Sustainable travel initiatives have reached an all time high in recent years. From carbon-neutral flights to green accommodations to hotels migrating over to eco friendly products. There are now more options than ever for conscious travelers to reduce their environmental impact, but more often than not, just taking the time to understand the people, culture, behavior’s and beliefs within the country you are visiting can become more of a gateway into sustainable travel than the current initiatives. It will not only help you as a traveler, but it will also help your surrounding environment, and completely change your travel experience.
Travelling sustainably is about taking responsibility for your impact on the environment and local cultures. This can be shopping locally, travelling via local transport instead of car, minimizing your waste and promoting social justice. Socially and economically, there are many instances where tourism can have a positive and a negative impact on the country. Of course, the upsides of economic growth are strongly emphasized, but its within the down sides that we must learn from.
For instance, with smaller countries, who may not have the resources to support the amount of tourists coming during high season, the impact of a heavy tourism footfall on smaller towns can have major consequences.
A popular example of this could be in Hanoi, Vietnam, a popular tourism hub that gained its notoriety from social media for being the place to get the perfect Instagram shot. The street, known as ‘train street’ has a single railroad track running through it with shops and cafes on either side to cater to the tourists in the area. Now this was positive, as the tourists were allowing local businesses to grow and thrive that may have never existed before. But, in 2019, the government forced these small businesses to shut down due to too many tourists being on the actual tracks which of course flagged up safety concerns. Authorities said the danger to human life was the sole reason for the shutdown and there being too many tourists on the tracks.
In July the same year of 2019, the authorities of East Nusa Tenggara province in Indonesia shut down Komodo Island to stop tourists from interfering in the natural behavior’s of their Komodo dragons, the largest lizard species on earth according to the Smithsonian Institution. The announcement came after concerns of a decreasing number of Komodo dragons being linked to an increasing number of tourists, making the Komodo’s stressed, ill and even aggressive. In 2019, there was also the news of the arrest of Komodo dragon smugglers, who stole 41 of them from the island and sold them for up to 500 million rupiahs. The ban was later cancelled after the Island later went through a major revamp and reopened in April of 2023.
Now these unfortunately are not isolated cases where an unprecedented number of tourists have caused a shut down to local businesses or to a complete Island as a result of social media popularity and safety concerns.
However, there are a growing number of statistics showing tourists are aware of their impact and are actively trying to make a change. A report from award winning travel specialist Audley Travel found that sustainable travel was a top priority for their clients. After surveying over 3,000 people in December 2022, their figures show that 49% of their respondents said they wanted to know more about travelling sustainably, whilst 32% said they would be willing to pay more to incorporate sustainable options in their travel plans.
Furthermore, a 2021 sustainable travel report from Booking.com has shown even more promising statistics with 83% of their surveyed 29,000 travelers stating that sustainable travel is vital, with some admitting that the pandemic made them want to travel more sustainably.
Yet, there are changes in tourist behavior that also needs to happen as part of these changes. For instance, eating and buying locally, immersing into the culture of your chosen destination and being curious enough to go off the beaten track will also help you to understand and become more aware of the customs and behavior’s of the environment you are in.
Speak to locals, ask them the best places to visit and don’t be afraid to jump on public transport. This way, you get to see the country through the lens of a resident rather than the lens of a tourist. Don’t be afraid to not plan your days, and lose yourself in your local area which will allow you to really experience the place you are visiting. Cycling can be a great way to slow down your travel and take in the local area.
Do your research on the local traditions and beliefs to understand the locals way of life. This can be a great way to expand your horizons and perspectives of the world. Soak up the differences, download a local language app and try to communicate in their language. It takes nothing on your end to do this, but its even harder for a local to do this with tourists. Even though they may try, you have to remember, you are a visitor in their country, so to honor their customs, and live like they do, it may be best to learn a few phrases.
Lastly, choosing sustainable accommodations or even Airbnb’s will not only help offset your carbon footprint, but in the case of an Airbnb, you could get the opportunity to live like a local.