For many of us, taking a vacation may seem like a prime time to relax; however, traveling is not always so gentle and kind on Mother Nature. In fact, according to one study in the journal Nature Climate Change, global tourism accounts for nearly one-tenth of the world's total carbon emissions, and air travel is largely to blame. But that doesn't mean you're banned from visiting destinations around the world or booking another flight. "Traveling sustainably doesn't mean scaling back on comfort or enjoyment," says Joss Kent, CEO of &Beyond, an eco-conscious travel company specializing in experiential travel throughout Africa, Asia, and South America for over 25 years. "Instead, it's about being able to give back in a positive way to the land, wildlife, and people [of your destination]." Although sustainable travel may look slightly different for everyone depending on what you have access to, Kent notes one rule of thumb to keep in mind if you want to explore the world with an eco-conscious mind: Aim to leave a place better than you found it.
Make Eco-Conscious Bookings
As you start planning your vacation, find ways to book your accommodations or modes of transportation with sustainability in mind. This could mean driving instead of flying whenever possible, or planning to bike or take mass transit to sightsee. As for accommodations, this can mean using house-share sites, like Vacasa or Innclusive, or looking for hotels that are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, and prioritize low-emission, low-energy, and water conservation practices. You could also with a travel company, like &Beyond, that will help you find and vet sustainable options. "The most important thing to look for when choosing a travel company is transparency," says Kent, who recommends asking the company about its conservation and community initiatives upfront. "Companies that take this seriously are likely to have carried out research studies, either on their own or in partnership with other organizations." To learn more about choosing greener destinations or accommodations, consult the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which serves as the world's international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certifications.
Support Local Communities
From where you eat to where you shop for souvenirs, do your best to support local economies and residents when you can. "One of the biggest issues for sustainable travel is ensuring that these communities are given a stake," says Kent. If you're planning your trip with a travel company, Kent suggests looking for one that shares economic and social values with local communities. "Look at whether they work with small local businesses or employ from within those communities." According to the Center for Responsible Travel's tourist guide, you should also be aware of any cultural sensitivities, such as entering sacred places or appropriate dress, of your destination. Doing a bit of research before arriving can help ensure a more peaceful visit for visitors and locals alike.
Choose the Less-Traveled Road
Especially when traveling abroad, it can be tempting to default to booking the most popular attraction tours and nature excursions. However, in many of these locations, like Peru's Machu Picchu, over-tourism can leave behind negative impacts on natural environments. In fact, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) has recently considered adding Machu Picchu to its list of globally endangered heritage sites. As a more sustainable alternative, consider seeking out other forms of exploration that are either less stressful on locals and natural habitats, or actively seek to help preserve these environments. With &Beyond, for example, travelers can partake in experiences like hands-on marine conservation dives, cooking classes with locals in Nepal, and visits to largely untouched wilderness paradises like Tanzania's Katavi National Park where some of the world's largest water buffalo herds roam free. "If you want to see wild animals thriving in their original habitats, then you need to support those habitats," says Kent.
Always Pack Your Reusables
Keep a set of reusable cutlery, a spare tote bag for shopping, and a refillable water bottle in tow as you start touring your destination. According to Kent, in some countries like Kenya, you may even encounter fines for carrying or disposing of single-use plastic bags. Plus, using reusables will not only help you reduce your single-use plastic consumption, but it will also minimize trash in local communities altogether. As one classic travel saying goes: "Aim to take only memories, and leave behind only footprints."