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Is eco tourism really eco-friendly? 5 ways to travel green this year

Photography By Marten Bjork, Ray Rui, Ricardo Gomez Angel, Saffu, Vadim Misyuchenko / Unsplash
Published 23.08.21

Do you feel like your passport is an increasingly redundant personal possession? Mine expired last month and renewing it seems like a pointless endeavour. After all, there is no clear answer for when I’ll be able to use it again. 

While my holiday plans might be on hold, the pause in travel has undeniably been good for the planet. In 2020, the aviation industry’s global CO2 emissions fell 48 per cent from their 2019 total and many over-touristed cities scored a break from the swarms of visitors straining resources. For those of us used to an annual escape, we were forced to rethink our travel habits and face the impact our globetrotting has on the planet.  

Author, travel writer and sustainability advocate Nina Karnikowski was already reevaluating the impact of her lifestyle before the events of 2020 forced us all to pause. Karnikowski spent almost a decade jetting around the globe on assignments and once-in-a-lifetime trips. Then (probably quite unexpectedly for her editorial team) she decided to take a step back.  

“It was a rumbling inside for quite a long time,” Karnikowski explains. “I had started to notice that if I took a trip that felt like it didn’t have some sort of ‘give back’ element, I would feel quite ill at ease about going.” After an excursion to the Canadian Arctic in 2019 where she witnessed firsthand the plight of climate change’s poster child – the polar bear – the feeling was cemented.  

“I was very clearly confronted with the impact of some of my actions on this trip,” she admits. “Because of the melting of the ice caps, the polar bears’ feeding season is shorter and they are not breeding as well, so their populations are dwindling. I realised that these bears have no way of protecting themselves against this…only we can. And of course, the polar bear was just one symbol for how all life on Earth was suffering. 

“I came home from that trip and calculated my annual carbon footprint and it was something like six times what the average person would create because of the number of overseas flights I was taking every year.”  

That experience led her to take a personal pledge to travel differently and served as inspiration for her book, Go Lightly: How to travel without hurting the planet. Karnikowski’s empathic and observant account of her travels around the world is interspersed with practical guidance to encourage readers to make their own changes.

As her book demonstrates, it’s not a case of abandoning the holiday dream altogether, but rather about embracing a mindful attitude and working within our means to minimise the negative impacts of tourism. To help you imagine what your own “lighter” travel future could look like, here are five tips we took from reading Go Lightly.

Travel with purpose and try something new

“One of the first things to realise is that to travel this way, you don’t have to give anything up, and that this is all about making your travels richer, deeper and more meaningful,” Karnikowski says. So while there’s nothing wrong with holidaying to switch off and relax, it’s worth asking: do we need to waste countless emissions to sit by a hotel pool? If you’re going to fly to the other side of the world, make sure it’s for a unique and enriching experience you’ll never forget.

You could plan a hiking holiday to explore a destination in depth (GAIA GPS is great for detailed trail maps), or try something like WWOOFING, a cultural exchange movement allowing you to live, work and learn alongside locals on organic farms. If possible, avoid mini breaks. Save up (money and annual leave) to take longer trips less often. This will cut emissions and give you an opportunity to really immerse yourself in local communities.

Consider under-travelled places

Karnikowski lists a trip to Guatemala to learn ancient weaving techniques and a hiking trip to Georgia in Eastern Europe as two of her favourite “green” trips. Plus her decision to swap bucket-list Machu Picchu for the lesser-visited Rainbow Mountain in South America. In all these places, cultural immersion and choosing destinations off the beaten track were central to an unforgettable, and more regenerative, experience.

Go Lightly is packed with alternative ideas when planning your next trip, as well as ways to connect positively with people and the places you visit including engaging a local guide, volunteering or upskilling. The National Geographic also lists a number of hidden gems so you can discover an alternative destination that’s often even more beautiful than the mainstream hotspot.

Explore alternative modes of transport

Taking a train (which uses up to 50 per cent less fuel than planes) or bus is a great way to see more of the country you’re visiting. It also dramatically cuts costs and carbon emissions. Apps like Rome2rio show thousands of multi-modal routes around the globe and easily compares the price of different transport options. If you are driving, Google Maps recently introduced a function that defaults to the route with the lowest carbon footprint, as well as comparing relative CO2 impacts between routes.

Discover destinations closer to home

We are drawn to far-away destinations and new cultures, but don’t overlook your own backyard when planning an escape. Often travelling even 1000 kilometres from home can deliver a totally new experience. If you’re stuck for inspiration or need help planning, try a well-written guidebook or state tourism websites for travel information and destination details. Searching hashtags and geo locations on Instagram is another great way to find ideas and activities. Or, ask a local for advice. It can be as simple as finding a store or cafe you love and asking the staff to write down their favourite places to eat, drink, shop and adventure. This tactic will become your ticket to discovering hidden gems when travelling.

Take your values with you

At home, we spend a lot of time thinking about where our money is going and the impact of our habits. Don’t give up that mindset when holidaying. Whether you’re booking accommodation, heading out to eat or buying souvenirs, consider where your money is going. Is it contributing to the local economy? Is it supporting artisans and workers? Could your spending contribute to environmental conservation projects or green businesses? A great website that measures how much money is remaining within the local economy is G Adventures. They use a concept called a Ripple Score so you can follow the money and choose the tour with the highest score.

When packing, think about what you can bring to help minimise waste along the way. Instead of burning through tiny plastic hotel toiletries and single-use plastic water bottles, pack a bar soap and shampoo (they last months) and a refillable water bottle. It might take a little extra planning and packing, but it will make a big impact on reducing waste while travelling.

Want to find out more tips? Purchase your copy of Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet online here or at your favourite local bookstore.

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