Sunday, May 10, 2015

17 Personal Tips on How to Travel Sustainably and Ethically

Posted by Amanda Villaruel | |
Since summer is just around the corner, I've decided to share my personal tips on how to be a 'green' traveler with you :-)

Since I was a little girl, I've been to so many destinations with my family and by myself. To places in Europe, Africa, North America and especially Southeast Asia.
Black beach in Varkala, India - 17 personal tips on how to travel sustainably and ethically
Black Beach in Varkala, South India

It's easy to say: "Well, why not just stop traveling altogether, to reduce our carbon prints?"

I agree in the ideology, but this is just wishful thinking. I don't think people are going to stop traveling as long as people can afford air travel.

Frankly, I don't want to stop traveling for the rest of my life, but I do wish to make the best of it for the environment and the local people while I'm on the road. The past three years I've been reducing the amount of trips abroad, and focused on local adventures. 
The beautiful jungle in Varkala, India
The beautiful jungle in Varkala, India

Anyway, whether you're traveling as a regular tourist or as a backpacker, or just staying at home, it's important to acknowledge that you and I have a responsibility for our environmental footprints :-)

1. Flying to the destination

According to The Guardian, take-off and landing burns more fuel and the reason for why shorter flights use more fuel per mile traveled than long-distance flights. If it's possible, try to find a non-stop flight or a route with few stop-overs if you're traveling across the globe. It's normally more expensive to choose direct flights (or a ticket with few stop-overs), but it's a bit better for the environment :-)

Another interesting fact is that budget-friendly airlines tend to be more eco-friendly, because these airlines pack more passengers in one flight, and typically have more fuel-efficient planes (source: The Guardian). 

Read: Heading towards yet another eco-friendly summer vacation in 2015

2. Choose a 'green' hotel or stay at family-owned guesthouses  

To travel sustainably/ethically, consider these options when it comes to accommodation:
  • Choose a hotel or guesthouse that is certified green, or hotels that practice energy saving solutions 
  • Being an ethical traveler implies supporting the local community. One of the things you can do as an ethical traveler is to seek family-owned homestays and guesthouses. A good starting point is Tripadvisor. Type in the destination and select "B&B" 
A couple of years ago, me and my boyfriend traveled along the famous Cinque Terre in Northern Italy. During our entire stay, we lived at small family-owned guesthouses. 

When I did field work in Kerala (India) a couple of years ago, I interviewed over a dozen hotels and guesthouses regarding their businesses, including their environmental policies.
Room at Affitacamere Da Cesare in Monterosso Italy, and solar panels in Kochi, India
1. Room at Affitacamere Da Cesare in Monterosso (Cinque Terre, Italy)
2. Solar panels on the roof top of Walton's Homestay (Fort Kochi, India)

Mr. Walton at Walton's Homestay proudly showed their solar panels on the roof top that generate heat and electricity for their guests. In fact, there are many homestays and guesthouses in Kerala that use solar power as an energy source.

The Malabar House in Kochi received the Green Globe certification in 2007. The Green Globe assesses the environmental sustainability performance of an organization, and in our case recognizes and awards the Malabar House's sustainable practice and responsible tourism.
Malabar House in Fort Kochi, India
Malabar House in Fort Kochi, India.
A swimming pool might not be so environmentally friendly, but the hotel scores in other areas

Some of the environmental aspects of Malabar House is that the hotel uses solar power to heat up the water, energy saving light bulbs, recycle paper and purchases locally-produced soaps and shampoos to support the local community.

You should research the destination you're visiting and contact the hotels you find interesting.

Find out what's important to you (is recycling enough, or do you want the whole package?) 

Then ask them these questions:
  • Do they have an environmental policy? If so, can they tell more about it? 
  • Is the hotel certified green?
  • Do they have a recycling program, whether it's paper or plastic?
  • What kind of energy sources do they use to provide hot water and electricity?
  • Do they provide eco-friendly/ethically tour packages?

