We all love to travel. Some people are content taking occasional trips, while others make travelling their lifestyle. How and where we travel is an individual choice - what is not (or at least shouldn’t be) and individual choice, however, is whether we do it sustainably.
Sustainable travel is equally essential for long and short distance trips, for long-term and short-term journeys. The choices we make should not only be centred around what is the cheapest and the most convenient - another crucial element to take into consideration is the ethical aspects concerning everything from the way we get there, from where we stay, to what we eat while on holidays.
Data taken from the Sustainable Travel Report 2022 by booking.com
With summertime right around the corner and the most intense holiday season coming up, we deemed it essential to steer a bit off the topic of career advice and increase the awareness of the importance of sustainable travel. After all, many expats are also passionate full-time globetrotters, and therefore it is crucial to tune their minds into the topic of sustainability.
First, let’s get the term itself clear:
Sustainable travel is the practice of making ethical choices based on options that will have the least negative impact on our destination. Not only that - on a broader scale, travelling sustainably should also aim to maximise the benefits for the local community, environment, and economy.
Therefore, it is not only about choosing the lesser evil and being somehow neutral, but actually making an effort to make positive changes.
Sustainable travel is multidimensional, and all of its components should be respected in equal measure. Most commonly, it divides into 3 main sectors called the pillars of sustainable travel:
The environmental pillar - reducing the negative impact on the environment and wildlife (carbon footprint, plastic usage, saving water, etc.).
The social pillar - impact on the local people (supporting local products, not staying in resorts where the employees are exploited or that required the relocation of certain communities to be created).
The economic pillar - using money in a way that positively contributes to the local economy, aka spending your hard-earned travel dollar locally (eating in a local restaurant rather than at chains, choosing a stay in accommodation run by individuals over big resorts).
Still uncertain of what you can do to lessen your negative impact while going places? On the fence about what sustainable travel really means for you?
Here are tips about the easy things you can start doing now to make your next trip more sustainable!
It all starts with picking your destination. It is tempting to grace your Instagram feed with pictures of you holding up the Piza tower, posing on the Great Wall of China, or jumping in front of the Empire State Building. However, there is one major obstacle that should make you reconsider booking a trip to an extremely popular spot: overtourism.
In big cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, or Barcelona, this is already a huge problem. Especially during the holiday season, the locals are faced with the daily struggle of elbowing their way through masses of tourists on their way to work, to lunch, or even to pick up their children from school. This weakens one of the 3 pillars of sustainable travel, namely the social one.
Of course, the environment also suffers. When the demand for a place rises, so does the number of resorts, hotels, hostels, restaurants, clubs, and all other kinds of facilities. Green areas are sacrificed for the sake of establishments that will provide profit. Animals lose their habitats, people lose trees, and cities become overcrowded, their infrastructure ugly.
We can escape this problem by either choosing less popular - but equally exciting - destinations, or by travelling during the off-peak season. The second option is particularly suitable for those who are no longer at school themselves and do not have children of the school-age, which gives them the flexibility of not being dependent on the “official” holiday times. Many places are beautiful all year round - plus visiting them off-peak will help you avoid having to deal with a flood of other tourists ruining your photos and annoying you in other ways!
The world is your oyster - Planet Earth is big, and human life is short, so most of us live driven by the thought that we need to go as far as we can, as often as we can.
Raise your hand if you’ve lived in your area for a while but still wouldn’t be able to organise a sightseeing trip for a friend if they visited you. There are quite a few hands up, am I right?
It’s normal to take the things around us for granted. A common saying claims that most people living by the coast hardly ever go to the beach. The grass is always greener et cetera, but isn’t it great to be able to explore the area that’s right outside of your door, when others have to drive miles to see it - or worse, might never even get to discover it in the first place?
A personal example: I am planning my first ever trip to North America this summer. I asked a friend who was born and raised in Toronto to be my local tour guide over the week I’m going to spend there. He was thrilled to grant me this favour, as apparently, being in his mid-twenties, he has never been to a single touristic spot in the city.
So, there you have it: for me, Toronto is the dream destination and one of the biggest travel adventures so far. For my friend, it’s his hometown which he loves, but is not that excited about after having lived there for years. And he does travel a lot in general, mind you.
We are not saying you should spend your whole life on one continent or within one country if that’s not what you want! It’s just that sometimes, all it takes is a little nudge to open our eyes and see the bigger picture (or in this case, the smaller one).
Why is local travel important? Because that way, you can avoid long-haul flights, which, as we all know, are not the greenest option out there. Travelling locally, you can take advantage of trains or buses, which will help reduce your carbon footprint.
