Naturally, we talk a lot about living a sustainable lifestyle here. But, that way of life is by no means limited to our immediate home radius. It covers all aspects including one very important area, travel! Many of us are fortunate enough to enjoy traveling to new places, whether it be local or international. Given our love for travel and desire to be more sustainable here’s some eco-friendly traveling tips and tricks we’ve picked up along the way.
For some, maybe it evokes thoughts of low impact camel back safaris across the gobi desert or perhaps it makes you day-dream of sun-baking in a Mauritian eco-resort. From bootlace backpacking to opulent and extravagant tourism, the definition of ‘sustainable travel’ is far from settled.
Perhaps a good place to start and one that we think that aligns with our own goal of being a sustainable traveler is the UN World Tourism Organisation’s holistic definition of ‘sustainable tourism’:
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Apart from making sure we remember to practice our usual sustainable habits while on holiday, why is sustainable travel / tourism a special case?
Well, according to the United Nations, international travel is booming like never before. From 2000 to 2015, the amount of people travelling the world has almost doubled (see the UNWTO’s 2016 report here). Now nearly 1.2 billion people a year board an international flight. This number is set to increase to 1.8 billion by 2030. Not surprisingly, the travel and tourism industry accounts for up to 10.2% of the global GDP ($7 trillion!).
Of course, all this travel comes at an enormous environmental and social cost. Which is the principal reason why the United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism For Development.
Including our usual sustainable habits like turning the lights off, not wasting food, avoiding creating trash, there’s a ton you can do to reduce your impact and do good whilst on tour. Here’s our growing list of eco-friendly travel-specific tips and tricks that we use to be more sustainable travelers.
One of our favorite things about travelling is trying aromatic delicious coffee in different parts of the world. We usually try sit and enjoy it in a nice cafe (in a glass) but other times, we’re on the move, hiking, or just in a rush. This can result in us just giving in and buying a takeaway coffee. Similarly, one tends to need to have access to water on the go. We’ve spoken about this before in striving for a zero-waste lifestyle and it’s worth repeating. In the USA alone some 50 billion plastic water bottles were purchased last year and only about 23% were recycled. In many countries around the world they don’t even have a means of recycling coffee cups and plastic bottles, let alone plastic in general, so tourism is a major trash generator for local communities. To try and address this problem, we’re currently trying out a couple of cute flasks (like this) which we’re using as both a water bottle and a travel coffee mug.
Even though so much money is spent on tourism, most of it, and sometimes even up to 90% of the dollars spent, leak out of the actual travel destination, often making their way back to big global, corporate tourism operators. This is a depressing statistic given the significant (mostly) positive impact tourism can have on a local destination. To help benefit the local communities that you travel to:
- Eat and shop locally
- Stay in local accommodation (we use Airbnb to make this as easy as possible)
- Travel with local transport providers (where safe)
Look for an eco-friendly / local tour company. We’ve had some of the most amazing and humbling experiences by doing this. Like tracking Mountain Gorillas (a life-changing experience!) which was arranged by Gorilla Trek Africa, one of the few local tour companies operating in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. Knowing that our $ were going to the conservation efforts of these critically endangered animals was the best money we’ve ever spent. Safaris-R-Us is another great example of a local tour company and arranged the most magnificent safari for us in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Part of the cost of our tour went towards St Jude, an all girls school based in Arusha, Tanzania. Other ideas:
- For a heap of other tours around the world have a look at Intrepid Travel. They were the first tour company to achieve carbon neutral status back in 2010. They arrange small group travel, local accommodation and employ locals.
- Sustaining Tourism has an extensive list of sustainable tour operators from around the world
- Tripfuser is a very interesting start up that connects travelers with local expert guides, like the Airbnb for guided experiences. Using these sorts of services allow you to keep your tourism $ local (per #2 above)
If you must stay in a hotel, there are a couple of hotel specific hacks that go a long way to reducing our impact even further:
- Hang up your towels – it’s the universal sign that they don’t need to be washed and you’re happy to reuse them
- Leave the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the hotel door to reduce unnecessary washing of linen, vacuuming and the use of other chemicals for cleaning
- Take your own toiletries (and toothbrush) to reduce the single use of those tiny hotel bottles of gunk (also, see our views on sustainable beauty – doubt hotel chains are considering these factors when choosing their body lotions, body washes etc.)