3. Local food and organic food

Local food in Hoi An, Vietnam
Local food in Hoi An, Vietnam (2013)

One of the joys of visiting another country is the local food :-)

To be be an ethical traveler you should opt for family-owned restaurants and venture into the unfamiliar - street food. Why choose Burger King, KFC and other food corporations when you can sample local food, which is such a rewarding experience? :-)
Eating thali in India, and delicious food in Seoul
1. Eating thali (Trivandrum, India 2011)   2. Delicious food in Seoul, South Korea

European cities like Berlin, London, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are good with dishing up vegetarian and vegan meals. And going westward, New York and San Francisco offer an array of vegetarian food in all price ranges.

With the increasing environmental awareness and an increasing demand for cleaner food, the number of restaurants that serve organic food have risen throughout Europe and North America. Give it a shot, you won't regret :-) (hopefully)

Read: Recipe for untraditional vegetarian Thai Red Curry with noodles.
Asian vegan spring rolls in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin
Asian vegan spring rolls in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

4. Walk or consider bicycle rental 

Consider city cycling or public transportation rather than taking the taxi or renting a car. This requires research beforehand in my opinion, and maybe a bit patience :-)
Bicycle rental in Hoi An, Vietnam and u-bahn station in Berlin, Germany
1. Bicycle rental in Hoi An, Vietnam   2. Taking the metro in Berlin, Germany  

Taking the metro (u-bahn) in Berlin for instance, is so easy and cheap! Just grab a subway map, remember the name of the metro station close to the hotel and follow the right line during connection. When we were in Berlin, we frequently took the u-bahn and walked a lot. We actually walked from the hotel on the west side of Tiergarten and all the way to Mitte. That was an impressive trip! ;-)

In Barcelona, you can take the bus or rent a bicycle to reach the beaches. In Amsterdam you can rent bikes for € 3 for a full day.

5. Go sightseeing on your own or choose Free Walking Tours

Visiting an attraction or exploring a city by yourself - without any guide or tour operator to follow you around, is the most relaxing you can do during a trip. And probably the only thing you 'emit' is the carbon dioxide you exhale. LOL :-)
Be a green traveler - go sightseeing on your own or try free walking tours
1. Visiting Angkor park in Cambodia (2010)  2. Free Walking Tours in Yangon, Myanmar (2015)
3. Exploring the alleys of Berlin (2014)  4. The Bolaven Plateau in south Laos

You should also consider free walking tours in for instance London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Los Angeles or wherever you're heading ;-)

Read: Volunteer at organic farms worldwide with WWOOF.

6. Child beggars - how to handle them?

Child beggars is a typical problem in developing countries. 

No matter how cute the young beggars are, you should not give money. 

In for instance Southeast Asia, we were told by local guides that poor families send their children to do the dirty job. If the families see that the begging works, they will eventually take their children out of school.

Why send them to school when they can earn money the "quick" way…?
Child beggar in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Child beggar in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Also remember that the money you give doesn't necessarily go to the beggars. It is reported that beggars are normally organized by criminals, so the beggars have to eventually give the money to the criminals.

Children should learn to earn money, instead of begging for it. And frankly, child begging is offensive and the sad part is that the very young children probably don't even know what they're being exploited.

You should instead give money to organizations who help local communities. Do some research beforehand and contact/visit the organization directly. 

In for instance Phnom Penh (Cambodia) we came across an organization called Tiny Toones, that helps street children who have been sniffing glue at a young age. The purpose of the organization is to empower the children so they can live free from drugs, through harm reduction programs and providing free classes in English and Khmer, building their way to proper education. 

7. Support hand craftsmanship 

1. Shoe maker in Jaipur, India (2011)   2. Boutique shop selling handmade shoes in Barcelona (2012)
1. Shoe maker in Jaipur, India (2011)   2. Boutique shop selling handmade shoes in Barcelona (2012)

Purchasing souvenirs and clothing from small businesses is one of the best things you can do for the local community. Forget about the high street and "where's the closest mall?"

