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Contemporary Trends: When the Emperor Has No Clothes

On the face of things, most businesses in the travel industry now display some sort of environmental concern. Most tour operators currently profess their environmentalism, implicitly and/or explicitly, by offering tours or adventure activities in natural areas such as nature reserves and national parks, especially in developing countries, based on the premise that tourism provides an incentive for locals to make money by protecting their land, as opposed to destructive activities such as logging, fish farming, poaching, or mining. Many internationally owned resorts are falling all over themselves to prove their green credentials; they devise ways to minimize waste and electricity usage, and many upscale vacation retreats now levy a dollar or two for every guest’s overnight stay and donate it to environmental programs. I research these efforts all the time, as a travel writer specializing in outdoor travel to natural areas.  

Yet I am also able to see that what some travel businesses dabble in is in fact disingenuous. Their efforts in many cases have more to do with publicity than real concern. Some make untrue claims, or exaggerate their actions, and gimmickry is more common than it should be given that so much tourism income at stake. To be fair there do exist local opportunists, human nature being what it is, but this practice is especially the case with international chains or upscale resorts, who often use their financial and prestigious clout to get permits to build their commercial retreats in natural landscapes—then profess to do something in the name of the environment. For example, recently I went to check out a new commercial vacation spot along a pristine beach north of Phuket in Thailand. The resort donates a lot of money annually for the protection of turtle-nesting beaches about 40km (24 miles) up the coast from where it’s situated. This is commendable, but what the resort omits to say is that the beach where it is situated also used to be a turtle-nesting beach, but its very construction—and others that followed it—scared away the turtles. So if the vacation retreat had not been built on a pristine beach in the first place, there would be more nesting turtles. I could list dozens of hypocritical cases such as this.  

Even some prominent guidebook publishers are exploiting the current trend in favor of green travel in order to make money. In fact, colorful guidebooks about natural places, especially destinations linked to global warming and environmental ruin, have proven to be best-selling guidebooks in recent years. Some publishers have also created and promoted guidebooks to "exotic and unique" places you can see before they disappear due to global warming and environmental degradation (such as shrinking lakes, expanding deserts, melting glaciers and icebergs, and so forth). What these guidebooks have in common is this: they encourage the kind of energy-intensive travel that is often part of the problem rather than a solution. Such a promotion of shallow travel to areas that are under threat actually helps exacerbate the very global warming and environmental damage that will hasten the disappearance of these places.

If we are honest with ourselves as travelers, then we have to concede that travel for leisure is indeed one of the most environmentally destructive activities in existence, and flights are a major contributor to global warming. In Switzerland, there is a project that calculated that in order to achieve sustainability, each person on earth should use only 2,000 kilowatts of energy a year (in the U.S., people use more than an average 10,800 kilowatts annually). A journalist once asked two of the directors involved in the project if they themselves had achieved the target of 2,000 kilowatts annually. One replied: “I’m very close except for this stupid air travel.” Another director said: “Let’s skip that question about my travels.”

So you want to live in the most sustainable way? First, stop traveling.

But since none of us is going to give up travel—I would be out of work if people stopped traveling—then the next best thing that we can do, as individuals, is to make careful choices to minimize our environmental and social impact. By making reflective, common sense, and sensitive choices, not only will we lessen our impact as travelers, but we also hopefully foster the kind of climate that will incrementally lead to the search and implementation of more progressive environmental solutions. At the same time, you can enjoy your travels as you should knowing that you are not trampling on delicate and beautiful flowers.

Here is a rundown of 20 simple and practical measures that you can adopt during your travels to minimize your environmental footprint:

1. Punish the greenwashers

Do not be tempted to sheepishly buy the new spate of colorful guidebooks about places to see before you die (aka the ubiquitous "bucket lists"), places to see before they disappear, best adventures to be had in the world—you will never have the chance to experience them all before you physically leave this world anyway, and these guides promote the type of brash and shallow globetrotting that has a big impact on the planet. Likewise, do not stay in resorts, or use businesses, who are flagrant greenwashers.

Eco travel and meeting sheep

2. Use guidebooks as a starting point

Guidebooks are not bibles, and they do not always feature the more sensitive and interesting ways to experience a destination; with a few notable exceptions they are often inaccurate, skimpy, and full of clich├ęs. Often you need to read or lug about several expensive guidebooks or make sure your tablet is always charged to get a broad and accurate picture. If you do enjoy quality guidebooks, you can often best use them as a starting points and research tools prior to your travels, and then make your own discoveries. And, if you are just visiting one small region within a country, do you actually need guidebooks? You can use online sources for travel research and planning these days, and although it takes more time to search and navigate online, it is free. An added bonus is that by the time you complete your research you have practically memorized what you are going to see and do at the destination, and how you are going to get there.

3. Patronize local businesses

Stay in small inns/B&Bs and farmstays, homestays, rentals, and localized accommodations run by locals—as opposed to international hotel chains—and eat in the same restaurants locals enjoy. If you find a homestay, that’s more rewarding to you and your hosts than staying in a chain hotel. Likewise, if you join a tour, or go scuba diving with a diving center, lean towards small local companies all things being equal. That way your money goes into the pockets of residents, instead of being siphoned away by ever-growing business empires with central profit centers and often disinterested shareholders.

Eco travel home stays

4. Turn off the power

When you’re staying at most accommodations, you are often not paying the electricity bill, but you will do the atmosphere a big favor if you studiously turn off all power before you go out. Try to not only switch off the lights; also unplug any appliances such as TV, laptop, electric chargers, and so on, which continue to drain a small amount of power while on stand-by.

