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Costa Rica rainforest
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Sustainable travel: 12 ways to be a better tourist right now

Now’s the time to build a better, more responsible tourism industry – we just need to make a few easy changes

Written by Karen Edwards
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As we witness the detrimental effects of climate change across the world – increasingly in the form of frequent wildfires, floods, cyclones and extreme temperatures – it has never been clearer that we need to adapt how we live to help tackle this crisis.

The pause in non-essential travel during the pandemic has given us the opportunity to do exactly that – to reassess the ways we travel and explore the world, encouraging us to enjoy our well-earned holidays in a more ethical and sustainable way.

Many of us have already taken steps towards a more eco-conscious way of life, such as carrying reusable water bottles and coffee cups, avoiding single-use plastics and choosing hotels that talk about their sustainable practices. However, if we’re actually going to make a difference, we all need to do more. You can help by putting your tourist dollars behind the destinations and organisations actively taking a planet-friendly approach to tourism. Here are 12 tips to consider when booking your next trip.

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Sustainable travel: how to be a better tourist

1. Choose a destination that’s working to be more sustainable

Many countries and cities are gallantly reducing their carbon emissions. Costa Rica is a prime example, as they are already generating 98 percent of electricity through renewable energy – plus more than 25 percent of this biodiverse country has already been declared a conservation zone. Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, has come up with two of Europe’s most impressive sustainable travel initiatives in encouraging organic farming practice and building CopenHill: a city-centre ski, snowboard and hiking slope that transforms waste into energy to power tens of thousands of homes and businesses. Plus: more than two-thirds of the city’s hotels hold an ‘eco-certificate’.

2. Pack these wash bag essentials

If you’re planning to spend most of your time at the beach or in the sea, be sure to invest in reef-friendly sunscreen. Ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate can be harmful to marine life so it’s important to choose chemical-free products that not only protect your skin but also look after the ocean. Organii SPF 50 Sun Milk, Green People’s scent-free range and Hawaiian Tropic Mineral Nourishing Milk SPF30 are great examples. Filling a set of reusable containers with shampoos, conditioners and moisturisers from home will prevent the need for single-use plastics.

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3. Get wise with your clothes

While it can be tempting to embark on a pre-holiday shopping spree, fast fashion is one of the greatest pollution and climate dilemmas we face. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, 73 percent of clothes produced worldwide end up as landfill. If possible, pack clothing you already own. If you buy clothes you don’t intend to wear again, keep them in a good condition and give them to a local clothes bank, or sign up to Thrift Plus, a secondhand clothing marketplace that donates earnings to a charity of your choice. 

Choose trains and buses over flying
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Choose trains and buses over flying

With a lower percentage of flights in action due to ongoing travel restrictions, now’s the chance to explore other methods of transport. Domestic travel by train and bus can add tremendous adventure to your holiday and is especially fun for kids. Going long-haul? Take-offs and landings are the worst for carbon emissions – so fly non-stop where possible. Some airlines, including Cathay Pacific, are investing in energy-efficient aircrafts and biofuels, while KLM have replaced old 747 planes that guzzle fuel with twin-jet aircrafts.

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5. Check your hotel’s credentials 

Unfortunately, it’s easy to stick an ‘eco’ logo on a website without having the policies in place to back it up, but genuine environmentally-aware businesses will proudly discuss their procedures online. Book into resorts, hotels and guesthouses that maintain such measures. If you’re unsure of their stance, there’s no harm in asking. Some questions to consider are: do they source produce from local farmers or grow their own food? Do they promote and partner with local businesses? Do they regularly give back through community events and hire local workers? Have they created wildlife habitats on their land? Are single-use plastics banned?

6. Show respect for local culture

The best way to show appreciation for the place you visit is to be respectful of their way of life. Before you go, spend time researching the history and culture – acknowledging both the positive and negative. When visiting religious buildings, dress appropriately – many places require visitors to cover their shoulders and above the knees. It’s also worth researching the dates to be aware of any big events taking place during your stay. For example, in parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, most restaurants – outside of tourist hubs – will close during the day during the month of Ramadan, while locals are fasting.

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Eat local and seasonal
Photograph: J. Adam / Shutterstock.com

7. Eat local and seasonal

Eating local produce, that is in season, not only supports a more sustainable food industry but also invests in small businesses. This is one of the best ways to be sustainable on holiday. Delve into the array of regional food on offer and enjoy fresh produce. Go to farmers’ markets, book farm-to-table restaurants or eat in-house at wineries and farm-cafés – even experiment with fruits and veg you’ve never seen before. Give your custom to the establishments that support local farmers, grow their own crops and buy seafood from fishermen using pole and line methods.

8. Go wildlife-spotting with an expert

Wildlife experiences done right can be mind-blowing, bucket-list stuff. The key is to organise your trip with a trained wildlife expert who knows the local habitats and puts the welfare of the animals first. Ask operators about their wildlife safety methods and when out on safari, try not to pressure your driver into getting you closer. Learning about animal behaviour and physiology can be the most fun part of the experience. By encouraging and supporting the tour guides who care for wildlife and the environment, you are helping to preserve those experiences for generations to come.

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9. Put your money in the right hands

There’s no better way to say ‘thank you’ than by supporting local businesses. After all, these are the people directly impacted by tourism. This means seeking out and shopping at markets, booking into family-run restaurants and staying in guesthouses and B&Bs rather than big chain hotels. If possible, avoid large shopping centres, government-run establishments and the coffee shops found all over the world – they have plenty of investment rolling in already. In buying from local companies, your money will be going back to the community that’s hosting you.

Take walks and cycle on local trips
Photograph: William Perugini / Shutterstock.com

10. Take walks and cycle on local trips

Reducing carbon emissions is something we must all consider – and finding alternative ways of exploring cities and regions is a great place to start. Walking tours are hugely popular in Britain – check out these highlights in Pembrokeshire, Edinburgh and London – while many traffic-safe European cities, including Alesünd, Avignon, Budapest, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Helsinki, encourage visitors to sightsee on a bike.

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11. Buy souvenirs from genuine artists

Traveller hubs are often packed with souvenir stores selling wonderful, colourful gifts and keepsakes – but more often than not, those products are made en masse and by people working maximum hours for minimum pay. Instead, choose to buy from artisan markets, where local artists are celebrated and can proudly put their art, crafts and design work on display. This way you know you are getting genuine produce and that the artist is being paid directly. Don’t purchase animal products, regardless of their significance to the area, as it only encourages the view that animals can be used for money-making ventures.

12. Sidestep voluntourism and master responsible tourism

Voluntourism projects operate by asking tourists to pay a fixed fee to work with disadvantaged communities, usually by helping at orphanages, schools or animal sanctuaries. Unfortunately, many of these schemes have been found to be exploiting disadvantaged locals to keep these lucrative voluntourism projects going, usually to the detriment of community development. It’s better to invest your money in the communities you come across by paying fairly – and without bartering – for their services. If you still wish to volunteer, seek out an organisation that links tourists with specific training to work with local workers who wish to learn that particular skill.

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