- Don’t use the free plastic water bottles (unless of course, you can’t drink water from the tap) – see #1 above 🙂
Compared with any other mode of transport, flying, unfortunately, produces the most amount of carbon per passenger. So, whenever we can and time permitting, we try take the bus or train – which is also a great way to do some sight seeing en route. If you do have to fly and it’s a long haul, go for a non-stop flight. Not only is it a time saver but a direct flight will always be more fuel efficient. Otherwise, driving (especially carpooling) will always beat flying from a carbon footprint perspective. If you’re going on holiday with a group of friends or family within driving distance, a car (preferably hybrid or electric if you have the option) is best.
If you do need to fly, another means of reducing your flying-footprint is to take advantage of a carbon offset program. These programs give passengers the option to invest in carbon reduction projects to help neutralize or reduce their carbon footprint caused by travel. There are over 30 International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines who have introduced an offset program. We’ve found it quite easy to opt in to one of these programs when purchasing tickets through the airlines website. If given the option, invest in offsets that avoid emissions or replace fossil fuel based energy with renewables. Surprisingly, forestry projects have been shown to be the least effective at reducing carbon emissions (though, they’re better than nothing!). Interestingly, there are also programs out there that allow you to offset your Carbon Footprint directly. Take a look at Atmosfair and CarboTax.org and this super informative post on the matter from Leotie Lovely.
Ok this is not going to have a huge impact relative to the ideas above but every little bit counts and we thought this was a pretty cool, low effort idea. It always irritates us that airlines supply the cheapest quality horrible earphones for EVERY FLIGHT. We’re not sure what happens to these pieces of plastic but have little faith that they are recycled. If 1.2 billion people are travelling each year, many of which are flying, then there’s a heck of a lot of these wasted single-use earphones filling up our trash and, worst of all, our oceans. Our solution: on your next flight, keep the little adapter that comes with the airline earphones and for all future flights, use your own earphones together with this adapter, thus reducing the need to ever use airline supplied earphones again. If you want to get really fancy, you can buy the adapter in advance. Bonus that the sound is so much better using your own earphones!
While we’re on the subject of airlines, here’s yet another flying tip. Look for airlines that use renewable biofuels. Biofuels are produced using renewable feedstock such as plant oils, agricultural waste and wood chips. Using renewable biofuel as opposed to fossil fuels can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%. Qantas, American Airlines, JetBlue, Lufthansa and KLM are all examples of progressive airlines that invest in and use renewable biofuels today.
We bought a super handy little multi-purpose plug that fits just about every local socket in the world – no need to search high and low for the right connector (which is always a huge pain!) and it avoids us having to own a different one for each trip – a massive time, money and plastic saver! It also has some useful little USB charging ports for our phones which, again, just makes life easier.
If you want to stay in an environmentally and socially responsible establishment, look for certified accommodation providers. Ask for their green certification and check whether that certifier has been approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). The GSTC provides a set of minimum requirements that a tourism business must aspire to for approval, for example, protecting and sustaining natural and cultural resources, maximising social and economic benefits for the local community and encouraging cultural heritage. For a list of certification schemes and what they each mean have a look here. Just bear in mind though there’s a huge amount of certifications floating around, some bona fide some not so much…
We’re unbelievably lucky to be able to travel the world so easily and extensively in this day and age. It truly is one of life’s greatest joys and experiences. We also think it’s critical for our own education and developing an open, loving mind. We just have to make it sustainable. It has the potential to create a lot of benefit for the destination of choice but so much of that depends on our actions.
We hope the above list gives you a few ideas and inspiration to form some sustainable travelling habits – let us know if you have any other traveling tips that we can add to this list by leaving a comment below or getting in touch.