step. Opting for a reusable bottle and not using a plastic straw or saying “no thanks” if offered one is actually one of the most effective ways to minimize your environmental impact while traveling. It’s important to note that 91 percent of plastic is not recycled, according to National Geographic. Plastic straws pose a danger to sea turtles and other ocean wildlife, according to the Ocean Conservancy – and in areas that frequently host tourists (thus, frequent plastic bottle/straw usage) – that can really add up.
- Make it a family thing: Traveling sustainably isn’t just for young, solo travelers. On the contrary, a core tenet of sustainable travel is empowering the next generation to be great global stewards. There are so many fun ways to get your kids involved in this effort – for example, calculating your “travel footprint” and brainstorming ways to reduce it together. As a family, you have a greater opportunity to make a difference than any one person has alone, and when your kids carry these lessons into adulthood there’s a chance for a more lasting impact!
- Capitalize on the sharing economy: In just a few short years, the sharing economy has so revolutionized the travel industry that taking advantage of it now may no longer be considered a “tip.” Instead, for many travelers, sharing has become the default option. If you’re still on the fence, however, consider the following: Home- and ride-sharing services often are less expensive than their alternatives, naturally provide a more authentic experience of your destination and, often, provide a more direct stream of income to the locals.
- Take ethical culturally sensitive photos: Taking photos on trips has always been popular – and is even more so now with social media – but many travelers don’t realize that their snaps may be indirectly harming their subjects. This Foundation for Sustainable Development article provides great insights on culturally sensitive photography, including tips such as: Always ask for consent before taking photos and treat people with respect and dignity when photographing them.