Sustainable travel is essential for all of us.
From a young age, travel has been the most important part of my life and has helped shape who I’ve become. Being able to experience new cultures and understand how different people live all over the world has been eye-opening and a privilege.
The more I have travelled, the more I have witnessed the effect that tourism has on our planet.
When I travel I have always worked hard to minimise my footprint both environmentally and culturally, and I want to share these with tips you.
Those of us lucky enough to travel have a great responsibility. None of us are perfect, but if everyone that travelled followed just a few of these sustainable travel steps we could make travel more ethically responsible and do our bit to protect the environment.
Do you have a suggestion on how we can travel more sustainably? Please include it in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
1. Reduce Air Travel
A huge contribution to sustainable travel is to reduce your air travel. According to a paper published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A large proportion of this is down to air travel. It’s a convenient option, more destinations are being made available all the time and flights can often be found very cheaply. However, there are alternatives, and these might add a whole new dimension to your adventures. Sometimes the journey can be just as exhilarating as the destination.
- If you fly long-haul, think about whether or not you really need to make additional internal flights. Often a great way to experience a country is to travel through it rather than flying over it.
- Shape your travel around other transport methods. In 2018 I sailed to Greenland. In 2010 I crossed the Atlantic to reach the Caribbean on board a freighter without taking a single flight.
- Consider carbon offsetting when you fly. Some airlines allow you to donate to projects which actively offset your carbon emission for that flight. Make sure you do your research first to ensure you are taking part in a genuine program.
2. Reduce waste
In a recent study, it was found that microplastics have been discovered in every species of sea turtle.
We have all seen the videos of the garbage patch in the Pacific, which is now believed to be three times the size of France. This is the culmination of decades worth of plastics entering the oceans and it is killing precious marine life. The problem with plastic is that it takes a bottle up to 450 years to decompose. That’s a sobering thought.
When you travel it is hard to know where your waste ends up. Many remote places, islands and developing nations don’t have adequate waste processing facilities and often waste ends up in landfills, on the street, or washed into the sea. Be a part of a positive movement to help end plastic pollution by:
- Avoid single-use plastics and consider reusable options where available.
- Take your waste with you when travelling to a country with inadequate waste processing facilities. When I visited the remote settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland I made sure any waste from the boat I was sailing on stayed onboard and wasn’t offloaded until we reached a port with suitable facilities.
- Carry your own water bottle to save you purchasing single-use plastic water bottles. Water To Go manufacture water bottles with a filter that eliminates 99.9% of contaminants meaning you can fill it up anywhere. I’ve used it to drink from puddles and the water comes out clean. Their aim is to help establish clean drinking water around the world.
- Respectfully and politely educate people. If you are staying somewhere that has a lot of single-use plastic, ask them if they’ve considered recyclable alternatives.
3. Buy Your Travel Gear From An Ethical Company
There are a growing number of brands that genuinely want to become more sustainable. If you need to buy new travel gear, do your due diligence and purchase from an ethical seller. Ethical Consumer has a great database of over 40,000 brands that it rates on a number of issues, and it takes seconds to know whether a brand has good ethics or not. Look at whether the company is environmentally friendly, whether they participate in fair trade programs and if they pay the correct taxes.
This year, outdoor brand Patagonia donated its $10 million tax cut to creating climate change awareness as part of their long-standing ethos of fighting climate change. I would rather buy from a company that’s proactively protecting the environment than one that is not.
4. Use Ethically-minded Tour Operators Who Practice Sustainable Travel
If you are taking a tour do your research before booking and ensure your tour operator:
- Is committed to protecting the environment and has a policy in place to minimise its impact.
- Employs local guides and pays them fair wages.
- Feeds back into the local community and economy.
5. Be Mindful Of The Natural Resources In The Areas You Visit
Keep your energy and water consumption to a minimum in areas where resources are scarce. If you are visiting a drought-stricken area, don’t waste water.
At home, make the switch to a renewable energy provider. I made the switch a few years ago. All my electricity is now from 100% renewables and it even works out cheaper than my previous supplier.
6. Don’t Engage In Tourism Activities That Have A Detrimental Effect To Sustainable Travel
Be conscious of the activities you plan to undertake during your visit. A few minutes’ worth of online research beforehand can tell you a lot about the ethics of an activity you plan to undertake. Is that elephant sanctuary you plan to visit really one that cares for the elephants or is it the type that tourists come to have a ride on poorly treated animals?
Only support companies and tour operators that offer positive experiences not only for you but also for the environment, wildlife and local populations.
It’s easy to find out information on sites like TripAdvisor.
7. Consider Your Gift Purchases
Sustainable travel isn’t just about the environment but also involves the cultures you are visiting. Avoid purchasing gifts and souvenirs made from animal products. When items made from animal products are purchased, it increases the demand for them, and therefore more get made. If you do make a purchase, do your research and ensure that endangered plants and animals have not been used.
When purchasing gifts, try to buy from a local craftsperson. They may be a little more expensive, but think of the positive effect your purchase will have on them, their family and the local economy! Plus you’ll have something handmade and unique to remind you of your visit.
If you take gifts with you to give to local people, be mindful of the effects this can have:
- Don’t take single-use plastics or products that could harm the environment in any way.
- Don’t give sweets or sugary drinks to people that wouldn’t usually have them in their diet.
- Do you have enough gifts for everyone in the area you are visiting? If not, consider the potential ramifications of this. Instead, you could donate to a local charity.
8. Practice Cultural Awareness
Sustainable travel is also about being mindful of the way we act when we travel. The whole point for travelling for me is to experience different cultures and ways of life, and not to take my own with me. Be prepared to expect different conditions from the ones you are used to in your own country. There are some basic rules I always follow:
- Ask before taking photos of strangers.
- Learn some basic phrases.
- Do your research into local customs.
- Dress appropriately.
- Be respectful and follow the cultural standards of the country you are visiting.
9. Consider The Carbon Footprint Of What You Eat
This is a great tip to practice at home and abroad. With global CO2 emissions spiralling out of control, it is down to all of us to do our bit. One of the ways we can help reduce carbon emissions is by being conscious of the effects of what we eat and reducing consumption accordingly.
Animal products tend to have a much higher carbon footprint than vegetarian products, with beef and lamb being the biggest culprits. The BBC has produced this great online tool to show you the impact your diet has on the environment.
10. Search The Web In An Environmentally-friendly Way
Let’s admit it, us travellers spend a lot of time online looking at the next great place to go. Did you know you can contribute to sustainable travel by browsing the internet in a way that has a positive effect on the environment?
Ecosia is an alternative to Google that uses the profits it generates from ad revenue to plant trees. Not only that but all its servers run on renewable energy.
You can find out more in the video below:
Tab for a Cause is an open source web app that lets you donate a share of their revenue to environmental and social initiatives around the world. Every time you open a new tab on Firefox or Chrome, you collect a heart. You can then browse causes and choose who your hearts go to.
Do you have any tips for travelling more ethically? Please let me know in the comments below.
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Hi, I’m Andy, co-founder of Secret Atlas, currently on a personal journey to travel to the most remote places on earth.
If you are interested in visiting Svalbard or Greenland on a small ship expedition please check out our tours here.