Eco-travel is a growing trend in the travel industry. In the final stretch of this year, designated by the UN as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a lot of fuss has been made about eco-travel and responsible tourism measures. But, what exactly means to travel in an ecological way?
There is no such thing as tourism without environmental consequences. The homo turisticus does not travel without leaving its traces.
To better receive tourists, farmlands and forests become golf courses, cliffs are devastated to build projects with open and privileged views of the sea, mountains are polluted with all kinds of waste to go higher, just as much of the flora and fauna is annihilated to go further.
But contrary to the usual message, it is still possible, while considering tourism as an economically important industry for our societies, to practice it in a different way and with a greater social consciousness and responsibility.
As passionate travellers, we must keep in mind that the future of every destination we visit is dictated by our actions. Even though we may not always know or realize it, even the most common attitudes on a trip can cause environmental and social impacts.
However, if we respect our surroundings and abide by local laws, perhaps the beauty of the places we visit will not be tainted. That is the whole purpose of sustainability: that the human being considers himself integrated with nature, being able to develop his actions in balance with the environment in which he lives.
Thus, what does being an eco-traveller, or eco-tourist, really entails? It is no longer enough to not forget any light on or not take any shower in our hotel’s bedroom, as it is certainly not enough to walking or cycling instead of using the car, and is not even enough to choose the odd off-grid eco-lodge when booking our staying. The concept goes beyond the environment and embraces economic development and sociocultural aspects.
While some of us may think eco-travel isn’t rocket science, is really not that easy to know where to start. And, let’s just be honest, sometimes we switch our consciences off in exactly the moment that we flash our passport. That is why there are some handy tips, really easy to memorise and apply, on how to truly become an eco-traveller.
How to be an eco-traveller
For eco-travelling, we do not need to exclusively go camping from now on until the end of time, unless it’s a preference that is, but we should incorporate small changes in our holidays that can make a big difference and help reducing our ecological footprint.
Responsible tourism is a by-product of equitable trade, which includes ecological and egalitarian principles, where people should become aware of the assumptions of sustainable development, thus applying them in all sectors of this activity.
Supporting local economies and communities, experiencing unique environments without damaging, learning about new cultures and meet real people who live differently to us…it is really not that difficult to make changes that help not to hinder the places we visit and to be an eco-traveller. Here are the key ideas we should master, in order to become one:
- Make optimal use of ecological resources, complying with international environmental conventions and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity. This means that we should never disturb the ecosystem of the destination we’re traveling, by leaving trash and objects that might harm nature, neither smuggle or remove any animals or plants from nature or buy animal objects while traveling. These actions are already illegal in many countries.
- Respect the socio-cultural identity of host communities, conserving their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contributing to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance. There are also different customs that we must be aware of before visiting a country. Just as an example, some cultures frown upon having their picture taken without permission, so we should make our research before we go there.
- Do our part to ensure sustainable and long-term economic operations, providing fairly distributed socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders, including income-earning opportunities and stable employment, as well as social services to host communities, while contributing to poverty alleviation. Also being an example by showing proper conduct while traveling.
Furthermore, it is good to know that The European Commission has its own label, the Ecolabel (ecolabel.eu), for environmentally responsible producers, including small hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and campsites. And that there are other stamps given by private entities or non-governmental organizations that we should learn about, such as Travelife (travelife.org), Green Globe (greenglobe.com), Green Key (greenkey.global) and Global Sustainable Tourism Council (gstcouncil.org). Also, there are two ISO certifications that point directly towards sustainability: ISO 14001, which examines environmental management, such as pollution reduction and waste of natural resources, and ISO 26000, the first international technical standard focused on corporate social responsibility. Just another example is the LEED seal that indicates if a hotel was built or designed following the ecologically correct standards.
Ecologically, it would be better if no one flew or drove ever again, but we know that’s hardly going to happen. And, of course, cycling or taking the train (especially now with the new zero-emission passenger train powered by hydrogen, that was launched in Germany just recently) is always going to be better than driving.
But there are other things we can do to reduce our impact on other parts of the world: from experimenting those tour operators who make our pounds work for the planet, like Responsible Travel‘s Trip for a Trip, which pays for a disadvantaged kid to have a day out when you book a holiday through them, or G Adventures who have their own giving back foundation called Planeterra; to picking city breaks where the destination is firmly committed to sustainability, as in Amsterdam, Gothenburg, Zurich and Vienna that all have ground-breaking eco-initiatives and are easy to explore on foot or by bike; also picking a walking tour that gives back to the local community; and avoiding all-inclusive deals that don’t encourage us to spend in the locality outside their resort and often don’t buy their produce from the community they’re in, choosing instead hotels with green or sustainability policies; maybe trying some kind of volunteering while away from home; plus spending money to sustainable initiatives with the help of Ecocompanion, which rates the world’s best eco tours and conservation projects.
Are you more confident now, about where to start to catch up the eco-travel trend? The NY Times stated that eco-friendly tours are significantly increasing and that Intrepid Travel, for example, now offers more than 1,000 group tours a year that are fully carbon neutral. Still, from a recent survey, Booking.com found out that only 42 per cent of those questioned considered themselves to be sustainable travellers. This number increased from last year among travellers from Italy, Germany, and China, but Australia, Brazil, Japan and the US have seen a decline. It shows that there is still a long way to go, although going green when going abroad should definitely be a trend that sticks. Travelling is cool, but eco-travelling is beyond that.