How to travel responsibly and sustainably in 2021
By Caroline Caillet, President, Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) Sustainability Committee
2021 is a new year that brings with it new hope – for health, social interactions, economic recovery and thankfully, tourism. With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, globe-trotters and travel aficionados alike have been pining for their next big trip – eager to travel responsibly and sustainably - wherever, and whenever that may be.
Travel in 2021 will look a little different to what we’ve grown accustomed to
While we were in lockdown, the world – and especially the tourism industry - evolved. There’s no denying that tourism was one of the hardest-hit sectors by the pandemic. In most ways, it’s changed for the worse. International arrivals were down by 93% versus 2019, rattling local economies, putting countless companies out of business and leading to widespread unemployment.
But when it comes to the environment, it’s largely changed for the better. The decrease in mass tourism has given mother nature a chance to restore itself and recover from the damage that decades of self-seeking travelers has produced. Since late 2020, tourist hotspots have seen improvements in air quality, water pollution and a recovery in the overall well-being of their habitats, including clearer waters, the return of wildlife and the restoration of the coral reefs.
So with tourism set make its recovery 2021, the challenge will be in how to sustain these positive impacts, while further preserving and restoring global communities, economies and ecosystems. I believe the answer lies in responsible tourism.
What is responsible tourism?
Responsible tourism minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impacts and supports the well-being of host communities. The concept has gained popularity since 2019, following major mediatized events such as the global youth climate movement, Extinction Rebellion or Greta Thunberg’s public flight shaming outcry. In fact, 2019 saw a sky-rocketing interest in responsible travel, with a greater number of tourists traveling by train and opting for off-season holidays, and establishments standing up for the planet by using their incomes to protect land and restore landscapes.
So, if you’re going to travel sustainably and responsibly, what should you keep in mind? And what do you need to consider when planning an eco-friendly holiday?
1. Choose your destination wisely
Remember that responsible tourism seeks to benefit local communities in the long term, so try to choose your holiday destination accordingly. While Thailand’s full moon parties will make your friends envious, it turns out that they’re highly unsustainable and a huge contributor to mass ocean pollution. So it’s best to do your research and decide whether your trip is really responsible, and not just catering to your personal whims. If you’re struggling for inspiration on where to go on your next big trip, this website is an excellent resource for finding responsible travel destinations for any budget.
2. Opt for greener travel methods
It’s no surprise that flying is the least sustainable way to travel. The aviation industry accounts for around 5% of global warming and produces around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. If you don’t absolutely have to fly to reach your destination, opt for another means of public transport or consider renting an electric car. If you do need to resort to air travel, try one of the following CO2 reduction pointers:
- Book a direct flight, if possible. While it might be more expensive, one flight is always better than two.
- Choose an airline that uses biofuel or has new aircrafts, as they’re more efficient than older models.
- Fly economy as opposed to business or first class, which emit up to 4 x more CO2 emissions than flying economy.
- Take less stuff with you. After all, the less luggage you take, the less fuel your aircraft will need to burn.
3. Travel off-season
If you can, avoid the crowds of peak season travel. Not only is travelling during high-season much more expensive for travellers, but overtourism poses a burden to the local environment and infrastructure. Many urban cities face issues with pollution and waste management already, which is only exacerbated by tourism, while excess movement in natural landscapes puts a stress on the flora, fauna and animals that call these regions home. Besides, avoiding the rush of tourists will give you more time to soak in the tourist sites and connect with the locals.
4. Pack light and smart
When it comes to luggage, don’t go overboard. I’m not saying you have to leave your fashion sense at home. Just think about packing a clever mix of matching outfits (ever heard of a capsule wardrobe?), while making an effort to choose light materials, quick-dry fabrics and versatile shoes that can work in the city, as well as on the beach - or even in the jungle. If you do have to buy new outfits for your trip, think about spending your money with companies that have a conscience – like Gandys, a travel-inspired fashion brand that gives back to communities and supports underprivileged children around the world. Or Patagonia, an outdoor gear and garment brand which not only gives back to the planet but promises their products will last a lifetime: "consuming less energy, wasting less water and creating less trash”.
Travellers also produce more waste on the road than they do at home, especially when eating out. Consider bringing a reusable water bottle (LARQ can even purify water on-the-go), along with your own mug, a reusable straw (check out these bamboo straws) and a foldable bag for groceries and shopping. Also, try to remove as much packaging at home to avoid unnecessary waste and plastic, as many developing countries don’t have recycling infrastructures in place.
5. Choose an eco-friendly accommodation
If you’re really looking to make the most of your cultural experience, why not opt for a homestay with a local family? It’s a wonderful, humbling opportunity to learn more about the people, language and traditions first-hand. If no homestays are available, consider other eco-friendly alternatives, like eco-lodging, B&Bs, or even work exchanges and house sitting. And if you’re opting for a hotel, make sure to do your research and pick one that’s committed to sustainable practices.
6. Give back to the community
As a responsible tourist, you’re not just there to consume, but also to contribute. Make the most of your tourism dollars by supporting local businesses, whether it be souvenir shops, markets or restaurants. You could also join a local tour, do some outdoor eco-activities or even volunteer with local entities. Traveling in developing countries also offers the perfect opportunity to work with the locals and teach them the ways of responsible living. When I was backpacking in South East Asia, I noticed that lots of passengers were throwing their garbage out of the train window as it was moving. I took the opportunity to explain to some of them why littering is harmful to our environment (they were completely unaware!), and it felt wonderful to know that I could make a positive difference. We often forget that not all countries are aware of today’s sustainability issues and that very often, a little education can go a long way.
7. Leave local ecosystems untouched
Local ecosystems are delicate, and need to be cared for and respected. Though walking on sand dunes, collecting sea shells or taking a bit of sand home doesn’t seem harmful, it can be detrimental to the local ecosystems in the long run. If you’re going to pick something up, make sure it’s someone else’s trash. If not, please leave the landscape untouched.
Of course, some of these tips are easier said than done. And while you might not be able to tick off every box on the list all at once, as long as you’re being mindful and conscious about the way you travel, and making an effort with every trip, you’re already making a positive difference. Just imagine, if the 1 billion travellers around the world made more sustainable choices how much better off our planet would be. Let’s continue work together, and do our part in making a positive change.
Find out more about what EHL is doing for sustainability.