Despite our best efforts, travel does have an impact on the world (both negative and positive). From planes emitting CO2, the tonnage of hotel laundry that needs to be washed and dried every day around the world, to the sharing of cultures and transplanting new ideas or customs. While it is impossible not to have an influence at all, travelers can strive to minimize how much of an impact they do leave.
Bring a reusable water bottle and don’t litter
This is, by far, the easiest thing you can do. Tap water is potable in many places. So, you can fill up your bottle from your hotel faucet in the morning and be ready for the trail. Of course, this isn’t always the case. When it’s not, try to get larger containers from which to refill your bottle instead of using many little plastic bottles. You can take the Travelers Against Plastic pledge (we did it!) and check if the tap water is safe to drink in your destination. If not, there are plenty of filtration bottles out there. One we like in particular is The Grayl. And please don’t litter. This may be obvious to many, but even leaving tissue behind while hiking is littering. Bring a Ziplock bag to ensure you bring back any trash you create.
When buying souvenirs, look for local products
Traveling responsibly isn’t just about the environment. Far more money stays with the community when you buy handmade crafts, artwork, or specialty food. That goes a long way to support the local economy, especially in rural areas. Don’t buy just any local products as not all local products are good. Animal products (especially in Asia or Africa) can encourage unsustainable and inhumane poaching practices. As tempting as it may be, it’s best to stay away from antiques because many are very good fakes or, if they are real, their provenance may be sketchy (possibly illegally obtained), and it’s hard to grapple with the selling off of a culture’s heritage.
Help protect the environment and animals
In protected areas where you may be hiking or walking, there may be signs instructing you not to stray off the path. This may be for your protection (steep cliffs or rough terrain) and also to protect the landscape and any special plant species, particularly in fragile coastal or alpine environments. Please stay on the path. Taking public transportation helps cut down on vehicle emissions and can offer a more local experience. If the airport has a shuttle bus, take that instead of a private taxi. The little things add up! In addition, be wary of captive animal experiences. A safari in the wilds of the African bush is one thing—the animals roam freely in their natural habitats and humans are simply observers. Animal-based activities or performances, as well as many zoos, are a different matter. In general, stay clear of any experience that profits from captive animals.
Be respectful of local customs
As guests in a foreign culture, the last thing we want to do is offend our hosts, which is why it’s imperative to be mindful and respect local culture and customs. A local guide can definitely help you navigate etiquette and answer any questions. Taking your shoes off in temples, dressing conservatively in certain places, or asking before taking photos of people are all ways that we can be good guests. Famous globetrotter Rick Steves encourages travelers to be temporary locals instead of tourists, which is a great mindset to have.
Give shareable, educational gifts
Guests frequently ask about bringing gifts if they will be interacting with students. We discourage gifts of candy, items that are heavily branded from your home country, or single-use items for individuals (ie: 1 pencil for each student). Instead, bring books, maps, teaching aids for the classroom, and other items that have a long shelf-life and can be used by multiple students. If you will be visiting a monastery or nunnery in places like Bhutan and Southeast Asia, donations of clothing, particularly socks in cooler climates, are welcome, as many are too poor to afford that basic item.
And there it is in a nutshell: five simple things to keep in mind when you’re off exploring that can help better the world even just a little bit.
Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.
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