Wandering between cacti, gazing up at the ever brooding Mehrangarh Fort and down to the reservoir below that glittered in the afternoon sun, I basically had the place to myself. The paths took me through gulleys filled with rockeries and desert flowers, and back up to the welcome shade of palm trees.
I was enjoying an afternoon stroll in Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. An eco tourism project that opened to the public in 2011, the park was created to restore the natural ecology of the rocks in the area, and to restore native desert plants and greenery into Jodhpur – one of Rajasthan’s largest cities.
Just a few hundred meters walk from the entrance to Mehrangarh Fort – Jodhpur’s central tourism attraction – why was the park so empty?
I’ve come to realise that we like to make things complicated.
The concept of sustainable tourism or responsible tourism are great examples of this. When the truth is, that these are not special phenomenon. Nor are they particularly hard to achieve. As I’ve spoken with people on my travels about how to travel and create a positive impact, several things have become clear to me.
There are different ways we can all make a positive impact on the world as we move around it, and many of us are doing these things already. The most effective steps towards responsible or sustainable travel are the simple ones, the small ones. Which add up to a huge difference. It all starts with this:
“Be the change you want to see in the world” ~ Ghandi
The same is true for Earth Day which we celebrate each year. For me, it’s become an example of how much can be achieved, when everyone comes together.
And with that in mind, here are my most un-complicated, but powerful, top responsible travel tips.
Top Responsible Travel Tips.
1. Embrace the Local Experience.
I’ve found that travel born out of a curiosity and desire to learn about other cultures can be one of the most rewarding types of travel there is. A desire to learn about local culture will automatically lead to a respect of different conditions and norms when we travel in further-flung places. Dressing the part and learning a few words of the language of where you’re visiting go a long way towards making new friends.
Embracing the local experience is also about understanding that conditions may be very different than what we’re used to at home. This particularly applies to availability of water and waste disposal facilities. During my recent travels in India, I saw the shock on many a traveller’s face at the piles and piles of rubbish/trash.
It can be easy to blame the trash on locals and tourists, but the truth is there is simply nowhere for the waste to go – there is no waste disposal infrastructure. Which means we have to think even more carefully before accepting any plastic (including plastic water bottles). In Rajasthan, a desert area, water is becoming scarcer every year. Yet it wasn’t until I stayed in a village homestay with no piped water that the problem really hit home to me. Turning the shower off while I shampoo-ed my hair in hotels took on a lot more meaning.
2. Take Local Transport.
It’s not practical 100% of the time, but I love taking public transport wherever I can for the interaction opportunities that it gives me and the chance to see a country unfiltered. It also unfailingly gives stories to tell – either of the beautiful scenery passing by the windows, or of the journey itself (depending on where you are).
Group tours can be a great way to get to know a country for the first time, or for solo travellers that prefer companionship, but one of my issues with them is that they often involve sticking everyone on a private bus for most of the trip. A (literally) air conditioned glass screen gets between you and the country you’re visiting. That said, there are some tour companies that use more in the way of local transport options, and make efforts towards sustainable travel. Two examples are Intrepid Travel and G Adventures.
3. Watch the Environmental Footprint.
Disposal and recycling of plastic is a world-wide problem, but is seen the most (and is the hardest to resolve) in developing countries. Where there simply is no funding for proper waste disposal or trash collection service. Plastic also takes a huge amount of water to produce, thereby compounding water shortage problems in hot countries.
I’ve also been on group outings where we were given bottled water as tourists for the day, and at the end of the day the tour leaders went and buried the plastic bottles – there was literally nowhere else for them to go.
Wherever you can, avoid plastic. If we only change one thing about our travel habits, let it be this: take a reusable aluminium or glass water bottle with you for use on our travels. It’s surprisingly easy to refill it using tap water, filtered water or water from a large container (depending on where we are travelling) – and it saves a huge amount of money!
4. Spread the Money Around.
I find this is the easiest thing to do to immediately create positive impact. Eat at different places, go to different shops, stalls and markets, stay in different small hotels / guest houses and more people benefit from your tourism dollars / euros or pounds. Avoid staying in one place or at an all inclusive resort, as in these situations the economic benefit of our travel goes only to the resort chain. If everybody is going to a particular market, how about giving a different one a try?
5. Don’t Swim in your own Sh*t.
Really. I’m serious. There’s a huge problem of overdeveloped “paradise” islands, with beachfronts full of luxury resorts, with one really dirty problem. 9 out of 10 of these resorts do not have sewage treatment systems built in, and so the waste and sewage from these hotels is literally going straight out to sea via a pipe. Likely right next to where you are swimming. And the problem is not confined to Boracay and Koh Samui.
The problem can be seen all over South East Asia – which is un-coincidentally the #1 tourism region in the world. What happens is tourism starts growing, everyone wants a slice of the tourism pie (understandably), but there are few building & planning regulations that dictate how construction should be managed sustainably. Environment takes back seat. I saw this problem at its ugliest on Phu Quoc, Vietnam.
What to do about it? If you’ll be staying in a resort area on an island, look specifically for a place to stay that has an eco certification (you can search on BookDifferent to find hotels with these), or for a place to stay that talks about what they are doing to protect the environment.
6. Take your own Detour.
The problems of mass-tourism are compounded by the fact that sometimes it seems hard to get away from the crowds and into a more “genuine” part of a country. South East Asia is an expert at this – it can be hard work to find attractions which are off the beaten tourist trail, as all travel agents and guides seem intent on taking everyone to the same places (more revenue and easier lives for them that way). The solution is to research in advance, a willingness to travel a bit (either by public transport or by scooter, car) out of the way, and a small amount of effort.
For those with less time on their hands, organisations like i-likelocal and visit.org are great solutions – here you can find activities that will get you off the beaten path and into creating a positive impact, with minimal effort on our part.
7. Take a Train instead of a Plane.
Those who know me know that this is my personal favourite ;-), and this is particularly a great trip for Europe or in some parts of Asia. Clearly, it’s not always possible.
A study recently carried out between GoEuro and EcoPassenger showed that not only is it better for the environment, but that taking the train between London and Brussels takes 2 hours 8 minutes less than it would flying. Train fares can often be very competitive if booking in advance, and personally I love avoiding the hassle of having to wake up early, trekking to an airport and the ritual of airport security checks.
8. Be aware that Travel is still a Luxury.
Still hotly debated, is the idea that everyone in the world is able to travel. The possibility may be there, but the truth is that the odds are unfairly weighted against many. Due to “bad passport countries” (countries where you have to apply for a visa to visit most of the rest of the world and supply never-ending supporting documents), wage levels, human rights and vast differences in cost, international travel remains a fantasy for much of the world’s population. Which means that for those of us that are able to travel without being held up by red tape, we have a duty to ensure our travel benefits the world, as well as ourselves, in the best way we can.
Thanks for reading my top responsible travel tips for 2017! What top tips would you add to this list?
Did you know that 2017 is the year of international sustainable tourism (as decided by the UN)? You can read what some of my fellow travel bloggers had to say about that in my post ‘Are you Ready for the Year of Sustainable Travel’ hereAre you Ready for the Year of Sustainable Travel’ here.
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A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.