Which leads us to the second point…
Once you select your destination, the next step is to think about how to get there. As we have mentioned before, when the distance is small enough that it allows you to get there with a bus or a train, you should consider that option. The trip might be longer, but there are also pluses (if lowering your negative impact on the environment is not enough to convince you): friendlier luggage regulations, more leg space (at least on trains), and sights nicer than clouds in a blue void outside the window.
When you do opt for a flight, make sure to plan your journey wisely. Landing and takeoff produce the biggest carbon footprint, so set your sights on direct flights in order to limit the number of layovers. It will probably be your natural choice, anyway, as we all hate the stress and inconvenience that comes with changes during our trip.
In order to cleanse your conscience even further, have a look at the list of the most sustainable airlines in the world to guide you when booking your next flight.
Ethical choices don’t end as soon as we reach our destination, though. The means of transport we opt for while already there also matter. Of course, it is recommended to travel on foot if possible - the majority of big cities all over the world also offer friendly bike rental schemes these days.
For those who prefer other solutions, public transportation will be the most sustainable choice. The underground, the buses, trains, and trams - there are a lot of options to choose from! Avoid renting a car, and if you do, try to stick to a hybrid or electric one (if you can). Stay away from taxis!
Destination? Check. Transportation? Check. It’s time for choosing the accommodation, then!
Some of us will be content in a tent, while others require a little bit of luxury they don’t have every day in order to enjoy their holidays to the fullest. Both options are fine - but both require a little background check before clicking the “confirm” button.
Sustainable travellers will want to stay in guesthouses and hotels owned by locals rather than big resorts where all the money goes to foreign investors rather than staying to stimulate the local economy. Additionally, staying with a local will ensure that the accommodation has been naturally fit into the landscape, rather than built on a patch of land ravaged for the purpose of raising a five-star hotel.
Another aspect to keep in mind is the sustainability level of the practices implemented in each accommodation. Nowadays, when many hotels have realised the growing importance of sustainability ratings, the phenomenon of greenwashing is running rampant. To avoid becoming the victim of it, check out the list of the most trusted sites for finding sustainable accommodation.
Disclaimer: we know what you’re thinking. I’m okay. I always opt for Airbnb. Well, sorry to disappoint, but you’re still not safe!
Airbnb has undergone major development since its birth in 2008. From a service for finding cheap accommodation with locals, it has evolved into one of the most popular sites to look for temporary housing. The growing popularity - and the competition resulting from it - has initiated many problems. From the holiday renters forgetting that not everyone around them is also enjoying a time off and disturbing the locals’ daily life, to landlords notoriously kicking out their permanent tenants when they realise creating an Airbnb will prove to be more financially beneficial. Multiple social issues have arisen since Airbnb became all the rage, and they continue to grow.
Of course, we’re not encouraging a full-out ban on hotels, resorts, and Airbnbs all over the world and convincing everyone to buy a tent. Our aim is to increase awareness of certain problems that not everyone knows about, so that everyone can make the choice they consider the wisest.
Sometimes, a little background check about accommodation can go a long way.
As we have mentioned while discussing the importance of choosing local hosts over chains while looking for accommodation, it is crucial that the hard-spent money we intend to spend on holidays goes to the local communities.
Ensuring that is very simple: for example, we can enjoy our meals in small restaurants run by the locals rather than big international chains. It’s a plus if said meals are made of locally grown, seasonal products. That way, you can enjoy food of much better quality while also positively contributing to the community - a win-win situation! Eating vegetarian or vegan while abroad is also becoming easier literally with every passing day, so while we won’t force anyone to change their lifestyle, a diet free of animal products is definitely a more sustainable option.
When buying souvenirs, don’t stoop to tacky magnets that had to be shipped a long way to make it to that particular shop where you found them, and therefore have a huge carbon footprint. Accessories of all kinds hand-made by the locals are equally (if not more!) presentable, and they hold so much more value than a cheesy figurine produced by a dozen!
If we have made the decision to spend money on coming to a certain place, it means that we find it attractive. And if we get intrigued by something to the point where we’d like to experience it first-hand and learn more about it, that also means we need to respect it in order to do so.
Making the effort of discovering the local culture is the simplest way in which we can express our respect for it. Before the trip, take the time to learn at least the bare minimum about your destination. It can be any aspect of it that interests you - culture, history, customs, holidays, religion, cuisine, politics, literally anything! We are not asking that you read a stack of books on the topic, but just cracking open a Wikipedia page or a travel blog will already be a step ahead.
