Many travelers think that, in order to travel green, they must sign on with an organized ecotour or stay at an expensive ecolodge, but there are many other ways to tread lightly and responsibly when traveling and perhaps even help to improve the places that you visit. With many of the world’s natural wonders disappearing or suffering the ravages of consumer and industrial pollution, it’s more important then ever to act responsibly and at times, proactively, so that next generation travelers can also enjoy the incredible beauty of our planet.
The assumption that places such as the tepuis of Venezuela, the Pantanal of Brazil, the Grand Canyon of the United States or the Great Barrier Reef of Australia will be here forever, untouched and preserved, is a way of thinking that we can’t afford. The good news is that travelers, organizations and individual volunteers are making a positive difference every day. Sites of great historical importance, such as Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China which have sustained damage both from tourist activity and environmental factors such as acid rain, are being restored by locals and volunteers from other countries. Traveling is one of the greatest pleasures and experiences in life, but with that adventure comes a responsibility to maintain the land and educate others, both at home and abroad. Luckily, there many simple things that can be done that, collectively, can have an enormous positive impact, save money and greatly enhance a traveler’s experience:
1) Travel, Especially Globally
This may sound obvious, but in the United States, according to 2010 U.S. State Department statistics, only 22% of the population currently holds a valid passport. While it’s true that many people travel within their own country, it’s difficult for domestic first world travelers to understand the full impact of climate change if they haven’t had the opportunity to visit affected global sites, especially in the developing world. Standing at the edge of a once enormous, now receding glacier in Argentina or hiking through a nature preserve with dried-up or polluted rivers which were once teeming with life, makes it crystal clear that environmental fears are not just rhetoric, in ways that no documentary or TV program can. Also, visiting developing countries can provide local organizations with much needed tourist funds in order to maintain and restore natural and historic sites, as well as motivating local governments, through the lure of maintaining and growing tourism, to invest money and labor in preserving those sites.
2) Buy Locally
A traveler may have the best intentions in the world, but giving money to international travel agencies or corporate giants such as global supermarket chains or brands, is misdirected. Very little of the money paid to buy a bottle of Coca Cola or to buy sunscreen in a developing country’s local branch of Wal-Mart stays in that country. To truly contribute to a local economy, it is important to do business with local vendors. An added bonus is that services such as tours, private guides (which are often unavoidable in places such as Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef) and locally arranged outdoor excursions such as rappelling are often much more affordable, personal and educational than those services provided by one-size-fits-all corporate tour operators. Buying local handicrafts and foods, frequenting local restaurants and visitor centers that support indigenous culture will all positively affect the local bottom line. And, besides, who wants to eat fast food when there are so many delicious local foods to try?
3) Pick Up After Yourself
Your mother was right. It’s not only good manners to clean up after yourself, it’s socially and environmentally responsible. When hiking or touring, always take a bag or other container to collect any unwanted food or other garbage. Even seemingly harmless organic waste such as apple cores can adversely affect biodiversity or the eating habits of wild animals. Tread lightly so as not to damage natural or historical sites.
4) Set a Good Example
It is not always first world inhabitants that are the perpetrators of environmental damage. Especially in developing countries, many local people don’t always fully understand the global impact of their actions. Once when visiting Lake Titicaca in Peru, we noticed lakeside ditches overflowing with non-recyclable garbage such as plastic liter bottles and old DVDs. When we asked the guide about it, he told us that local inhabitants believed that by not collecting their garbage, they were creating jobs for local sanitation workers. When we asked why there was still so much uncollected garbage, he told us that nobody wanted the “created” job. We had a similar experience watching locals throw beer cans, soiled diapers and shampoo bottles overboard while traveling by boat down the Amazon river. Again, a crew member told us that locals regard the river as a bottomless garbage dump. It was heartbreaking watching the legendary Amazonian pink river dolphins trying to navigate their way through the floating debris and oil slick on the surface of the water. Tourists can help by not following suit or by offering to take garbage from locals. Respectfully and tactfully sharing information about the global impact of such actions and understanding local concerns can also be helpful.
5) Use Public Transportation
Whenever possible, use local buses, subways, trains or trolleys or better yet, walk or ride a bicycle. Most public transportation both in the U.S. and in other countries is extensive, clean, incredibly cheap and always the more carbon-friendly option. Taking the subway, for example, is not only almost always faster and cheaper than taking a taxi or private car but it is a great way to be environmentally friendly, while not having to contend with traffic!. In some places, navigating the public transportation system is more of a challenge, but it will always enhance your travel experience and add to your knowledge of the area and the people. When arranging tours or excursions, try to book a spot on a group excursion or recruit others to go with you in a shared minivan, rather than hire a private guide and car. In urban areas, walking or riding a bicycle is one of the best ways to see a city and to really get a feel for the culture and life of a place.
Part 2 with tips 6 to 10 coming up shortly!