Sustainable travel doesn’t mean you have to forgo foreign holidays or fabulous global experiences. It just means safeguarding the planet while you’re exploring it.
Sensitive tourism has the economic potential to help protect the environment and bring real benefits to local communities. But the flipside - over-development, environmental damage and cultural disenfranchisement – isn’t pretty. It’s up to a new generation of travellers to green up and go.
Start with these top tips and you’ll be doing your bit.
Straighten up and fly right
There’s no getting around the fact that flying is a major environmental polluter. According to the Environmental Transport Association just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint (1.2t of carbon dioxide) than a whole year’s personal allowance at a level deemed climate safe.
With flying such an everyday part of modern life, avoiding it can be difficult – ways to reduce your impact include less short haul flying (under 500km) and choosing airlines with higher occupancy and more efficient aircraft. Offsetting your carbon emissions through organisations such as the World Land Trust can also help tip the scales in the right way.
Make things just so much easier on yourself by taking the train wherever you can. Not only is it far more environmentally friendly than flying, but it offers the experience of stepping on and off at a destination without the grueling endurance of modern airport travel.
With Eurostar connecting the UK to the Continent, it’s an easy direct hop to Paris, Lille, Brussels – and from 2017 Amsterdam. But why limit yourself – train travel ranges from memorable (ahem) to awesome, and commuter to luxury, around the world. Whether you’re going across Canada by everyday Viarail or South Africa with fine wines and feather beds on the Blue Train – both offer way more adventure (and scenery) than yet another flight.
Green your sunscreen
Between 6000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers, scuba divers and snorkelers into coral reefs each year – and studies have linked this to their ongoing bleaching and destruction. The big culprit is oxybenzone, a UV filtering ingredient that disrupts coral reproduction and damages its DNA. Other marine-threatening nasties include butlparaben and octinoxate.
You don’t need a chemistry degree to pick a coral/ocean-safe sunscreen (with a broad spectrum UVA and UVB filter) – it’s usually noted on the packaging. If you’re unsure look at the ingredients to check you’re tanning ethically. Brands that meet the grade include UV Natural and Green People, whose naturally derived sunscreens are also full of antioxidants.
Get a good reputation
One easy way to ensure that your holiday meets green credentials is to book it through a company that puts ethical travel at its core. Responsible Travel, Intrepid and Exodus are companies that are not just paying lip service to sustainable development, environmental awareness and support for local communities. Plus, they offer every kind of (carefully vetted) holiday and destination you can think of. If you’re not booking through a company that specifically identifies itself as ethical though then don’t be afraid to quiz your holiday supplier on their green credentials – and add your weight to the demand.
The last resort
That all-inclusive can look enticing price-wise, but for the local community the cost can be higher. Notorious for not sourcing food locally - and offering no incentive for customers to leave the resort to eat, drink, rent facilities or hire guides - the all-inclusive effectively strips any local economic benefits.
“Enclave tourism” can also neutralise the positive ability of the travel industry to provide employment and provide strong economic reasons to protect local environments. If you’re set on an all-inclusive then at least make an effort to get out and about during your holiday – spending a little money locally will be a welcome investment in the location that is actually hosting you.
Be a responsible guest
Although calories, drinking hours and credit card balances don’t count when you’re on holiday, don’t leave your environmental responsibility at home. “Leave nothing but footprints” is not a travel cliché for nothing – you’re a guest in a destination and the lighter you tread, the better.
Respect the local environment by sticking to footpaths, leaving plants or stones where they are and picking up your litter. Travel green - take taxis, buses or hire bikes rather than hire a car - avoid activities with dubious environmental impact, such as water-hungry golf courses in dry areas, and turn off lights when you leave your hotel room. All pretty small, straightforward stuff, yes – but a big impact if done en masse.
Many hotels are now embracing sustainability with waste treatment systems, recycling programmes, energy efficiency initiatives and even the use of solar energy or hydroelectric power. Consumer demand even prompted Tripadvisor to launch a sustainable hotel programme, GreenLeaders, last year, allowing hotels to report their own green endeavours – to be validated by guests and TripAdvisor reviewers.
Even better, solving sustainability problems can lead to beautiful solutions – bedding down in the the carbon neutral igloos of EcoCamp Patagonia or the Earthships of Taos, New Mexico, built using tin cans, glass and plastic bottles, has to be more exciting than a boring boxy hotel room.
Water, water everywhere
When even soggy England seems to get a hosepipe ban every time it doesn’t rain for a week, you can appreciate how precious water is in hotter, drier parts of the world. Tourism, and in particular golf courses and hotels with their swimming pools, water features and linen use, is a huge consumer of water.
This can be devastating to local communities and ecosystems if not managed properly – small wonder water conservation is a hot topic in the industry. Tempting as it is to abandon yourself to luxury in a posh hotel, you can still be part of the solution not the problem; take showers rather than baths, reuse hotel towels and bed linen and turn off taps when you’re not using them.
Keep animal magic
Rule of thumb – animals are best seen in the wild and not as entertainment. If you watch a bear dance or swim with dolphins in captivity you are tacitly supporting these practices and most often animal cruelty. Working elephants in Thailand have been part of the local economy for centuries and are often well cared for by their mahouts. However, training methods such as “crushing” and use of a takaw spike are commonplace and may change your mind about a ride.
Be informed: Responsible Travel’s website has a good discussion on issues surrounding elephant riding. Better animal options include guided treks or safaris - or a visit to a reputable animal sanctuary. And watch your souvenir buys; avoid supporting trade in endangered species through animal hides, tortoise-shell, ivory and coral.