Updated: Apr 16
I have been planning for months to publish a Responsible Travel blog post on Earth day. Then the world changed, and right now, the only responsible way to travel is not to travel at all.
As I write this post, going for a walk is a criminal offense in some countries, schools are closed across the globe, borders are closed, and emergency rooms around the world are overflowing. We are in the worst (I hope) of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. Today, we are on a mission to save humanity, simply by staying on the couch at home (except for all the essential personnel and especially emergency responders and medical staff – THANK YOU).
While this may be a rather awkward time to talk about responsible travel, the truth is, that someday we’ll travel again. This is a great time to reset, so we come out of this crisis as better, more responsible travelers. If not after this pandemic, then when?
There was a time when tourism was perceived to be positive. After all, tourism distributes wealth to poorer nations. It’s considered critical in many economies around the world. But tourism is about so much more than economics. It’s also about education and understanding, driving cooperation and peace. Mark Twain said it well:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
Today, the morality of travel is scrutinized, thanks to air travel’s contributions to carbon emissions, and the suffocation caused by overtourism at many of the world’s most loved destinations. The social media surge now has tourists racing around the world, trying to get the same Instagram shot everybody else has, in the same place everybody else wants to go.
As awareness grows about the high level of emissions emitted by air travel, so does guilt about booking that international flight ticket. In the midst of this terrible pandemic, our environment is enjoying a temporary respite from travel pollution, and the positive impact is visible and undeniable. On the other hand, the economic aftermath of this sudden stop in travel will have a dire impact on the tourism industry, which will echo wildly throughout industries and countries around the world.
So, what’s the responsible thing to do? Should we travel (when we can again) to support economies around the world, prevent economic collapse of an entire industry, and grow cross-cultural understanding & open-mindedness? Or should we address the existential threat of climate change, stop flying and stay close to home, vegetating in one little corner of the earth, as Mark Twain put it? It’s a tough call.
For me, the magic lies in moderation. This means changing how I do things, so that I can both travel and live responsibly. I’m not perfect, but I’m doing my best to do my part.
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, says
“Every one of us has to step up and do what you can according to what your resources are.”
Here are 6 ways to travel, and live, more responsibly:
1. Be Different
There are so many amazing destinations in this world that crave tourists. These may not be the Instagram hotspots, and may not even be mentioned in all the thousands of so-called “Bucket Lists” that are circulating, but that’s exactly what makes these different destinations special. Who’s to say that visiting Venice, the Louvre and Machu Picchu are better than indulging in Silk Road history in Uzbekistan or lying on the beach in Madagascar. Make it a point to visit destinations that are craving tourists, rather than those that are burdened by them.
If you are into human-powered adventures, such as trekking and bicycle touring, you’re already a step ahead. You can do even better by avoiding the ultra-popular routes, such as the Tour du Mont Blanc, Annapurna Circuit, Inca Trail, etc. Instead, seek lesser-known alternatives, and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.
2. Carbon Offsetting
I’m going to do my best to oversimplify a very complex topic here.
All of us have a carbon footprint. It’s the volume of carbon emissions our existence adds to the atmosphere. It’s usually measured in tons. With carbon offsetting, you buy “carbon credits” to invest in projects that either reduce or absorb carbon emissions. The concept is that you buy one carbon credit for each metric ton of carbon that you generate.
It’s important to mention that our first priority must be minimizing our carbon footprint by reducing our carbon emissions, which means changing our behavior. Carbon offsetting is then used to offset the remaining carbon emissions we were unable to eliminate. There is some controversy around carbon offsetting, because some argue that it discourages people to change their behavior around carbon emissions. So please, focus first on changing your behavior and then offset.
Here's how you offset:
a) calculate your carbon footprint
b) choose a project to apply carbon credits to
c) purchase carbon credits
Let’s dive deeper.
a) Calculate your carbon footprint
We recommend starting simple, so start with your flight. There are so many different resources you can use to calculate your flight’s carbon emissions, but we recommend using Cool Effect’s calculator or South Pole’s calculator.
b) Choose a project to apply carbon credits to
You usually get to choose which project the money from your carbon credit goes to. It’s important to know that some projects are better than others, and there are some bad projects out there. Don’t let this complexity lead to inaction. Keep it simple by purchasing carbon credits from a reputable organization like Cool Effect or South Pole. You can choose the project you’re most excited about or choose the project your budget is most excited about. Carbon credits often start at 10 USD.