If we have learned anything from the year 2020, it’s that we need to do better. WE ALL NEED TO DO BETTER. But in particular for travelers, now is an especially crucial time to be aware and self-cognizant about how we fit into the global ecosystem. Travelers today need to recognize that the way we travel deeply affects the world around us and impacts future generations to come.
There are ten easy steps that you can begin implementing into your daily travel routine that can positively impact both the communities you visit AND your community at home. You don’t have to do all of them at once, but slowly incorporating at least a few will have a bigger influence than you may think!
Recognize your privilege
If you are traveling for leisure, YOU HAVE PRIVILEGE. Travel is a luxury, and one that the majority of the world does not have. Travel privilege is not inherently a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind. Recognize that you are healthy enough to travel. That you are financially able to travel. However, travel privilege comes in various other forms as well. Depending on your passport, you are able to travel to more places. You may be treated better than others, even locals. Depending on your gender or skin color, you may be harrassed in the streets unprovoked. If you are able to travel, you have some degree of privilege, so acknowledge it and always stay humble.
Do What You Can
You may have heard this one, but do what you can to be a more sustainable consumer. I’m going to break it to you slowly, but travel is not good for the Earth. BUUUUT, neither are a lot of things. Some people may choose to transition to a Vegan lifestyle to offset inhumane meat industry practices while others choose to campaign and donate to ethical livestock organizations. In the same way, there are many ways to make travel MORE sustainable. Don’t beat yourself up about not saving the planet all by yourself. You shouldn’t feel bad about not doing everything – but try to do at least one thing. Find something that is easy to implement, and then do it! It can be as easy as just swapping out your travel products for sustainable alternatives, or donating to a carbon pollution reduction program every time you take a flight! Small steps. That’s all it takes.
More Suggestions on Sustainability:
- Sustainable Products for Travel
- Tracking and Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint
- Sustainable Travel Hacks
Respect signs and rules
At the expense of sounding like a grouchy boomer, RESPECT THE LAW. And I’m not just talking about the police, because, obviously you should respect the local law enforcement. But I’m talking about etiquette rules and social practices of the place you are visiting. One of the big ones – STOP TRESPASSING FOR THE GRAM. It doesn’t matter how cool the vantage point looks. If getting to it includes trespassing, just stop. The likes and shallow clout aren’t worth it fam. When it comes to the outdoors, this applies as well, because the signs are there both for your safety and the safety of the plants and animals around you. Every year, hundreds of people fall to their deaths at natural sites and parks because they ventured too close to the edge, usually for a picture. Don’t add to the statistic. Oh, and don’t trample wildflowers.
Take a Deeper Look at Your “Mission Trips.”
Volunteering abroad is great. In theory. You and a group of like minded individuals set out to a less fortunate place with the intentions of helping them. Your group will usually assist in building houses, babysitting orphans, or constructing roads. Again, all good intentions. But, before you sign up, ask yourself. Is your presence necessary in that position? Are you REALLYY an asset to the effort, or will you likely be taking a project away from a local company that could do the same job more efficiently?
Have you heard of the term, “white savior complex”? Ignore the ‘white’ part of the term, as it can be applied to anyone from any nationality or ethnicity. The term stems from more privileged people going to less privileged communities, making charm bracelets at an orphanage, and then posting on social media about how many lives they helped. Good intentions, but even these superficial acts can have long-standing negative effects on the local community. First off, short-term orphanage visits can cause developmental damage to young children and upset their emotional well-being, creating separation anxiety and unhealthy attachments.
These communities use resources to support volunteers that could be put to more sustainable use by reinvesting the resources into themselves. Volunteers are also (usually) inexperienced, and again, the community must use time, energy, and money to either train/teach/chaperone the volunteers, or to redo their unstable work entirely. Plus, it can take away jobs from local labourers. That said, not ALL volunteering trips are bad. Just be sure to take a deeper look at the who/what/when/where/and HOW of the trip. If you wouldn’t do the same task in YOUR community, why do it in somewhere else? Ask the trip leader if perhaps donating the money (instead of your time) to the program would be more positively impactful.
