By Julia Breul, Associate Director of Social Impact Journeys
Tourism and environmentalism are, in many ways, in direct conflict. It is no secret that global tourism – from the flights, to the food, to the lodging – has an enormous carbon footprint. However, tourism is such a significant contributor to GDP around the world that travelers hold the power to drive inclusive and sustainable economic growth, environmental protection, and mutual peace and understanding.
Now that the world has seen a massive, international industry go down as borders closed, it’s clear that the supply chain involved in any given trip you take is enormous. Your trip helps pay the bills and feed the families of flight agents, airline employees, hotel front desk staff, cooks and servers, tour operators, guides, drivers and more. With that power in your hands, ask yourself: Are you choosing hotels with ethical ownership? Are you booking tours with companies who pay their guides fairly? Are you dining at restaurants that source their food sustainably? Are you trying to influence positive change in the destinations you visit, rather than negative?
I want to help you wade through the sea of greenwashing and faux-eco options, and empower you to make choices that will actually lessen your environmental impact abroad. Here are some things I’ve learned about how you can lower your carbon footprint while traveling.
Use your money wisely
Generating over roughly $3 billion of spending worldwide every day, tourism creates one-tenth of jobs globally, represents approximately 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 30 percent of world trade in services. The money you spend while traveling is a significant lever of change – and the types experiences or products you pay for have the potential to influence the market to move in new directions.
Consider things as big as your hotel choice. What is the hotel’s approach to power, heating, and air conditioning? Do they recycle and compost? Are they disposing of waste safely for the surrounding environment and communities? When in doubt, small, locally- and family-owned and run hotels and lodges tend to be your best bet.
Consider the environmental impact of things as seemingly small as your souvenirs. It is not uncommon for cheaply produced souvenirs to be made in large, polluting factories and imported into your destination to be sold. Instead of a trinket or magnet, consider purchasing artisan-made textiles and crafts or organically grown herbs and spice mixes. Goods like these are more likely to directly benefit the artist, farmer, or maker. Always avoid animal products as souvenirs – especially when you are unsure of where they came from.
Ultimately, remember that your choice to patronize a business has influence – and if you request more environmentally-friendly practices and products of your transportation or lodging provider, they are more likely to carry them in the future.
Be picky about where you go
Again, your decisions are influential. When thinking about planning your next trip, consider prioritizing destinations that are leading the way in sustainability (Iceland, Costa Rica, New Zealand, or Uruguay, for example). Countries that are consciously developing in a sustainable manner are best equipped to handle an influx of tourists, and also the most deserving of the fiscal rewards.
If the countries you’re hoping to visit aren’t leading the way in sustainable development and tourism, consider looking for destinations that are protecting their wildlife and famous tourist sites by controlling for over-tourism and limiting the number of permitted visitors, such as the Rwandan permit system for their iconic gorilla treks. Not only do permit systems help you to have a more intimate experience, but they protect these gems for future generations to be able to visit some day.
I’m a big advocate for cutting down on the number of destinations you’re visiting. Staying in one place reduces your carbon footprint via less travel, and allows you to contribute to the local economy in a more meaningful way. Day-trips bring in very little money while still having a heavy impact on local infrastructure. There is so much value to be gained from slowing down and really getting to know the place, people, and environment you traveled so far to get to.
Consider your carbon
It’s no secret that travel – especially air travel – is a carbon-heavy activity. Elevate Destinations has been offsetting the carbon emitted by ground transportation on our programs since our inception, and we encourage our travelers to do the same with their flights and other activities. Purchasing carbon offsets means that you are buying credits toward a project that either avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or helps sequester carbon dioxide emissions. Offsets, despite being available to purchase for decades now, are often unregulated and can vary substantially in quality. Elevate Destinations proudly partners with NativeEnergy for our offsetting needs.
There are other ways to reduce your carbon footprint besides offsetting the emissions you incur. A simple place to start to save on carbon is simply to pack light – the less weight your luggage adds to the plane, the better. A 2018 report by the journal Nature Climate Change found that tourism accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that shopping and food are “significant” contributors to that total. Consider cutting back on meat and dairy when abroad, and stick to food produced in your destination. If you crave certain foods or goods from home, ask yourself if you can wait until you return to have them. Are there similar, locally-produced options? If not, bring it for yourself from home rather than encouraging the importation of that product. Local recipes made with local products in local restaurants will have a lower impact than international food. Plus, your meal will in turn become a more authentic experience of the place you are visiting.
Finally, consider modifying your in-country travel plans and swap in-country flights for public transportation – trains, coaches, ferries, etc. Traveling on foot or by bike is the most environmentally friendly choice when exploring a new place – and you never know what you might stumble upon along the way.
Pack it in, pack it out
If you’ve done much hiking or camping, you’ve probably heard of the principle of “Leave No Trace.” In essence, the goal of Leave No Trace is to leave each trail or campsite better than you found it – or as though you had never been there in the first place. Why shouldn’t this principle apply to all of our travels?
To leave no trace, be prepared. Take a reusable water bottle, straw, a set of cutlery along with you. Remove all of the plastic packaging at home so that you don’t add more to the waste steam of the place you’re visiting – especially if you know it to be less advanced and efficient than where you are coming from. If you need to purchase something new for your trip, leave the tags and packaging at home.
What if you’re hoping to give back or leave something behind? Consider giving money instead of things and allow organizations to determine where and how that money is spent. If you are compelled to contribute items such as supplies to a local school, buy them in-country (better yet – in the same town), further ensuring that your money benefits a local store-owner and that they are culturally relevant.
Prioritize using safer products such as biodegradable shampoos, soaps, and laundry detergents, as well as mineral sunscreens instead of chemical to lessen the mark you leave on the environment. Individual actions can help build a circular economy – as opposed to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) – in which we keep items for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them, and then find ways to recover those products and materials to turn them into something new. Instead of viewing a trip as an opportunity to buy something new, see how far you can get with what you already have.
Questions or more ideas to add to this list? Reach out!