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Last Updated on 23/12/2020
Travel is a privilege and with it comes a certain level of responsibility. For ethical travellers, travel comes from a place of respect for the planet. It’s now no longer enough to float from country to country without an understanding of the repercussions the lifestyle may accumulate. Ethical travel is about the choices we make whether it’s the accommodation we choose to stay at, the activities we do and what we leave behind.
Travel opens our eyes to the beauty of the world and thanks to cheap flights and social media everyone can have easy access to it. But with this new accessibility comes the consequences of environmental damage and overtourism. Sites that we take such pleasure in can easily be destroyed.
So, whether it’s tackling pollution or supporting local businesses, the differences we make as travellers may seem small to us but collectively they can have an enormous impact. Being a conscious and ethical traveller is more rewarding because it opens up a world of positive experiences. Keen to know why? Here’s your ethical travel guide:
1. Support the local community
The easiest way to be an ethical traveller is to support the local community wherever you go. You can do this three ways: what you buy, where you stay and what you eat. For example, instead of souvenir hunting in supermarket chains and tourist shops, head down to the local markets or artisan shops and have a browse at the trinkets on offer.
Making an effort to support local artisans can have a real and positive impact on the local economy. Plus nothing beats the feeling of uncovering a true, one-of-a-kind gem on your travels.
Eat local when you’re abroad. Dine at locally-run restaurants and cafes instead of chains. Not only will you save money if you avoid the usual tourist traps but you will also be supporting local businesses and the money you spend is kept in the community.
You can support ethical tourism by staying at homestays and ecolodges when you travel. These types of accommodation are personal, friendly and ideal for solo travellers or anyone starting a new life in a foreign country. As a guest, you are welcomed into the security of a tight-knit and family network as you navigate an unfamiliar environment.
Homestays, in particular, offer opportunities to experience the real culture away from glossy depictions in well-trodden tourist traps. You get an insight into what it’s like to live in the country through the eyes of the locals. They tend to be cheaper, and you can be confident in the knowledge that at least some of your money is going towards your family hosts.
2. Travel by train
Travelling shouldn’t be about rushing to squeeze in as many countries as humanly possible. You want to give yourself the chance to really immerse yourself in what your destination has to offer. Soaking up a country’s idiosyncrasies is the best part about travel so make the most of any opportunity you have. It can allow you to be a more ethical traveller too.
Instead of flying everywhere, make use of public transport; it’s never been easier. In fact, taking the train is a lot less stressful than air travel because you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve accidentally packed an oversized bottle of shampoo in your hand luggage.
If you’re keen to go backpacking, aim to explore a couple of countries in the same vicinity and take your time as you make your way through them. Make use of deals like the Eurail Pass which takes you all over Europe at a very affordable price or the famous sleeper trains in Southeast Asia.
Whichever route you plan, taking the train is a slower form of travel but it enriches your sense of adventure. Trains make you a better eco traveller because your carbon footprint is smaller than if you fly.
3. Ditch single-use plastic
Cutting down on single-use plastic when you’re travelling is just as important as when you’re at home. Somewhere in between Hawaii and California is a man-made island three times the size of France. This floating continent of sludge is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it’s a coagulation of the world’s debris – most of which will not break down for thousands of years.
The Garbage Patch has a detrimental effect on the surrounding marine life. The worst part is it’s barely a fraction of the amount of waste suffocating marine life worldwide.
Cut down on plastic waste by opting for water bottles with purifying systems instead of throwaway plastic alternatives. Water purification has come a long way and you can get sophisticated water purifier bottles, tablets and sterilisation pens that you can trust to not make you violently ill.
Also, consider packing a few extra cotton tote bags in your luggage. You never know when they will come in handy and it will save you from buying plastic shopping bags when you’re abroad. Reducing your single-use plastic consumption is key to preventing that garbage patch from growing and limiting waste in ecosystems across the globe
4. Avoid animal products and entertainment
From furs to exotic shells and entertainment, you’re bound to come across commodified animal products while travelling. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing exotic wildlife when you’re abroad but being an ethical traveller comes with a responsibility of care.
