I'm certain you've heard of sustainable tourism, but do you know what it means and why it should be important to anyone who loves to travel? National Geographic outlines the three main aspects of sustainable tourism — employing environmentally friendly practices, protecting cultural and natural heritage, and providing social and economic benefits for local communities.
So, being a part of the sustainable tourism movement really means respecting, protecting and supporting the countries and cultures you visit. But how do you do that? Read on for a few easy ways to ensure your travels have a positive impact!
Do the Research (or work with someone who does)
One of the first things that I learned when traveling in Asia was that not all animal experiences are created equal. For example, many countries have elephant "sanctuaries" where you can spend a day playing with the elephants. You arrive expecting the experience of a lifetime, interacting with happy, well-cared-for creatures, and instead you wind up realizing you've paid money to people who clearly don't care about the elephants, use harsh training tactics and offer sub-par facilities. What could have been a life-changing experience for you ends up depressing and disturbing. One of the things I am most passionate about in my business is ensuring that every animal experience I schedule for a client is thoroughly vetted and deemed responsible by me personally when possible or by my colleagues on the ground. Be sure you look beyond claims made by the sanctuary owners and know the reality.
You may think that because you see someone selling handicrafts that they were the one who made them and you're purchasing something authentic when you buy from them. However, that's not always the case! Souvenirs are very often mass-produced in other countries and shipped to tourist spots. While you may be benefiting that individual when you buy from them, you are also hurting the traditional handmade culture of a place. Buying from local artisans or in collectives where the work of several artisans is sold is a great way to buy something you know is authentic, support the local economy, and also help keep traditional artisanal techniques alive.
Use Local Guides
Making use of a local guide not only puts money back into the local economy but also ensures a more meaningful experience for you. Well-trained local guides will have significant knowledge and bring an authenticity to your trip that you can't find by following a guidebook or going it alone. Just be sure your guides are well-trained; a tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia who offers to show you Angkor may know his way around, but he may not be qualified to fill you in on the complex history and significance of this incredible destination. So choose wisely and vet your guides.
Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Walk or take a bike for short trips, consider a train over a plane if it's available, or make the most of public transportation. Travel isn't just about the destination, it's about the journey, and how you get there matters! Obviously, you don't have many alternatives when it comes to the flight to get to Asia, but consider offsetting your carbon footprint through a reputable organization. Beyond transportation, also take a look at the environmental practices of the hotels you choose. There are some truly amazing five-star properties throughout Asia that are also environmentally responsible, so you don't have to sacrifice your comfort for the environment!
If you decide you want to donate in some way to the communities you visit, please consider the overall impact of your donation. So many people bring candy to give to children, without thinking about the fact that those children may not have access to regular dental care. Or they bring gifts of clothing or cash to give to individuals, which can create conflict within a community. When I travel, my goal has always been to give a donation of 10% of the cost of my trip to a reputable charity doing work in the area I visit. I do my own research about which organizations have the greatest impact, but I also talk to my guides and contacts on the ground to ensure any donation I make will be ultimately beneficial and not harmful.
Don't Complicate It
In the end, sustainable tourism, to me, is about caring for and not harming the places we visit. About not barging into another country without a second thought about how our visit impacts the people who live there. It's simply a thoughtful and conscious way to travel, so don't feel like you have to overcomplicate it!