To travel is to be human.
We don’t realize it, but we travel every day. We walk to class, take the bus to work, go out to restaurants and run around our neighborhoods. Two months ago, I wouldn’t have really thought much of this, but now, human movement to me is miraculous. For centuries, people have moved from place to place, crossing oceans, moving herds to greener pastures, following trade routes, visiting family and moving communities to adapt to changing landscapes.
Now, the era of mass travel and tourism in our ever globalizing world has connected people to new cultures, experiences and places like never before, but it has had massive consequences on the Earth and the people living in popular tourist spots.
As someone who loves to travel but also cares deeply about the environment, it’s hard to reconcile the two. Planes are massive polluters and it’s hard to be completely sustainable and eco-friendly on a college student’s budget, so how can we still see the world and also make a positive impact on it? This Earth Day, let’s start to plan our post-quarantine trips in the most socially, culturally and environmentally responsible way that we can with these tips!
Do your research
Traveling is like most things in life: You have to put in work for a good result! It goes without saying that the first step to planning a trip is to do your research, but I’d encourage you to really dig deep. Don’t just Google “Top 10 things to do in …” — find a local’s guide and even do some serious reading on the history of a place. In doing research, you should also take some time to find sustainable and socially conscious attractions, tours and accommodations. Remember, there’s a lot more to do besides going on a large cruise and visiting captive wildlife facilities or engaging in animal encounters! Both of these popular tourist venues have massively negative consequences for the environment, animals and the people who work at them. If you really want to go on a boat or see animals, research sail and electric boat trips or visit an ethically run wildlife sanctuary instead!
Of course, this method isn’t for everyone. If you’re more of a spontaneous traveler or are hoping to be more adventurous, we’d also recommend talking to locals and getting their recommendations once you’re there, or even before! Recommendations from people who know the ins and outs of the place will ensure you have a fuller experience.
Consider your impact on the communities of the places you visit
When you travel, you don’t simply pass through places without a trace. Be mindful of the trash you’re throwing away, stay on the hiking trail you’re following, go on locally run tours and be respectful and kind to the waiters and service workers at the businesses you go to! When looking for a place to stay, try to book rooms at hostels or hotels that support different local causes and charities as well as employ sustainable practices! A nice thing about hostels is that they often have kitchens you can use. Instead of eating out, go shop at a local market and make dinner for yourself.
Also, another thing to be mindful of is to recognize when you are in a space you shouldn’t be. Travel destinations are not just backdrops for your photos; they’re home for many people. Watch your noise levels when you walk through residential neighborhoods and don’t have a photo shoot in front of people’s homes! Always be courteous and respectful.
Try to support local businesses
During a trip to Venice, the owner of the small hostel my friend was staying at gave us a few tips for finding genuine Italian food. He instructed us to watch out for restaurants with photos of their food outside because those places were mostly tourist traps! We took his advice and went to some smaller, more unassuming places located in more residential areas, and we had a much richer, tastier experience in doing so!
To reiterate my first point, research is essential, whether that involves diving deep into Tripadvisor reviews or asking locals for advice. Tourism is a huge part of the economy for many countries, but too often the local people do not benefit from this industry. Giving your support to lesser-known tourist companies or smaller, family-owned restaurants can go a long way.
Don’t rent a car (unless it’s necessary!)
Of course, renting a car or catching an Uber ride is often necessary for people who cannot walk at all, have to walk long distances or have to go somewhere public transportation does not reach. But if you are able, I’d highly recommend going the extra mile and walk from place to place. Yes, you may get tired and get lost along the way, but sometimes going off the beaten track is the best way to see a city. Using public transportation as well does not just save you money; it also reduces traffic and is far better for the environment! Not to mention, you really get to immerse yourself in the place you’re in and what it’s like to live there.
Be mindful of cultural differences
Gasp! Yes, my American friends, as hard as it is to believe, the rest of the world is not like the United States! There’s a stereotype around the world of Americans being loud, geographically inept and completely immersed in their patriotic bubble. While of course the stereotype doesn’t apply to all of us, we could all work on becoming more globally-minded citizens of the world. You can start the process of breaking down your red, white and blue outer shell by looking at a map of the cities and even the entire region you’re visiting. Read up on the history of these places, the languages people speak, the predominant religion and how their culture differs from yours. Little hand gestures, slang terms, how we dress and even how we carry ourselves can be offensive to people in another country, so be mindful and educate yourself before going on your trip! We’d also recommend learning a few words in the language of the area, and doing so will not just make your trip easier but will also show the locals you speak to that you respect their home and culture. Being open-minded and careful will serve you well, and you may make connections with people you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Make the most of your time
It’s hard to travel internationally without an airplane, but if you’re concerned with how much your trip pollutes, rather than taking multiple trips in a year, consider fewer, longer trips. Taking fewer flights within one trip is not only better for the environment, but the longer you spend in a place, the more you get to enjoy it. Also, when you’re traveling, if you can take a train or bus rather than a flight, do it! It might take longer and be less comfortable, but you’ll be helping out the environment and seeing more of the landscape. Taking it slow isn’t a bad thing!
The coronavirus pandemic has gradually revealed the necessity of reevaluating our relationship with the Earth and being mindful of how we treat it and its inhabitants when we travel. These tips are by no means the only ways you can help the environment and the people of the places you travel to, but they’re a good place to start! Some organizations that you can learn more about ecotourism, geotourism and more responsible travel practices from include Tourism Cares, the Center for Responsible Travel and the Destination Stewardship Center.
Each city, country and region is different, so tailor your planning and research to fit the communities of wherever your next trip is. In honor of Earth Day, take the time to think twice about how you plan to travel and the impact you’ll make the next time you get to go on an adventure!