Sustainable travel. Responsible tourism. Environmental travel. Anyone with even a passing interest in travel has seen these words tossed about – increasingly, so – over the past several years. As a hashtag on your niece’s Facebook 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.” Earlier this year, however, a sizable chunk of the 1,500 travelers we polled in our first sustainable travel pulse poll presented a different one: “treating your destination and its inhabitants the way you’d like others to treat yours.”
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 perfectly attainable tactics to help you become a more conscious traveler on your next trip. Each idea costs not much (or not any) more time, effort, and money than its alternative, and those that practice them often find their own travel experience 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 (Wikipedia may be a good starting point) to learn about its past, present, and future. Not only may doing so increase anticipation for your trip, but it may also improve it, 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 mishaps, such as poor packing, and help you navigate your destination.
- Reduce energy consumption: Even those who are relatively environmentally conscious at home, may shed their earth-friendly habits with 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. Further, research shows taking such actions may actually improve your trip experience: A J.D. Power and Associates North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study found that guests who participate in a hotel’s green program report greater satisfaction with their stays than those who don’t (CNN).
- 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: In the realm of green travel, packing reusable water bottles may seem so elementary that many people overlook it. While simple, opting for reusable water bottles remains one of the most effective ways to minimize your environmental impact while traveling. Remember, 88 percent of water bottles end up in landfills, and in areas with frequent tourists – and thus, frequent water bottle usage – that can really add up. For insights into the right reusable water bottle for your trip, check out this handy com article.
- 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, it has become the default option. If you’re still on the fence, however, consider the following: Home and ride sharing services are often 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 culturally-sensitive photos: Taking photos on trips has always been popular – and is even more so now with the rise of social media – but many travelers don’t realize that their snaps may be indirectly harming their subjects. This Crooked Trails article provides great insights on culturally-sensitive photography, including tips such as: always ask before taking a photo, personally engage with the people you want to photograph, and leave respectful distances between yourself and your subject.
Still not convinced? Take a minute to watch this helpful video from our friend and award-winning travel blogger Heather Delaney Reese of It’s a Lovely Life. In it, she and her family dispel common “myths” that sometimes keep people from traveling sustainably.
Travel bloggers Heather Greenwood Davis (Globetrotting Mama), Melissa Northway (Dandelion Moms), and Chelsea Day (Someday I’ll Learn) — who will also serve as panelists, alongside Amber Mamian (Global Munchkins), for our upcoming Sustainable Travel Twitter Chat from 8-9pm CST on Aug. 9 (RSVP here) — offer more essential sustainable travel reading in their respective articles: “The Importance of Sustainable Travel: Do Good As You Go,” “Teaching Kids about Sustainable Travel,” and “Join the Sustainable Travel Movement.” Finally, sustainabletravel.org, ecotourism.org, and gstcouncil.org are other great resources for sustainable travel news and tips.