Reduce the impact of your travels on the environment and communities around you. Use these simple tips and tricks to be a more responsible traveller.
Seeing new places and experiencing new things are probably the most obvious reasons for travellers to travel. But the truth is that, as travellers, we almost inevitably have a negative impact—both on the environment and the communities in the areas we visit. So whether you’re travelling for business or pleasure, in luxury or as a backpacker, and in the mountains or at the seaside, using some of these tips may just make your travel a little easier on the planet.
Travelling and sightseeing
1. Try and plan your journey in a straight line
The longer your travel route, the more fuel you potentially burn to get to your destination and the more carbon you emit. So if you’re taking multiple flights, you might want to consider avoiding a zig-zag route, and trying to schedule your stopovers in a straight line.
On approach to Paro, Bhutan
2. Use your airline’s carbon offset program
Many airlines these days have some sort of carbon offset program that allows you to compensate for the fuel burnt on your journey by supporting greenhouse gas reduction projects for a nominal fee. The projects are different for each airline, from planting a certain number of trees per passenger and protection of virgin forests to renewable energy production, efficient domestic fuel consumption projects in developing countries and more. So pay a tiny bit extra and take a little of those carbon emissions back.
3. Try to avoid hiring a car or cab to sight-see
Once you get to your destination, you’ll probably want to see the sights. While hiring a car or taxi would be the easiest option, it’s also one of the most fuel-intensive. Think about reducing your fuel consumption by using public transport, carpooling with fellow visitors, or hiring a motorcycle instead of a car. You could even eliminate the need for fuel completely by cycling or walking—the last being arguably the best way to see a new place.
Through the fields and into the plantations in Coorg
4. Plan your schedule to avoid multiple trips in the same direction
Most places have things to see and do all over, so chances are you’ll be making lots of trips in different directions. If you are using vehicles to get around, try and plan your time so that you cover everything in a particular direction from your base at once—so you don’t have to burn extra fuel to go in the same direction again.
Eating and drinking
5. Carry your own water bottle
The planet is reeling under the thousands of tons of plastic we throw away each month, so carrying your own refillable bottle is a great way of keeping a few more plastic bottles from floating around the world’s oceans. Refill your bottle whenever you can, and each time is one less ‘disposable’ bottle that gets thrown away.
6. Drink tap water wherever it’s safe
In most developed countries, it’s perfectly safe to drink water straight out of the tap. So try and do that wherever you can instead of buying bottled water. If you’re not completely sure, you should be able to use the electric kettle in your hotel room to boil the water for drinking (though how to balance the electricity consumed with the plastic saved is up to you). In many tropical countries, coconut water is easily available, and is a fun, healthy and tasty substitute for bottled water.
A young boy serves us fresh coconut water on the way to Puri from Bhubaneshwar
7. Ask that straws be left out of your drinks
If you order a cold drink in a restaurant or on the street, chances are that it’ll come with a plastic straw. These straws make up a significant percentage of the plastic that finds its way into the oceans, so the fewer straws the better! Remember to ask your server while you order, though—once it’s in your drink, taking it out probably mean that it’ll get thrown away anyway. And if you can’t survive without a straw, why not take your own along? There are even reusable glass and metal straws available out there!
8. Carry your own cutlery for street food
Street food everywhere is is the best way to get a flavour (pardon the pun) of the place you’re visiting. Sadly, it’s also often the best way to dump loads of single-use plastic cutlery into the environment. If you’re planning on a tasty street food outing, try and carry your own fork, knife and spoon along so one less set of plastic cutlery gets thrown away. Even better, you’ll know for sure that your own set is clean!
Plastic debris washed up on remote Thinnakara, in the Lakshadweep Islands
9. Eat in smaller eateries instead of big restaurants
Most destinations have their big, touristy ‘must-visit’ restaurants with their throngs of out-of-town diners and fancy menus. Instead of eating in a place like that, why not visit a smaller local restaurant instead? Not only would that give you a more authentic experience, smaller restaurants also tend to source a lot of their ingredients locally, and indirectly use less fuel than they would if they were transporting their stuff in from far away.
10. Buy glass bottles and jars instead of plastic
It’s probably inevitable that you’ll want to—or have to—buy a bottled drink during one of your trips. But because glass is much less harmful to the environment—and much more likely to be recycled—than plastic, you might want to buy a drink in a glass bottle instead of a plastic one. And the same goes for things in jars too. Making peanut butter sandwiches for that picnic on the beach? Buy a glass jar instead of a plastic one.
