Sustainable Travel

Published: February 24, 2020

by Vivienne Tam Science & Policy Exchange

I was sorely disappointed by my visit to see the Mona Lisa. I thought it would be this profound cultural moment as I stood before this historical painting, entranced by her magical eyes. Instead, my view was obstructed by a sea of iPhones as I stood on my tiptoes and squinted to get a glimpse of her. A guide waving a skinny orange flag spoke into her microphone and a wave of tourists who were occupying prime front row space exited to the right, while I seized the chance to squeeze into the one empty spot behind the rope barrier.

And what did I do? Whip out my iPhone and snap that picture, of course. I was annoyed at the tourists, while simultaneously being one of them.

My experience at the Louvre is only one of the many examples of how the beauty of popular tourist destinations is suffering under the weight of mass tourism. Since the 1950s, the number of yearly International trips has spiked from 25 million to a possible 3 billion in 2017, even though the number of common tourist sights has remained the same.

As a result, tourist destinations like Venice, Amsterdam, and once-pristine Iceland are becoming overcrowded, ironically changing the landscape the tourists had come to see. Locals in these cities are in turn protesting this unwelcome change with “Tourist, go home” banners.

But for all of us who love traveling, how can we travel sustainably in order to preserve and respect the natural and cultural heritage of the places we visit?

1. Understand why you travel

Just because everyone is lining up to see the Mona Lisa doesn’t mean you have to as well. Sustainable travel begins by asking yourself what you want to get out of the trip and plan the trip accordingly. Do you like adventurous experiences, or would you rather have a relaxed time immersed in nature?

Then, instead of simply signing up for a tour package where you travel in groups to sights you don’t find worth visiting, you can take your time and wander off the beaten path to less frequented places. The recent boom of sectors such as agritourism, ecotourism, and voluntourism means that your vacation could take on many purposes. It could be to work on a local farm through WWOOF or participate in a conservation project. Having a why can allow you to travel slower and more purposefully instead of squeezing as many sights as you can into a trip.

2. Getting there: take more trains or carbon-offset your flight

Flights account for 2.5% of global carbon production. One of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling would be to limit the number of flights you take. This could mean staying closer to home and taking the train to discover a nearby location.

Other options are to carbon-offset your flight, where you pay an extra sum that is donated to a carbon offset scheme or to try to avoid short-haul flights and stopovers, as the largest amount of emissions are produced during takeoff and landing.

3. Seeing sights: visit quieter areas or wander during off-peak times

Now that you’re at your destination, how do you plan your itinerary? Much of the world has yet been undiscovered but we still keep going to the same sights.

By following blogs such as The Invisible Tourist and Atlas Obscura, you’ll learn how to visit the hidden gems of a destination. Tours by Locals and the Greeter Network pair you up with a local who can also help to take you to the more undiscovered parts of a city.

If you wish to visit a famous sight, you could try going during an off-peak time. Even if it’s a bit more chilly or you have to wake up earlier, the peace you enjoy in return will be, in my opinion, totally worth it.

4. Minimizing waste: avoid single-use plastic

Plastic inevitably finds its way into our travels, whether through the tiny single-use shampoo bottles distributed at hotels or the small peanut butter containers at breakfast places. We can avoid constantly throwing away plastic either by bringing our own toiletries or reusable jars of condiments or by taking the ones offered by the hotels or restaurants and using them for the rest of our travels, instead of leaving a 3/4 full-bottle to be disposed of.

Here is a great resource from MamaEco on how to put together a sustainable travel kit!

5. Buying products: support local industries

The upside of tourism is that it does bolster the local economy — if we learn to seek out the right industries to support. Whether it’s through artisan markets or fair-trade cooperatives, buying from local shops makes sure that the money goes directly into the hands of the person who made it.

One of the most memorable purchases I made was at an open-air artisan market in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was drawn to a pair of earrings made of cedarwood. The seller described to me the process of how he cut the earrings out of the wood and sanded them down. As he handed them over to me, I remember him saying “I hope you have as much joy wearing it as I had in making it.” Even now when I wear these earrings, I think of that craftsman in Slovenia and how that was the best 20 Euros I spent during the whole trip.

6. Making friends: learn the local language and talk to locals

If I were to think about why I travel, a large part of it is to be immersed in the local culture, so that instead of being a consumer, I am a learner. But if we are only taking Instagram photos of famous sights, we are just mindlessly consuming instead of actually engaging with the people who live in the country.

One practice I have tried to take up is to spend a few months on Duolingo learning the language of the country I will be visiting. Just the ability to have a simple, casual conversation in the local language is a game-changer in opening the door to an authentic connection with the locals. It sends the message that you value the people and culture enough to connect with them in a way they understand.

Taking a picture with a local artisan who made leather bags in Fes, Morocco.

Tourism itself isn’t the problem. In fact, travel is an amazing opportunity to connect with people we would never have had the chance to meet and widen our perspective on the world. So, as you begin to plan for your next vacation, consider using these principles to craft a more sustainable travel experience!