Experts in the travel industry have noticed one common theme among travelers in recent years: the desire to travel intentionally.
The desire to travel with a deeper sense of purpose is more than just caring how they are getting there and looking at the carbon footprint of their travels. Travelers are seeking to experience a place at a deeper level and to find ways to enrich it during their stay. In the past, many had the mindset of seeing a destination before it was too late, but that mindset is also evolving into having the desire to not only see it but also take actions that will help sustain it for future generations to come.
The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “development [which] meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing the opportunity for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support system.”
This entails looking at the environment, natural resources, local wildlife, people, businesses and native cultures, and how to enhance, embrace and preserve them. It involves being aware of transport and the toll it takes on the environment, but also how our travels can have a positive impact on the local community we’re visiting, and the economy.
So how can one be sustainably-conscious when traveling? Bear in mind the three pillars of sustainable tourism; if you can aim to adhere to these principals, you’ll be well on your way:
The Environmental Pillar – This element focuses on reducing negative impacts on the environment and wildlife. So bearing in mind your carbon footprint in transport, and thinking about things such as minimizing water use, avoiding the use of single-use plastics, and being kind to wildlife. Even looking for, and patronizing, hotels and restaurants who use recycling practices and employ sustainable or eco-friendly operations. To do so, look for hotels that use solar power, energy-efficient lighting, and recycling practices, and seeing if they employ local staff, source their food from nearby resources, and use locally-sourced building materials. If possible, also avoiding large resorts, which significantly tax the local environment due to their water and energy usage, and all-inclusives, which are mostly foreign-owned, and typically keep us from venturing out to patronize locally-owned smaller restaurants.
One can also look to volunteer alongside tour guides, park rangers, and other experts as they work on conservation initiatives. Activities include everything from maintaining trails, habitat restoration, or planting vegetation. Having the opportunity to delve into a culture and contribute towards its preservation is both invigorating and purposeful, and is sure to leave you with stories you can share, in person and on social media, about projects that are being accomplished to help sustain the community you’re visiting. Your contribution can bring more than just your physical attention to a project, but also the butterfly-effect of your shared connections becoming aware, and possibly contributing themselves.
The Social Pillar – This involves looking deeply at our impact on the local people and communities we’re visiting. In this case, we can seek to support businesses that are run by, employing and supporting local people. If you want to take it another step, you can look for opportunities to get involved with local NGOs and social enterprises while traveling and volunteer your time to contribute to projects that support the city or towns you are visiting, as well as spreading the word of the work in these communities and opportunities to support them when you return home.
The Economic Pillar – Here, we can help by spending money in local communities responsibly, by supporting local hotels rather than staying in international chains, eating in local restaurants, and purchasing products from local craftspeople. Think about grabbing some local fruit or cuisine from local farmer’s markets, trying the local milk, native drinks, and baked goods. And some of the greatest gifts and souvenirs come from local artisans in an area - they’re usually handmade, with significantly-better craftsmanship and attention to detail, not to mention beautiful (and local) materials.
Where sustainable travel is more focused on travel that has minimal impact on the environment and local communities, sustainable travel leans towards ecological conservation and educating travelers on local environments and natural surroundings.
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Another definition is “purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment; taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem; producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.”
Two of our favorite destinations, Costa Rica, has long been a proponent of ecotourism and typifies how tourism can be a key pillar of economic development policy. Jordan is another model of successfully integrating conservation and socio-economic development. Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature has received several global awards for its success in alleviating poverty and creating employment for local communities, in combination with integrating nature conservation. Other popular destinations who are employing eco-tourism initiatives are Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Panama.
The Experience is More Important than the Souvenir
Travelers today are more interested in focusing on the experience of a trip over grabbing a souvenir or that one-in-a-million Instagram shot. And there is no denying that traveling to new places and experiencing new cultures broadens knowledge, understanding and a different perspective on the world. So while travel can make us better individuals, as responsible consumers we need to recognize the impact that traveling has, environmentally as well as socially. When making your travel plans, consider how your decisions and actions will affect the culture, tradition, and residents of the communities in which you travel to, and how you can play your part in contributing to preserving the resources the communities have for generations to come.
Even better, think about how you can play a part in bringing awareness to the efforts of local communities that others may not even be aware of. Your friends at home, and your social media usage, can help more than you know to sharing the work and needs of a place you’ve traveled and experienced, beyond your stay. You might play an even larger part than you can imagine in creating a job, preserving a craft, or saving a species.