5. Use businesses that prove green credentials

Many tourist businesses make great claims regarding contributions and care for the environment these days. Do not automatically believe them—you’ll be amazed how many hotels or resorts turn out to be at best disingenuous about their green credentials. Look for something, some independent certification, that proves their claims. Then still do your due diligence, as no watchdog organization is immune to corruption or oversight.

Eco travel books

6. Engage businesses in green ethics

Businesses listen to their customers, and if you complain about something the business operator is doing that is harming the earth, or suggest something they should be doing, then that will set the business operator thinking, and the business might change its ways—if only out of fear of losing potential customers or the potential of attracting more customers.

7. Eat local food

Eat dishes prepared from ingredients sourced locally. Such local food almost inevitably tastes much better, and is the basis of the Slow Food movement towards the enjoyment of traditional dishes. It does not necessarily matter the kind of food so long as ingredients are sourced locally—hence ensuring the ingredients have not been transported across great distances. At the same time, be mindful of what you are eating—you might unwittingly order an animal or fish that is endangered and illegally caught—and you should also avoid exotic ingredients that require intensive farming to be cultivated locally because they are outside their optimal climate.    

Local market
Local foods made into a Bruscetta

8. Use public transportation

Wherever possible, opt for public transportation instead of a taxi or a rental car. Take a bus or train instead of flying; travel in buses and ferries wherever possible—it is cheaper, kinder to the earth, and you will have a chance to meet with ordinary people while perhaps even learning more of the local language.

Eco travel ferry

9. Use your body’s power

Where possible, instead of taking a taxi or a bus or boat, you can walk or cycle or kayak. You will see things better that way, soaking in your surroundings more fully; you also lessen carbon dioxide emissions, and you will even do yourself a favor by moving your sedate body a bit.

Eco travel biking

10. Pool with other travelers

If you are planning to visit somewhere off the beaten track and need a private vehicle to get there, try to find other travelers and organize a group that fits within a vehicle—it will work out to be cheaper and easier on the earth in terms of emissions per person. In some places, there is an established tradition of travelers pooling together to organize trips; this is something that’s popular in Australia, where travelers put up notices in message boards in hostels, or in websites. 

11. Do not try to cover large distances

If you are planning a trip to a large country such as China or India, do not try to see the whole country in one trip. By hopping around so much you would have to fly, and that constitutes the largest impact of travel on the environment. Besides, you will generally gain a superficial view of the country if you are constantly moving; better is to stay within one region and experience it well, to practice slow immersion travel, then leave other regions within the same country for other future visits.

12. Leave wildlife alone

Do not chase birds or animals for a closer look, or to get close enough to take pictures. The stress on wildlife can be devastating, forcing the animals to flee or even vacate particular areas; additionally, if the bird or animal happens to be nesting or raising young at the time, your disturbance can make the difference between whether the young or hatchlings survive or not. Carry binoculars, and keep your distance. And do not feed wildlife; it distorts the natural process.  

Eco travel and meeting a tiger in the wild

13. Keep within trails

If you are trekking, do not veer off the trail and trample about. Keep within the trail; that way, the impact is at least contained.

14. Stay clear of the coral

A substantial amount of coral reefs are saved from unscrupulous fishing but then end up being destroyed by snorkelers and scuba divers. If you are snorkeling or scuba diving, do not touch the coral; keep a certain distance to avoid unwittingly hitting the coral with your thrashing feet. Additionally, do not feed the fish.

15. Take a cloth bag

You can save a lot of plastic bags if you use a cloth bag instead, tucked in your day-bag or backpack, and use it every time you need to pop into a shop to buy something. Then, in your main bag, carry a dozen plastic bags so you can separately pack different things you have that should not mix.  

16. Use a refillable flask for water

Instead of a buying a bottle of water each time you are thirsty while walking or traveling, you can take a camping flask with you, and refill it before you leave your accommodations or when you stop for lunch or dinner at a restaurant. Accommodations and restaurants normally have sources of water, and you can refill for free if you are their customer.

17. Forget souvenirs

Do not shop for souvenirs on the impulse, or out of excitement aroused in your exotic locale, before thinking about whether you will really make use of the souvenir in the long-term. Most souvenirs end up in a storage room. You should strive to buy only things that you will really use when you return home and once their novelty has worn off. Some still use a branded corkscrew from a winery where they have had a tasting, for example. Others decorate their living space when they return home with local crafts they have collected during their trip, etc.

18. Be mindful of the composition of products

Some products appear harmful at face value—for example: carvings made from dead wood trees, wind chimes made from sea shells or bits of dead coral. But these are not harmful; dead coral is a medium on which certain organisms thrive, and so are empty shells. On the other hand, in natural forests up to 40 percent of the biomass is found in dead wood. Buying artifacts made of dead wood may remove an important medium from the natural process; by scavenging the woods, local artisans might unintentionally be disrupting the ecosystem.  

19. Postcards are obsolete

Instead of sending paper postcards, use the power of technology to make a phone call, Skype, send an email, or create an e-postcard.

20. Pack light

Last but not least, strive to travel as light as possible. It will be easier on your back; your luggage needs less fuel-burning to be transported and takes less space in a vehicle. Do remember: the tendency is to over-pack, as you throw in that extra pair of pants or skirt just in case. Be as uncompromising as possible—if you are not sure whether you’re going to use something or not, then leave it out. Can a small towel suffice for a holiday of two weeks? Are you really going to use your laptop on the road, or are you going to end up carrying a laptop halfway across the world to use it just twice in two weeks? Alternately, are you going to be on your laptop so much that you do not fully enjoy and directly immerse yourself in the worlds you are visiting on your ecotravels?

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