Students going off to travel tend to prioritise value for money above all else, but that is not the case for everyone. For a lot of student travellers, sustainability has become a new guiding principle in planning their next adventure abroad. This places new moral and human demands on this paradox of an industry, which is, in itself inherently and inevitably commercial. The industry struggles with the concept of sustainability - which is, to be fair, never a simple matter.
In order for travel to leave the smallest possible ecological footprint, it needs to define the complex interaction between human lives (local and visiting) and the natural environment in each step of the process. For a young traveller with limited resources, it can all seem rather daunting. It's tempting to take refuge in the 'ecotourism' label - even though the agencies that offer 'ecotourism' experiences might not always be as environmentally motivated as they claim. Here are a five tips on how to keep sustainability in mind on your trip and make it more than just a buzzword:
- Travel globally, spend locally
- Be smart about your energy use
- Stop littering!
- Travel aware
- Don't look for quick fixes
If you take only one piece of advice around sustainable travel to heart, it should be this. Supporting local businesses instead of multinational corporations during your trip is the best way to ensure that you are contributing to the local economy, rather than to the exploitation thereof. Locals are also always going to know their area best, so their practices are more likely to respect the local community, culture, and natural environment. Seeking out smaller businesses off the beaten path also helps you focus on areas that have not been deeply altered by mass tourism. Sleep in locally-owned hotels, eat at local restaurants, use local tour operators and buy locally-made souvenirs. Try to go straight to the source for purchases - visit craftspeople in their studios to make sure you're not buying something made in a sweatshop. Of course, make sure you stay safe by first asking for trustworthy recommendations - don't just wander off to an unknown studio with a stranger!
Think about the bigger picture and don't be a leech on local resources, even when taking your morning shower. A lot of places do not enjoy the same access to unlimited electricity that you may be used to, and just because you're not paying the bills, you don't get a carte blanche to waste what's available. Unplug electronics, turn off the lights, and spend less time in the shower. Walk, bike, or use public transport wherever possible.
So many pristine beaches around the world have been ruined by the rubbish left behind by mass tourism. There is simply no excuse for this. Why would you think it's OK to just drop rubbish anywhere you like just because you're on vacation? Additionally, think about how to reduce the amount of rubbish you have in the first place by sticking to refillable water bottles and reusable shopping bags.
The most important quality of any sustainability-minded traveller is respect. Respect requires a bit of understanding. Before leaving, be sure to do some research on local laws, customs, and culture, so that you're better prepared for the moment you step off the plane into a new world that no guide book could ever portray to the fullest. A good place to start is the FCO's travel advice website, especially the country-specific guides. You cannot hope to be a respectful visitor of any place if you do not know anything about how it works.
Ultimately, you cannot buy your way into a 100% guilt-free vacation. Ecotourism has become a buzzword in the travel industry, and unfortunately, a lot of people mask their exploitative practices under this label. A lot of so-called 'eco resorts' are actually heavily landscaped, highly commercial ventures that do little to reduce their carbon footprint in their daily practices, and may be doing more harm than good. A lot of 'conservation sanctuaries' for endangered animals, such as tigers, do not actually give a lot of priority to the welfare of their animals. Sustainable travel is about the smaller scale, and the unfortunate irony is that the more tourists who are attracted to an off-the-beaten-path, previously untouched place in search for an eco-friendly holiday, the more commercialised and damaged it can become. Research is once again key. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.