Top 5 Reasons to Travel Sustainably

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Sustainable Travel is all about leaving a smaller footprint in the places we travel, both on nature and the people who live there.  It’s also called ecotourism, green travel and my least favorite, responsible travel.

Ugh. Can we get any less sexy? “Responsible travel” — it sounds like such a burden, doesn’t it. So onerous to have to think and try so hard to be responsible, when you’re just trying to see the world and have a good time.

I saw the Atacama Desert of Chile with Wildo Lopez, who with his family runs a sustainable, indigenous tourism program

Well, I’m here to try and debunk the un-fun factor inherent in responsible or sustainable travel, give a few tips on how you can more easily incorporate it into your travel plans and most of all, let you know traveling in this manner is not just something you should do, because you feel guilty or you ought to or it’s the “in” thing. Rather, traveling in a more sustainable way is actually more fun — it creates a far deeper, more enriching travel experience that will usually take you far beyond the surface parameters of traditional, consumerist travel; and let you take home far more than photographs and souvenirs.

You will leave with rich memories of life beyond the tourist facade, and more authentic cultural interactions, that will last a lifetime.

Reason #5: Sustainable travel supports the local economy, not chains or corporate entities.

Rebecca's Inn, a homestay in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Photo by Keith Hajovsky.

So often when we travel, we don’t really give much thought to the hotel we are staying at or the tour companies we book through. Many times, those are part of larger corporations that are not even located in that country, and very little of the money stays in the local economy. On the other hand, by choosing small, locally or family owned accommodations you are supporting the people who are living, working and contributing to the society and culture they are part of. It’s the same thing with local tour operators and guides, versus big outside companies. And in my experience, when you stay and tour in this manner you are getting a far more interesting experience. You may be staying in a historic property that was once anything from a palace to a working farm, or may have been part of that family for generations. When sightseeing, locals who are part of the history and culture can give you much more of an insider’s view than a pre-packaged tour company that will take you the same places everyone else is going.

Reason #4: Sustainable travel is often way cheaper than traditional travel or “packages.”

Because they aren’t trying to cover all the additional overhead that a large corporation has, or caused by the administration necessary for a non-local company, you generally are going to pay less for accommodations and tours that are truly local. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule that occurs 100% of the time, but I personally cannot think of a time I haven’t paid less traveling in this manner, than by using an outside or larger travel service. Another awesome way to travel while giving back and having a real cultural immersion is by volunteering, and this can often also be far more interesting, and cheaper, than traditional travel. Most of the time, local and sustainable will be less expensive — often far less.

In Myanmar, craftsman Sein Naing shows me how he makes the intricate lacquerware that's been passed down his family for generations. Photo by Keith Hajovsky.

Reason #3: Sustainable travel lets you avoid “consumerist” travel where you only take, and don’t exchange or give.

Some people might argue that travel, by its very nature, is consumerist. I guess I would have to say that it would be pretty hard, or maybe impossible, to take a trip where you aren’t consuming in some way. But there is a very big difference between total consumerist travel, and travel that places an emphasis on cultural exchange and sustainability. The traditional consumerist view of travel means that the tourist is going out into the world to see what he can, to get what she can get out of it. It’s all about the tourist, and not about the locals. And while this is not very beneficial to the locals, I don’t think it’s very beneficial to the traveler either. Isn’t the point of traveling to really see, and in fact experience, ways of life that are vastly different from your own? Foods, cultures, traditions, histories, viewpoints and people? Some of the most meaningful, memorable experiences I have ever had while traveling occurred when I was in a real cultural exchange — really interacting with locals on their own terms, in their own way. And you know what? It was truly authentic. It wasn’t a “show” put on for tourists. There was true give-and-take between myself and the people who live in the places I was visiting. That is when travel matters.

Reason #2: Sustainable travel is a great way to meet people.

Dinner at a new friend's house in India, with two long-term friends made through travel.

As we’ve already covered, of course it’s a wonderful way to meet, and really interact with, local people in their normal everyday way of life. But it’s not just a good way to meet locals; traveling in this manner is also a great way to meet other travelers who are also interested in authentic travel, curious about other people and ways of life, people who often want to volunteer or give back. This can allow you to make great lifelong friends; when I look at my circle of very closest friends, most of them I have met while doing volunteer travel or some other form of meaningful, cultural travel. In fact, about 8 out of 10 of them. I know people who have even met life partners while traveling. To put it bluntly, as a friend of mine said (whose job consists largely of taking volunteer travelers to India): “I love my job because I never work with assholes.”

Reason #1: Sustainable travel leaves you with the best memories.

On my fifth trip to India to visit "my kids."

I have written often about the fact that experiences, not stuff, are what make us happier. Study after study on happiness has been done, and they all point to the fact that possessions do not make people happy in the way that experiences do. And travel is definitely one big experience. However, how deep and authentic that experience is, is entirely up to the traveler. When you really get involved in the life of a place, it creates memories of real people and real events that can be some of the happiest and most meaningful. I have very few fond travel memories, that I return to or replay over and over, that consist of sitting on a tour bus or leaving a chain hotel with a big group of people to see the “sights.” My best memories are of having a drink of locally-made hooch in a remote village; learning how to make dumplings in someone’s kitchen; making new friends on a train; or holding children in my arms at a home where volunteer surrogates are the only parents.

True cultural exchanges bring the world closer together, making positive contributions to host communities and providing lasting effects to the visitors.

According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), this way of travel is growing at three times the rate of traditional vacationing, increasing annually up to 30 percent. Itineraries can include homestays, language lessons, visits to local artisan villages, classing from cooking and art to surfing and music, and volunteering.

“I think we all hope that when we leave, some place, community, or person, is a little bit better off because of efforts we achieved together and ideas we implemented to make things work in a sustainable way,” says Kelly Bricker, Executive Director of TIES.

There is a vast difference between a trip in which you dutifully leave your chain hotel, follow the tour guide to the “must-see” sites which are seen through the viewfinder of the camera, and watch local life pass by outside the windows of the tour bus; and a trip to the same destination where you stay in a locally-run inn or homestay, meet people who live there and ask them about their home and culture, exploring leisurely – perhaps even being willing to get lost.

As Henry Miller wrote, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

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4 Comments on “Top 5 Reasons to Travel Sustainably”

  1. Bin
    November 5, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Inspiring post Shelley. I’ve read quite a few travel blog but somehow i find your article really capture the experience and i wanted to explore. I’m new to travelling and i’m really interested in Volunteering work/cultural exchanges would like know if there’s any advice for me to kick start my journey? would you show me where i could get more information about that?
    Sincerely Bin.

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