Hell, do some research before you leave and find out where the local markets, boutique shops, vintage and second-hand stores are located. I always make a habit of listing potential shops I want to visit, or second-hand streets I want to check out.
Markets in Barcelona, Spain
Markets in Barcelona, Spain (2012)

There's so many exciting vintage shops in the Western countries. In many 'developing' countries, you'll find vibrant markets with thousands of products made by skilled artisans.

Read: Tips on ethical shopping in Cambodia

8. Protect the endangered animals 

Whether you're going on a safari to South Africa or beach bumming in Thailand, always have in mind what type of souvenirs you're buying. Animal poaching is one problem, and animal trafficking another.

The challenge with for instance ivory is not the ivory itself, but how it was acquired. International ivory trade was banned in 1989 after Africa lost half of its elephants to poaching (source: WWF).
Elephant souvenirs in New Delhi, India
Elephant souvenirs in New Delhi, India

Other things to have in mind:
  1. Avoid eating sea turtle soup. All eight species of sea turtles are threatened and endangered (source: Bagheera).

    Be specially aware of this when you're traveling to coastal communities in Asia and Central America, where sea turtles are considered as a food source (source: Sea Turtle Conservancy).

  2. Avoid shark fin soup when you're traveling in Asia. OK, it might not be tempting to protect such a 'vicious' fish you think (read between the lines: Jaws movie). But remember that every living thing on this planet has a purpose. Sharks are predators, controlling the balance of the food chain. 
Check out WWFs seafood guide (categorizes various fish - green: eat with a green conscious, orange - be critical, red: find another alternative).

To give you an idea of what's illegal trade: International trade in species is regulated by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Most countries are parties to the treaty, meaning that you most probably can't import any endangered species to your home country (unless you have a permit), and that also includes the furs. The list includes articles made from ivory, tortoise shell, coral, fur skins, birds and whale teeth (source: US Customs and Border Protection).

9. "It's only one shell..." 

When I was younger I used to bring shells from countries I visited. You know, as a souvenir. That was before I was aware of what my action was contributing to.

My clear advice to you is to not bring any shells (unless it's regulated), and especially not from marine parks - there is a reason for why the park is protected. If thousands of tourists took one shell each, what do you think will happen to the beach environment eventually? What used to be an innocent activity can now be devastating to the environment - because of the increasing tourism.

Read: Shell removal is destroying habitats globally: seashell collectors aren't as harmless as you'd think.

10. Be part of and respect the local culture  

Why should you respect local culture? My defense would be: "If you don't respect the local culture when you're traveling, then why should they respect yours when they're visiting your country?" :-)
1. Camel safari in Egypt (2007)  2. Women in Alleppey (India) making baskets  3. Visiting a temple in Yangon, Myanmar  4. Attending the Holi festival in Jaipur
1. Camel safari in Egypt (2007)  2. Women in Alleppey (India) making baskets
3. Visiting a temple in Yangon, Myanmar  4. Attending the Holi festival in Jaipur

Social customs vary from country to country, but here are some general tips:
  • Dress modestly in countries where it's required  
  • Learn some local expressions to break the ice, like "Hello", "Good bye", "Thank you"
  • Cover your shoulders when you're visiting religious sites
  • Making out in public is not OK - take it to the bedroom, please
And don't forget to have fun! Attend festivals, events and other local celebrations when you're abroad. In the photo above, you see me soaked in colors at the Holi Festival in India (Festival of Colors) :-)

11. Water, please?

Dry landscape in Egypt
Dry landscape in Egypt (2007)

In countries where water scarcity is bad, be conscious about the length of showers and don't let the tap water run while you're washing your face.
Water stress by country - World Resources Institute
Illustration of water stress by country - courtesy of World Resources Institute

In the illustration above, you can clearly see that certain countries in North Africa, Central and South Asia (Middle-East, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines) are placed in the "high stress" and "extremely high stress" categories.