In theory, it would be a dream come true to cuddle a tiger cub but indulging in this trade and its practices only fuels the market for endangered animal trafficking. What’s worse is that it has little consideration for the suffering and adverse effects on the wildlife population. Behind the scenes is an unbearable amount of cruelty as most businesses selling animal commodities certainly don’t have the creature’s best interests at heart when they take your money.
Typical animal entertainment advertised to tourists like big cat experiences, elephant rides, and turtle handling may seem like once in a lifetime activities but you’re better off doing an ethical safari trip and observing those animals from a respectable distance in the wild. I’ve covered everything you need to know about wildlife tourism and ethical travel in this guide.
5. Choose ethical travel companies
Tours are a fun and easy way to travel, especially if you’re a solo traveller. If you decide to do a tour on your next trip it’s important that the company you choose operates within the guidelines of ethical travel. You want to be confident that you’re giving your money to a company that is passionate about the country enough to respect it and show you the very best it has to offer.
The measures a travel company takes is a key sign of their ethical integrity. So, when you’re deliberating on which tour guide to book, take the time to scrutinise their website, read reviews online, or even call up and ask them to provide you with concrete examples of how they align sustainability and ethics with their business model.
The best travel companies put the environment and local communities first. Key signs to look out for include employing local staff and tour guides, eco-friendly initiatives and avoiding animal and human exploitation.
6. Pack reusable essentials items instead of throwaways
Packing for your trip usually follows the less is more rule. You want something light to carry as you manoeuvre those tricky commutes to your accommodation, and you need to keep in line with airport security if you’re flying. This tends to mean that you end up packing miniatures of everything for the sake of convenience.
Instead of indulging in a quick and easy selection of tiny cosmetics which barely last the week, grab a set of reusable bottles and fill them up with your own favourite toiletries. Not only will you be saving money by avoiding those overpriced minis but you will also be cutting down on your waste consumption.
Choosing a well-planned selection of items can help you be a more ethical traveller and make life easier on the road. If, for example, the street food in Vietnam is on your bucket list then packing a set of reusable cutlery will help you cut down on plastic forks. Squeezing in a container that can be used as a lunch box for leftovers is handy if you want to limit food waste and save money.
These simple tools don’t take up much room in your luggage and you can feel confident that you’re doing the planet a favour on your travels.
7. Be mindful of your Instagram photos
Social media has become an integral part of our lives, and indeed, a part of travelling. Instagram, in particular, is responsible for creating a great deal of wanderlust envy with its innumerable scrolls of dreamy photos that could easily be taken in paradise. In reality, social media has its own worrying contributions to the environment. Behind the most Instagrammable spots the world has to offer is a huge problem – overcrowding.
Hidden gems are becoming tourist traps, and many popular destinations like Santorini are so overpriced that some of the locals can no longer afford to live there. Along with the obsession to procure those extra likes on social media comes opportunistic tourists clambering over ancient historical sites, and fuelling the animal trafficking trade by posing with exotic creatures. Many local animals are poisoned or end up on a diet of junk food thanks to being coaxed into an Instagram worthy shot.
Overcrowding causes a huge strain on the environment, mainly because of all the detritus that’s left behind. Previously untouched locations such as Thailand’s Maya Bay Beach and Pig Island in the Bahamas have been inundated with garbage from careless litterers. Photography is not to blame here but the lack of responsibility behind it as a product of social media’s demand for perfection. It is in fact entirely possible to enjoy both social media and the planet with minimal intrusion by being mindful and ethical travellers.
Try going a little off the beaten track to alleviate overcrowding in tourist hotspots. Familiarise yourself with the customs and cultures before you take photos so you’re sure you’re not impeding on any sacred sites. Above all, a photograph is a perfect souvenir because it has the power to take you back to your trip without adding weight to your bags. But don’t dedicate your holiday to capturing the most likeable photos for your social media because you will regret it when it’s over. Being an ethical traveller is about having reverence and respect for the world. Photograph it, yes but don’t forget to explore beyond the lens.
Do you have any tips for being an ethical traveller? Share them in the comments!
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