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Ecotourism and Responsible Travel

The Practical Eco Traveler

On the face of things, most businesses in the travel industry now display some sort of environmental concern. Most tour operators profess their environmentalism, implicitly and explicitly, by offering tours or adventure activities in natural areas such as nature reserves and national parks, especially in developing countries, on the basis that tourism would provide an incentive for locals to make money from protecting landscapes, as opposed to destructive activities such as logging, fish farming, poaching, or mining. Many resorts on the other hand are all falling over themselves to prove their green credentials; they devise ways to minimize waste and electricity, and many upscale resorts now levy a dollar or two for every guest’s night stay and donate it for 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 many travel businesses dabble in is in fact disingenuous. Their efforts in many cases have more to do with publicity than real concern. Many make untrue claims, or exaggerate their actions, and gimmickry is common. This is especially the case with international chains of upscale resorts, which often use their financial and prestigious clout to get permits to build resorts in natural landscapes—then go on to do something for the environment. For example, recently I went to check out a new resort, called Aleenta, in 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 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 the construction of the resort—and others that followed it—scared away the turtles. Hence if the resort was not built in a pristine beach in the first place, there would be more nesting turtles. I could list dozens of hypocritical cases like this.  

Even some guidebook publishers are exploiting the current fad in ecotourism to make money. In fact, colorful guidebooks about natural places, especially destinations linked to global warming and environmental ruin, have proven to be the best-selling guidebooks in recent years. So, Lonely Planet came out with Code Green which presents, among its “responsible travel experiences,” a cruise in Antarctica. Rough Guides and Frommer’s have also published guidebooks to the places you can see before they disappear due to global warming and environmental degradation (such as shrinking lakes, expanding deserts and so on). What these guidebooks have in common is this: they encourage the kind of insipid, energy-intensive travel that is part of the problem rather than a solution. Their promotion of shallow travel to areas that are under threat actually exacerbates global warming and environmental degradation that will hasten the disappearance of these places.

If we have to be honest, then we have to concede that travel for leisure is indeed one of the most environmentally destructive activities that exist, and flights are a major contributor to global warming. In Switzerland, there is a project called the 2,000-Watt Society—an organization that calculated that to achieve sustainability, then each person on earth can only use 2,000 kilowatts of energy every year (in the US, people use more than an average 12,000 kilowatts annually). A journalist then once asked two of the directors involved in the project if they themselves had achieved the target of 2,000 kilowatts annually. Gerhard Schmitt replied: “I’m very close except for this stupid air travel.” And Roland Stulz, the director of the society, said: “Let’s skip that question about my travels.”

So you want to live sustainably? 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 impact as far as possible. By making intelligent choices, not only do we lessen our impact, but we also foster the kind of climate that will incrementally lead to the search and implementation of solutions.

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 buy the new spate of colorful guidebooks about places to see before you die, 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 die anyway, and these guides promote a kind of brash and shallow globe-trotting that has a big impact on the planet. Likewise, do not stay in resorts, or use businesses, who are flagrant greenwashers.

2. Use guidebooks as a starting point

Guidebooks are not bibles, and they do not always feature the best experiences of a destination; they are also increasingly inaccurate and skimpy. If you use a guidebook, use it as a starting point, and then make your own discoveries. And, if you are just visiting one small region within a country, do you actually need a guidebook? 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 and by the time you complete your research you would 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 run by locals—as opposed to international hotel chains—and eat in local restaurants. And if you find a home-stay, then that’s more rewarding to you and your hosts than staying in a hotel. Likewise, if you join a tour, or go scuba diving with a diving center, lean towards small local companies if all things are equal. That way your money goes into the pockets of local residents, instead of being siphoned away by large business empires.

4. Use businesses that prove green credentials

Many tourist businesses make high claims of caring for the environment and contributing to the environment. Do not automatically believe them—you’ll be amazed how many hotels or resorts I catch out lying about their green credentials in the course of my writing. Look for something that proves their claims. For example, in many parts of Southeast Asia there is now a program called Green Fins that requires participating diving centers to adhere to a code of ethics and take part in occasional environmental activities—these diving centers would have a certificate that attests membership in Green Fins.  

5. 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.

6. Eat local food

Eat dishes prepared from ingredients sourced locally. It does not really 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 clime.    

7. Use public transportation

Wherever possible, opt for public transportation instead of taxi or rented 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 mix with ordinary people.

8. 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 gain a very superficial view of the country if you are constantly moving; better is to stay within one region and experience it well, then leave other regions within the same country for other future visits.

9. 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 cheaper on your pocket and easier on the earth in terms of emissions per capita. 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. 

10. 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.

11. Forget souvenirs

Do not shop for souvenirs on the impulse, or out of excitement aroused in your exotic locale, before thinking of whether you will really make use of the souvenir in the long-term. Most souvenirs end up in a store-room, and you should strive to buy only things that you will really use when you return home and their novelty wears off.

12. Postcards are obsolete

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

13. Be mindful of what products are made of

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 for certain organisms to thrive on, and so are empty shells and deadwood—in natural forests, up to forty percent of the biomass is found in dead wood. Buying things made of these products removes an important medium from the natural process; by scavenging these products, the artisans would be disrupting the ecosystem.  

14. 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 rucksack, and using 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 stuff in and pack the different things you have that should not mix.  

15. Use a refillable flask for water

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

16. Turn off the power

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

17. Leave the 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 away and vacate particular areas; additionally, if the bird or animal happens to be nesting or raising young at the time, your disturbance can make the different 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.  

18. 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 within the trail.

19. 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.

20. Pack light

Strive to travel as light as possible. It will be easier on your back; your luggage would need less fuel-burning to be transported and takes less space in vehicle. Do remember: the tendency is to over-pack, as you throw in that extra trousers or skirt just in case. Be uncompromising—if you are not sure whether you’re going to use something or not, then leave it out. And do you really need six pairs of underwear and six pairs of socks? 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?