11. Finish food or pack it up for later
Most restaurants you’ll eat at will probably serve you more than you can comfortably put away. If you’re willing to stuff yourself, then, by all means! But if not, you might want to think about packing it up to eat later instead of leaving it to be thrown away. Not only could it save you the cost involved in another meal, preparing food takes a lot of energy and fuel. Which means than any food wasted also means energy wasted in preparing it.
12. Try and book hotels that take sustainability seriously
More and more hotels are starting to realize that being environmentally and socially responsible isn’t really a choice anymore, and are starting give back. So whether a hotel uses solar power, recycles water, composts food waste or involves the local community, staying there will help reduce your own impact.
The Bangaram Island resort in Lakshadweep is partly powered by solar-generated electricity
13. Turn off appliances when leaving your room
Running appliances like lights, fans, heating and air-conditioning takes a lot of electricity (and producing electricity usually involves a lot of carbon emissions), especially when a large number of people are involved. So, unless you’re leaving your room for just a few minutes, turning off all the appliances before leaving will save a lot of electricity, and a lot of carbon. And though it’s understandable to want your room to be comfortable as soon as you walk in, it just takes a few minutes to cool down or warm up, right?
14. Turn the heating or AC down a notch, and dress to compensate
Heating and air-conditioning are extremely energy intensive, so whether you’re burning heating oil to stay warm or using electricity to stay cool, using a little less will make a difference. So if you can turn the heating or air-conditioning down a little, and wear an extra layer more or less to make up for it, why not?
15. Change your hotel towels and bedsheets only when you need to
Let’s be honest: do we really need our towels and bedsheets changed every day, the way they do it in lots of hotels? These things use a lot of water, detergent and electricity to clean—especially if they’re white and need to be ironed. So if you’re just staying for a few days, it shouldn’t be a problem to use the same sheets and towels, right? The housekeeping staff might be a little confused, though.
Blankets being aired outside a neighbor’s house in Iyerpadi near Valparai
16. Take used bars of hotel soap with you
More likely than not, you’ve used those little bars of soap left for you in your hotel bathroom. If so, then you’re probably realized that even those tiny little bars take a few days to use up. So if you’ve only used one once or twice, why not take it along and use it later instead of opening a new one ? Used soap almost always gets thrown away, otherwise. Even better, why not carry your own soap and shampoo? That way, you won’t have to open any of the little bars or bottles in your bathroom.
Also read: An off-the-beaten-path Goan holiday
17. Leave no waste behind
Litter is a huge problem in lots of beautiful destinations. Not only does it spoil things for other tourists, but it plays havoc with the local environment. Make sure you throw waste only into designated bins, and carry it with you if there aren’t any. Or you could step it up further by carrying recyclable waste like glass or plastic to a recycle bin or service. Remember that ‘disposable’ is just a nice word for ‘cheap to make and throw away’, and doesn’t include the word ‘safe’.
Doggies nap in roadside rubbish in Thimphu, Bhutan
18. Be mindful of the water situation
Water is becoming very scarce in lots of parts of the world. Even in places where there’s lots of it, it takes huge amounts of energy to treat and supply it. So if you’re used to 30-minute showers or long soaks in the tub, ask a local about the availability of water. Then decide whether those are still worth it.
Camels relax on a sand dune near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
19. Pack a little less
A lot of the weight on planes, trains and buses is from luggage. And the heavier they are, the more fuel they burn. So see if you can pack a little less, cut down a little weight, and save a little fuel. Even if the benefit seems too tiny to care about, it all adds up. Using a smaller suitcase might even mean you don’t need to hire a big taxi to get around.
20. Bring back responsible souvenirs
Everyone likes to bring home a piece of the place they’ve just visited, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Was that tee-shirt you bought made in a sweatshop staffed by children? Was that coral necklace made with live coral hacked off a reef? Try and find something to remember a place by that isn’t harmful to the environment or the local communities. If you must buy something, government-run shops usually abide by local sustainability laws.
21. Visit during shoulder season
The on season is what it is because it’s the best time to visit a place. Sadly, for lots of destinations, it’s also the time when the number of visitors becomes almost unmanageable. With the sudden increase in residents, available resources are pushed to the limit. This usually means that the locals suffer while the visitors get the lion’s share. So think about visiting just before or after the on season. The experience will be almost as good, and you won’t be contributing to the resource crunch.
Have any more easy tips to be a responsible traveller? Leave a comment and let me know!
(Cover image courtesy Shutterstock/Faiz Zaki)