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How to travel responsibly, without leaving a footprint

Because no one wants to feel guilty on holiday


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Collage i Karen Lynch

The Earth is in trouble: for every Pantone-perfect ocean on Instagram, there’s an equivalent cove choking under litter. California and Hawaii, once famous as glossy movie backdrops, are now dirtied by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a 617,000 square mile gloop of microplastic particles that festers between them. With a return flight from London to Edinburgh creating more CO2 than the yearly emissions of the average person in Uganda, science doesn’t lie (nor do four million hashtags for #sustainability) – going away without killing the planet in the process is even more urgent than getting your suitcase into the overhead cabin.

And the environment is only part of the picture. Economically, too, tourism delivers a low blow. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), estimates that only $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country stays there, as package tours whisk 80% of our money to airlines and international hotels whose HQs are usually based elsewhere. ‘Often, and willingly, tourism only causes damage: giant cement boxes, local culture ignored, the environment destroyed. Sustainability is the most relevant topic in travel right now because it respects the environment, place and people,’ explains Simone Riccardi, founder of Ecobnb, a platform for sustainable holiday accommodation.

Think of slow vs fast fashion – this is tourism that can be sustained long-term, benefiting local people, while keeping our impact to a stealth level. ‘The three principles are to reduce environmental impact, preserve cultural heritage and create economic activities for the community: planet, people, (local) profit,’ adds Riccardi. So, here’s how to make your mark – the right way.

Pick your destination like a pro.

Sure, Australia looks great on the ’Gram, but it’s less pretty on your conscience. To slash your CO2 stats, prioritise places close to home, with day trips by bike, e-car, on foot, even canoe. Visit Sustainable Top 100 for destination inspiration – it lists the world’s 100 most sustainable spots, from Åre in Sweden to Gozo near Malta, which aims to produce all-organic food by 2020.


Beware of greenwashing.

Nothing to do with laundry; rather, hotels who use green PR to over-egg their ‘eco-ness’. With 73% of us prepared to pay more for a sustainable product, it’s easy to see why brands slap ‘eco-friendly’ (which means precisely nothing) on everything. Instead, look for concrete actions – recycling programs, local staff, rainwater harvesting, class A efficiency lightbulbs, solar panels – or third-party acknowledgement, such as a LEED certification for green buildings or approval via EarthCheck, Green Globe, GSTC, Rainforest Alliance or similar.

Pack reusables.

A single-use policy is OK for underwear, but adopt these strategies elsewhere: a collapsible water bottle to save plastic and luggage space (try Nomader or Hydaway); a canvas tote bag; a bamboo or metal straw; plus a water purifier, such as Steripen Ultra – a liquid-dunking lamp that uses UV to kill bugs – or a Drinksafe bottle, which also filters.

Donate in the right way.

Pack For A Purpose posts wishlists of items that communities in developing countries desperately lack – from colouring pencils and tampons to old mobile phone handsets – that you can donate at affiliated hotels while there.

Leave no trace.

The best tourist practices mean no one knows you were ever there (OK, excluding your social media followers). It’s the basics that count: collecting rubbish while hiking, turning off the TV/AC/lights, learning a few words of local lingo to show cultural respect and donating leftover mini toiletries to a homeless charity – who remain eager for small-sized cosmetics.

Find an eco-operator.

Sustainable tour operators offer more than a great trip. GeoEx’s philanthropic trips have environmental donations built into the price. Intrepid Travel’s community-supporting charity, The Intrepid Foundation, will donate an additional dollar for every one they receive (up to $AU 500,000 a year). Or book a hotel via Kind Traveler  – donate $10 a night to a project in that area and you’ll unlock exclusive rates. There are also incredible projects driven by locals. In Nepal, for example, Sasane trains the female survivors of human trafficking to become Himalayan trekking guides.

Use green sunscreen.

Not literally (that would be weird), but one that is marine-life safe. Oxybenzone and Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate (Octinoxate) are the two chemicals to swerve, advises the Marine Conservation Society, with Palau, Hawaii and parts of Florida set to ban them in the coming years. Try Amazinc! – a mineral sunscreen in plastic-free packaging.

Tip hotels – differently.

This isn’t about leaving 10% after dinner, but giving your two cents’ worth. Be the planet’s voice and feed back changes you’d like to see – from laundry policies and vegan food options to scrapping plastic bottles in the gym.

Pause before you geotag.

Found a pristine, untouched, perfectly preserved nature spot? Sometimes the best way to keep it just so, is to keep it to yourself.

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