Let me make a confession right at the start. I’ve been nearly broke most of my adult life.
There! I said it! Not the best thing to own up to, right? But look where most of my money goes…traveling to destinations as far and wide as my bank account allows. And I come back richer each time! No regrets there.
What I do regret is seeing fellow travelers who ignore the impact they have on the places they visit. And I am not just talking about carelessly flung juice cartons and plastic bottles. Those are certainly the most visible, but responsible travel goes even further.
Once you’ve picked your destination and booked your hotel, it’s time to figure out how you’ll ensure your vacation is sustainable.
Here are some pointers to get you started:
Waste not, want not
This old adage has never been truer than today. If we’re not careful, some of the biggest structures we build on the planet in the next few decades will be landfills! And a traveler who throws plastic bags, bottles and cartons with reckless abandon is going to contribute to that growing landfill.
Don’t be that guy!
Carry your own reusable water bottle, use recycle bins at every opportunity, bring back your plastic waste from the beach or that trekking trip (cities are far more efficient in waste management than the seashore or the forest!), eat and drink at a restaurant rather than carrying a takeaway and always take a moment to assess how much food you and the family need. You can always order more!
Live like the locals
It’s awesome to be able to afford cabs everywhere or rent a car for a road trip. But real travel stories come only when you take a bus stuffed to the max or a train where people are stacked sideways or the suburban rail to get around the city or nearby attractions. And it is a more responsible way to travel. The same is true when you pick mom-and-pop style B&Bs or boutique hotels in favor of giant, resource-guzzling hotels.
Go a step ahead and buy your souvenirs from local artisans instead of a hired hand selling industrially produced, run-of-the-mill stuff. Give a miss to that factory-made fridgie or that miniature plastic Taj Mahal replica (yes, the one that lights up from the inside!) and seek out a local artisan whose craft is the culmination of centuries of work. You will not only put your money into the local economy, you’d also become an ambassador for the local crafts.
Armed with our smartphones and DSLR cameras, all of us become photographers instantly and constantly. Respect people’s privacy. Shooting a slice-of-life scene might sound awesome to you, but maybe you’re disturbing your subjects? Perhaps they don’t like to be photographed? Always ask for permission before taking pictures. And offer to send them a copy. Who knows, you might make a new friend?
Also, when taking pictures of local attractions, check beforehand you actually can – religious places or security sensitive spots do not allow photography.
Be sensitive to the ecosystem
It can’t be said enough, “be respectful of the local environment and atmosphere”. You might think jumping headlong into an animal safari is awesome or checking out how the local villagers live an experience for a lifetime. It may be an intrusion for them. Your destination is someone’s home! Be respectful of the life around you. If you simply must go on a wildlife tour, book with a responsibly managed sanctuary. If you want to see how the locals live, make some friends who’d happily take you around instead of just gawking and taking pictures.
Respect local customs and traditions
This one includes dressing appropriately, respecting the local language (even better, learn some of it, your effort will win you points!) and social customs. Read up on your destination beforehand and ask locals about their traditions. If nothing, you’ll come back more knowledgeable.
‘Change’ is not good for them
I’m talking about street beggars. You’ll find them in almost every tourist destination. And it really can be tough to ignore a 4-year-old kid whose only plea is to give him money for food. But make no mistake. Nearly all of these beggars are part of huge networks run by unscrupulous people as a way of making huge profits. None of the beggars you see are actually in the dire straits they claim to be in. They’re working a job. And giving in to them only makes the business strong, encouraging the scammers to recruit more kids, women and elderly.
Finally, educate others to be responsible travelers. Don’t hesitate to call out a friend as they calmly throw a plastic bottle into a pristine mountain river and never stop thinking of ways to make your travels more sustainable. One of my favorite authors, Aldous Huxley has said, “For the born traveller, travelling is a besetting vice. Like other vices, it is imperious, demanding its victim’s time, money, energy and the sacrifice of comfort.”
It’s not going to be easy but the rewards will be huge for us and for our next generation.