12. Don't be an idiot under water ;-)

Be a conscious snorkeler and diver - Snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Be a conscious snorkeler and diver - here snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

I've seen too many instances when travelers step on the corals when they're snorkeling, or they're too close while diving and the swimming fins come in contact with the coral.

If you need to relax from the swimming, lay on your back and float. Don't underestimate the power of salt water :-) If you're wearing a life vest (which you should), you'll float even better!

So, don't step on the corals while snorkeling or diving. Consider the corals as the ocean's rain forest, that provides shelter, food and breeding grounds for many marine species. Most established coral reefs are between 5,000 to 10,000 years old!

If you're new to diving, don't touch the fish unless you know what you're touching - for your own safety, and to avoid stressing the fish.

Our dive instructor in Malaysia told us this golden rule: "The prettier they are, the more dangerous they can be". Experienced divers who know what species they're dealing with, are the only exception here.

13. Make it a habit of... 

... turning off the air-conditioning when you leave the room, especially if you're staying at a guesthouse or other budget places. Good news is that many hotels (including some three stars) operate with key cards. So when you leave the room (with the card), the lights and the AC automatically turn off.

14. Don't drop it unless you mean it

OK, you have the luxury of getting new, fresh towels every day. But come on, EVERY DAY?

I've been to hotels where they have put up a sign in the bathroom, regarding the towels. If you put them on the floor, it means that you want new ones. Again, re-use the towels and hang them up :-) This practice has applied to pretty much any hotel I've stayed at in Europe and Asia.

15. Plastic - are you a sinner? ;-)

Large pigs in the streets of Jaipur, India
Do you really want to add to THIS load? :-) (Jaipur, India, 2011)

You should avoid throwing plastic bottles on the streets or while you're trekking in the woods or jungle. Bring it to the hotel, and maybe the hotel has a recycling program for plastic.

Whenever I'm traveling to my parents' apartment in Spain, I often get shocked by all the plastic bottles along the highways, despite the great effort in plastic recycling. According to Recycling International, approximately 60% of the plastic in Spain is landfilled.

Another thing you should consider is bringing your own shopping tote bag, for shopping abroad. Many countries in Asia for instance, enjoy plastic bags too much.

Read: Simple ideas on how to reduce the plastic in our everyday lives.

16. Public transportation between cities

Train station in India
Train station in India

If you have time, consider the option of taking the train or bus as transportation between cities, instead of flying domestically. As I mentioned earlier, shorter flights use more fuel per mile traveled.

Consider this as a chance to explore the local life, and actually be part of it.

I've had so many joyous rides when I went backpacking in India, Laos and Malaysia, and on the train between cities in Northern Italy. Locals are in general curious, and before you know it, you have struck a conversation with some nice strangers ;-)

You might want to check out The Man in Seat61 - the best train travel guide I know about.

17. Tap, tap, tap that water - uhm, yeah!

Outside a shop in Kerala, India
Mineral water in India

In countries where you can drink tap water, bring a sports bottle or a re-usable bottle to refill water.

I'm not going to list countries with safe tap water, because that's a debate I don't want to get into. I can vouch for the tap water in Norway, but that's because I live here :-)

I drank the tap water when I stayed in Berlin and didn't experience any stomach problems. But in Spain and Italy, I avoided it. Not because I thought it was unsafe, but because of the taste.

In Southeast Asia and India, I always bought one large plastic bottle to last throughout the day, instead of several small ones. And the locals we visited in India, purified the water by boiling it, before they drank it.

If the locals don't drink the tap water, it's safe to say that the tourists shouldn't either. 

Continue to read: 
22 signs that you may have an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Preparing for a plastic-free month - part 1.

  • The Guardian: "Aviation Q&A: the impact of flying on the environment"
  • WWF: "Stopping poaching"
  • Sea Turtle Conservancy: "Information about sea turtles"
  • Bagheera: "Leatherback turtle: an endangered species"
  • US Customs and Border Protection: "Endangered species, CITES"
  • Recycling International: "Summit focuses on Spanish plastics recycling"

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