How to Travel Light

G Magazine

How do you enjoy seeing the planet without trampling it?

Footprints in sand

Credit: iStockphoto

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The term 'ecotourism' is defined as:

travel that minimises environmental impact and benefits the local community.

Responsible travel grew out of the recognition that ecotourism as a term had lost some of its currency, and that the principles of sustainability should apply to tourism in every situation - not just natural areas.

It takes a triple bottom line approach:

  1. tread lightly on the environment
  2. respect local people and culture
  3. ensure a financial benefit to the local community

While once seen as the bailiwick of the grass-roots adventurer, responsible tourism principles are now taking hold in every sector of the industry, in every price range, from beaches to big cities.

Hotels and resorts are adopting sustainable design, recycling and giving back to the local community through training, aid projects or levies.

Tour operators are opting for smaller groups (less impact); encouraging respectful engagement with local people and providing interpretation and education for their clients.

And volunteering organisations and opportunities are springing up from Azerbaijan to Zululand, where Western travellers can knuckle down, for anything from a day to a year or more, working on environmental or community projects.

You could find yourself on a tropical island, far from the tourist crowds, helping to research endangered turtles; or in the Andes of South America teaching English to descendants of the Incas.

While it might sound very worthy, no self-flagellation is required. In fact, green travel is growing in the UK at 25 per cent a year.

Yes, it's morally the right way to travel, but it's also a lot more fun than lying on the banana lounge in a faceless resort or watching the world pass by a bus window; not to mention more intellectually and emotionally challenging, inspiring and rewarding.

If curiosity is the fuel of travel, then getting off the bus, off the beaten track and immersing yourself in the local culture and landscape - getting under the skin of a place - isn't a bad way to begin to understand and appreciate a world possibly quite different from your own and to cast new perspectives on your own life and values.

But how do you tell the green from the greenwash? How can you, as an individual, travel responsibly?

Before You Go

Before you even start planning a trip there are some ideas to consider to help green your holiday.

  1. Stay closer to home
  2. There's been a lot of talk about the significant contribution jet travel makes to the world's overall levels of carbon emissions (said to be as much as three per cent).

    Choose to reduce your contribution to carbon emissions by checking out you own neighbourhood.

    If all you want to do is flop on a beach, do you really need to fly to the Maldives to do it? Arguably, the best beaches in the world are on our doorstep.

    Apart from the hundreds of beaches fringing Australia's coastline, world-class island escapes are within a couple of hours of most capital cities.

    For example,World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island - less than two hours' flight from Sydney or Brisbane - has been called the most beautiful island in the South Pacific and with tourist numbers limited to just 400 per night, it's never going to be loved to death.

  3. If you're going overseas, offset your trip
  4. If you decide you really want to venture further afield, save the long-haul flights for longer holidays.

    When you fly, consider off-setting your carbon emissions so your travels are carbon neutral.

    There are a number of websites where you can plug in your flight route, calculate your personal carbon emissions and then pay a fee to an organisation that will plant trees or invest in community projects to counterbalance your emissions.

  5. Follow the path less travelled
  6. When selecting your destination, be wary of those places that are now so popular they're being trampled underfoot.

    Try new places - look for destinations that could benefit from some visitation but that perhaps have some sort of factor - be it regulatory, physical or cultural - that will prevent them from being trampled and over-run.

  7. Support responsible operators
  8. If you're travelling on an organised tour or booking into a hotel or resort, check the operator's responsible tourism credentials.

    Ask to see their responsible tourism policy - if they're serious, they'll usually have it posted on their website.

    Questions you should ask:

    • Do they employ local people, and what training opportunities are provided?
    • Do they use locally owned accommodation, restaurants and suppliers whre possible, so that revenue is returned to the local economy?
    • Are they involved with any local community or enviornmental projects?
    • What information about the local environment and culture do they provide to clients?
    • What measures have they taken to reduce their environmental impact?

    Good operators will be addressing obvious environmental issues such as recycling and fuel efficiency, but further, they'll be working with local authorities and communities to ensure the sustainability of their destinations in the long term.

    For a travel company, responsible tourism isn't always the easy option, so those that are doing it right are usually pretty passionate about it - and that passion tends to infuse all aspects of their operations, including your holiday.

    On The Road

    Minimise your personal environmental impact:

    • If you're travelling in the developing world, be mindful that the infrastructure for dealing with waste is probably poor to non-existent.
    • Try to leave any excess packaging at home and take used batteries and other potentially toxic waste back home with you.
    • In places where the drinking water is dodgy, rather than buying plastic-bottled water which (no matter how carefully you dispose of it) is likely to end up littering the landscape, carry some means of purifying water - e.g. boiling, treating with iodine or filtering.
    • Be conservative with resources such as water and fuel - in parts of the Himalaya, for example, the demand from western trekkers for hot showers has led to severe deforestation problems, because the water is heated by wood-fired stoves.
    • Use local public transport where possible - not only does it reduce your impact and put some money into the local economy, it's a great way to meet people.
    • Even better, walk or ride a bicycle. Hiking, biking or paddling are low-impact ways of travelling at a pace that facilitates both a better appreciation of the landscape around you and getting to know your fellow - local - travellers, since you're travelling at a similar speed to them.

    Of course, these principles don't just apply overseas. Seeing Sydney from a sea kayak, for example, is a low impact way to get the best views of the Opera House, the prime foreshore real estate, paddle under the Harbour Bridge and have breakfast on a bush beach in view of Kirribilli House.

    Camping is a fabulous low-impact form of accommodation, just remember to 'take only pictures, leave only footprints'.

    Try the local eating establishments (instead of the international fast food outlets) and stay at locally-owned hotels and lodges (instead of foreign-owned establishments). That way your money will benefit the local economy, rather than returning to head office in a western capital city.

    The Big Picture

    There's probably no such thing as truly sustainable tourism.

    As soon as you enter a wilderness area or meet someone who's never before met a Westerner, you've made an impact, but sustainability is a point of perfection to strive for and, as such, becomes a question of degree and intent.

    The aim is to make your environmental impact negligible and temporary, and your cultural impact as positive as possible.

    While not the full or only answer for the future sustainability of tourism, responsible travel is one of the most direct and personal ways to make a difference to some of the biggest issues facing our world. Through greater cross-cultural assistance and understanding, and minimising environmental impact poverty, peace and damage to our planet are addressed.

    By adopting the responsible travel ethos, you can be part of the solution - and you'll have the time of your life.