Updated: Jun 4, 2020
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.
c) Purchase carbon credits
Once you choose your project, the hard work is done. Make the purchase.
Calculate your full carbon footprint for last year. You don’t need to commit to offsetting, just know it. We like www.footprintcalculator.org.
Note: Calculating a carbon footprint is complex, and the calculators recommended all make assumptions about private daily life. It’s not a perfect science. Despite efforts, we have not yet been able to calculate the carbon footprint of our tours, and probably will not be able to until a better set of assumptions exists around Adventure Travel, or until our service providers have all calculated their carbon footprint. Despite this, we will begin carbon offsetting one metric ton for each customer beginning in 2021, which is excessively more than we estimate the carbon footprint of our tours to be at.
3. Reduce Waste and Single-use Plastic
This one’s cliché and needs very little explanation. It’s more difficult when we travel than when we are at home. Some places we visit use excessive amounts of single-use plastic that we can’t avoid. The goal here is to do the best we can. Despite all the factors that are out of our control, there are still things we can and should always do, no matter where we are:
Carry a reusable water bottle and avoid buying disposable water bottles. If tap water is not safe to drink, there are great travel water filters that work with reusable water bottles and take almost no extra effort. Check out Life Straw or Sawyer’s Portable Filter System (this is the one I use)
Carry one or two lightweight reusable grocery bags in your luggage to use for shopping
Avoid generating unneeded trash for meals. This often means eating in, but even then, many eat-in restaurants may serve food in disposable containers with disposable utensils. Avoid these places if possible (even at home). Always travel with a set of non-disposable eating utensils, a travel coffee mug, and even a reusable straw if you need one
Carry snacks in reusable containers, or if you use disposable containers (such as ziploc bags), reuse them until they break
Note: Many of the links above are affiliate links. This means we earn a small commission when you purchase through these links, but it doesn't cost you anything extra.
4. Brave Public Transportation
Depending on your level of comfort with international travel, public transportation can be intimidating. But I believe you are smart enough to figure it out and you are strong enough to fumble through it. Plus, there are almost always people around to ask for help.
A few tips:
Do your research in advance to make sure that public transportation is available where you are going and to ensure that it is safe. In general, public transportation is very safe throughout Europe and much of South America and Asia
Carry cash, especially if you need to take buses
Use the website www.rome2rio.com to research route connections. The website gives a great overview, but they often have out-of-date timetables. Verify all route schedules directly on the service provider’s website.
5. Eat different
If you play around with your inputs in the carbon calculator, you’ll quickly learn the difference what you eat and where it comes from makes on your carbon footprint.
Beef has a huge carbon footprint and pork is not far behind. Switching to a plant-based diet is great. If that’s not for you, consider eating more poultry, and maybe even going vegetarian a couple times a week. While you’re at it, buy local. This is easier to do in some places than others but try to support the local farmers’ market and be mindful of eating fruits and vegetables that are in season.
6. Consume local…responsibly
It’s great to buy gifts for our friends and families and souvenirs for ourselves. This can do more harm than good though when we buy mass produced tacky trinkets that eventually end up in a landfill. Consider purchasing quality items that have bigger life purpose than collecting dust in a corner. It’s even better if these items are made by a local artist. If you need a new pair of pants or a new pair of shoes anyway, consider purchasing those at the local market while traveling, rather than at home in the over-sized shopping mall.
Support the local economy by staying in small, family-owned local hotels and eating at locally owned restaurants. Not only does this get you closer to the culture, but it also puts the money right back into the local economy. At Alpenventures UNGUIDED, over 98% of the accommodations and other service providers we work with are locally owned companies and local alpine clubs. We’re proud of that.
There’s a lot we need to change to live responsible and sustainable lives. But we shouldn’t let that freeze us into inaction. Let’s do the best we can and celebrate others who do the same.
There are a lot of other ways to travel responsibly. I would love to hear your thoughts on ways to become a more responsible traveler.