It’s incredibly ignorant to come to a foreign country without bothering to learn anything about it. It would be like paying someone a visit as a guest and not knowing a single thing about them - not even their occupation, hobbies, likes and dislikes. And believe us when we tell you that the more you learn about the place beforehand, the more your thirst for it will grow, and the more you’ll be able to enjoy your stay when you get there!
The same goes for getting familiar with the local language - we recommend that you learn at least the basics such as hello, thank you, please, yes, no, and goodbye. Those more ambitious can even attempt to remember entire phrases such as: “Which way is…?” or “How much is it?”.
Because of the popularity of English all over the world, the speakers of this language notoriously make the mistake of going around, thinking that everyone else speaks it as well. But, as we have mentioned in our article about the most useful European languages, English is fluently spoken by only 17% of the world’s population. And most of that population is accumulated in Europe, North America, and Australia, so if you wish to visit any other continent, you might not be so lucky getting by with zero knowledge of the local language.
So, learning a few basic phrases will not only demonstrate your respect for the place you wish to visit and make the locals like you more, but it will also save your own behind!
Trips organised in protected areas - as long as done well - are good. They need the money they receive from tourists to upkeep the natural heritage in a good state and take proper care of it. Our duty as the visitor, though, is to enjoy such trips responsibly.
First, we think it goes without saying that keeping our hands to ourselves is a must - that way we avoid the risk of unintentionally destroying something by touching it. No littering, no noise, and adhering to the general rules are the bare basics we hope everyone knows. Stick close to the guide (they know what they’re doing) and follow their advice - their job is to make the trip safer both for you and the environment.
Be sceptical about all types of tourist attractions involving animals. Setting aside that camels, elephants, and donkeys are probably not all that happy being ridden by dozens of people every day, their treatment outside of the opening hours is often lamentable as well. By engaging in activities with animals, we don’t demonstrate our love for them - quite the opposite, really. Even if all we want is to make our children happy by letting them pet a wild animal, teaching them that admiring from a safe distance can be equally fun (and much more responsible!) will be more beneficial - both to the child and the animal.
Have a look at this eye-opening case study about the swimming piglets in the Bahamas - an activity that’s becoming more and more popular among travellers. We hope it will make you reflect, just like it did us.
Even if we’re mindful of what sorts of materials we come into touch with, avoiding the most harmful ones can become a bigger challenge than usual while on holidays. Especially the most popular destinations are full of plastic - bottles, utensils, bags, takeaway containers, packaging, sterility measures in hotels, etc.
How to avoid nullifying the progress you’ve made all year during that one week of holidays?
Invest in a reusable travel bottle - there are so many kinds, including some with purifying filters, that you won’t have any problem finding the right one for you!
A set of travel-friendly eco utensils can also come in handy - and not just while camping!
Try to eat in instead of ordering takeout, which usually comes with a stash of plastic containers, utensils, and sometimes even plates - all wrapped up in a plastic bag.
Make sure you refuse that plastic bag when buying something - carry around a backpack or an eco tote bag. If you do receive a plastic bag at some point, make sure to reuse it: while travelling, it can be the perfect solution for stashing your dirty clothes!
Avoid food coming in plastic packaging that would be perfectly fine without it - for example, the horrid plastic-wrapped, ready-to-eat pieces of fruit that (unfortunately) are all the rage in Spain are supposed to be banned by 2023! Yay!
These are just a few examples of things you can do. They don’t seem too hard, do they? While you’re at it, please also remember that recycling doesn’t cease to function while we’re away. It might be more difficult to organise as holiday accommodation doesn’t always provide the means for it, but if there’s a will, there’s a way!
The points mentioned above are just the tip of the sustainable travel iceberg, but if you start implementing them into your life, it will already be a step forward! The topic of sustainable travel is luckily growing in popularity, so there are plenty of activists and bloggers dedicated solely to educating about this cause - we recommend running a little research to find them! For verified information, you can also consult experts in the field, Sustainable Travel International.
It’s crucial to remember that the phenomenon of sustainable travel is not a trend - it is a shift in a lifestyle that more and more people are adapting (and that even more should adapt still). It’s not something they choose to do on a whim; it’s a necessity, really, if we want to keep enjoying the Earth as we know it.
We hope you will take these simple sustainable travel tips into your heart, and will keep them in your mind during the next trip you take. We wish you all a safe, adventurous summer - may your holidays be eventful, memorable, and sustainable!