Reevaluate Animal Encounters
While on the topic of ethical engagement – let’s talk animals. Unfortunately, animals are one of the most abused and exploited groups in the world, in EVERY country. The reason, simply, because people love animals. This dynamic creates and industry that thrives on tourists’ demands to experience an animal up-close, with little regulations on if these experiences are even ethical. There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to animals, so just use your best judgement. Here are some red flags to look out for:
- Elephant Riding. BIG NO NO. Don’t ride elephants. AT ALL. Elephants are tortured for years in order to break their spirits enough for elephant rides. For more information on elephant abuse, refer to this article.
- Chains on animals
- Taking pictures next to normally-dangerous animals like lions, tigers, bears (they are often drugged out of their mindsss)
- Overworked labor animals. Like horses, donkeys, mules, etc. These are animals bred for labor, but keep an eye out for any signs of mistreatment or malnourishment.
Decolonize Your World Perception
This may come as a shock to some, but history books are not unbiased. They praise certain historical figures chapter after chapter, but leave out the parts about slaughtering indigenous communities, exploiting resources, pillaging unarmed villages, and downplaying the enslavement of an entire continent. Today’s current global society is a painfully calculated result of colonialism. Recognize that. When you travel, make an effort to learn about the local culture of the region and the history from their perspective. How did World War II impact Korea during Japanese occupation of the region? Why is Cuba viewed as a dangerous country when it has one of the lowest crime rates and highest literacy rates in the world? When you learn to view a region’s history from their point of view, you are able to understand that country just a bit more clearly.
Support LOCAL – especially black, brown, and indigenous businesses
Speaking of decolonizing your mind, try decolonizing your wallet as well. As a traveler, your money speaks VOLUMES. The tourism market has the power to determine which businesses get published in the city’s “must visit” newsletters, which restaurants get placed on the food tour, and which companies get added to travel magazines. Never forget the strength of your money. That said, shop local. Big businesses have the luxury to afford lower costs, but small local businesses are the soul of the city. Plus, the souvenirs are usually better and more unique as well!
As you know, the world is unfair. So also keep a special eye out for businesses owned and operated by people of color and indigenous people. Statistically, they have lower loan approvals and higher interest rates, solely based on prejudices of banks and historical injustices. Be an ally and put your money where your ethical-consumerism is.
Give Back to the Communities you Visit
You came, you saw, you had an amazing experience. Travel really is transformative. Now, if you are so inclined, consider giving back to the communities that welcomed you for vacation. Donate to their environmental efforts. Buy some supplies for the local animal shelter. Tip the musicians bussing in the streets as you eat a romantic dinner. This is probably the easiest and simplest request out of all the tips on this list. But if you are unable to give back to the communities you visit, you can still give back at home. The Global Dreamers Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors young adults with ethical and sustainable global opportunities! They are always accepting donations as well as applications
Stop Judging Someone Else’s Travel
Ah, now that you’ve home from your trip, no doubt travel is all you want to talk about. And, since you’ve now experienced such tremendous personal growth from following the first eight steps, you want to help make others better travelers as well! But…then you see your friends checking in at an American chain restaurant in Costa Rica. And going on a lion walk in South Africa. And going on a travel retreat with someone who isn’t even a local!! And even…TAKING A CRUISE??!? What are your friends thinking?
Well, before you jump on a pedestal and threaten to unfollow all of your friends. Breathe, and remember step 1. Humble yourself. First of all, not everyone is at the same point in their travel journey. A lot of people just don’t know that there are more sustainable or ethical options. Others have food sensitivities that make chowing down street food vendors with no ingredient list dangerous for them. Or mobility restrictions that make navigating to more difficult lodgings that may or may not be accessible to them. Don’t judge someone else’s travel because it seems basic or shallow to you. If you have suggestions, approach the topic from a stance of understanding and openness. If travel teaches you anything, it is that you don’t and never will know everything. Especially about other people. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Bring Your Compassion Home with You
Now that you’ve spread so much sustainable positivity in the places that you’ve visited, you must now do the same at home. When you hear racism and xenophobia in your hometown, stand up against it. Be open and welcoming to different cultures, and make sure that your city does the same. During the 2020 COVID-19 #StayHome initiatives enacted by countries around the world, don’t be selfish. Don’t buy cheap plane tickets and potentially spread the virus to communities with already limited resources. To people who have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and even their lives – please show empathy. Be kind, above all else, and do not use your energy to spread misinformation or chew people out if you feel they are promoting unsafe behavior. Treat others with the same level of compassion and understanding as you would a friend.
Be a good traveler, yes, but be an even BETTER person.