Louise Southerden has thoughtful tips on minimising your footprint abroad, while helping communities prosper.
Not so long ago, responsible travel meant taking only photographs and leaving only footprints. Then came ecotourism, ethical travel, voluntourism and sustainability measures introduced by just about every player in the travel game from airlines to cruise ships to high-end resorts. Now travelling responsibly is more broadly defined than ever.
Don't be put off by the killjoy term "responsible". It's all about being sensitive to your surroundings, remembering that everything is connected and making choices to travel in ways that are environmentally, socially, culturally and economically sustainable.
As Linda McCormick, the Melbourne-based founder of one of the world's first ecotravel blogs, Eco Traveller Guide (ecotravellerguide.com), puts it, minimising your footprint when you travel "doesn't necessarily mean never flying, sacrificing luxury or volunteering during your holiday; just travelling with a different attitude and looking at how your travels impact this well-trodden world".
And let's not forget that tourism can have positive impacts by, for instance, supporting developing economies and generating funds to protect threatened species and pristine places.
There are hundreds of ways to make your travel make a difference without adversely affecting the natural wonders we want to experience, the people and cultures that change our world views, the wild animals we safari to see. It starts with respecting the environment and people we're visiting, and supporting organisations (whether they be hotels, tour operators or transport providers) that do the same. Beyond that, here are 25 tips to help you tread lightly on your next trip:
1 When travelling in Asia, carry your own chopsticks to avoid having to use disposable wooden ones provided by some restaurants. (Greenpeace estimates that China alone goes through 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, resulting in the loss of up to 25 million trees and bare hillsides susceptible to devastating landslides during monsoonal rains.)
2 Take a train - they produce fewer emissions than planes and, in Europe and Japan in particular, rail networks are extensive, and trains convenient, comfortable and affordable. See raileurope.com.au and japanrailpass.net.
3 Haggle for fun, not profit. No one wants to be ripped off, but when shopping in developing countries, be mindful of the value of those last few rupees, baht or pesos relative to the cost of living in that country.
4 Pack light. Travelling with minimal luggage not only makes it easier for you to walk instead of, say, catching a taxi, it reduces the amount of work tuk-tuks, trains, planes and vehicles have to do to get you around, which reduces their emissions.
5 Shop wisely. Take a reusable bag to markets to avoid using plastic bags. Buy locally made souvenirs to support the local economy and keep traditional crafts alive, avoiding things made from shells, ivory, coral, tropical hardwoods and protected or endangered animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists 5000 animal and 29,000 plant species as worthy of protection; see cites.org. Know what you can and can't bring back to Australia. See daff.gov.au/aqis/travel.
6 Where you can't drink the water, avoid buying bottled water (one of the environmental evils of our time) by travelling with a portable water filter. Two of the lightest are LifeStraw ($30, see lifestraw.com.au), which is used by aid agencies and the military and can be used at any water source; and the Steripen ($179.95, paddypallin.com.au), which uses UV light to kill bacteria, viruses and protozoa, such as giardia, treats half a litre of water in 45 seconds and can be used 40 times before it needs recharging.
7 If you can drink the water, travel with a refillable water bottle, preferably made of stainless steel (it's better for you and the environment than plastic). If you do buy bottled water or other drinks, see if you can give your empty bottles to local people to reuse.
8 Take ecotours. The more tourists who want to experience natural environments, the more precious those environments become in the eyes of locals and government authorities, and the less likely they are to be logged, dammed or cleared for palm oil plantations for short-term financial gain. See ecotourism.org.au for eco-accredited tour operators and guides in Australia, and ecotourism.org (the website of the International Ecotourism Society) for international eco-news and operators.
9 Be a vegetarian, at least while you're away - not only does it reduce the risk of picking up Delhi (or Bali, or Bogota) belly, it's better for the planet. Vegetarian diets use less land, water and oil and result in less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions than meat-based ones.
10 Go solar. According to YHA NSW (yha.com.au), most backpackers (and probably most travellers) travel with at least four devices - phone, iPod, camera and laptop - all of which need regular recharging. But you can reduce your dependence on fossil fuels with a solar charger. An iPhone solar charger costs as little as $49.95 (solarchargers.com.au); there are also solar chargers for tablets and laptops. Most can store solar energy and plug into a laptop when there's no sunshine. There are also daypacks with removable solar panels so you can gather solar energy on the move; one hour of charging gives you three hours of phone time. See voltaicsystems.com.
11 For battery-operated items such as torches or electric shavers, use rechargeable batteries instead of disposables, which can leach toxic chemicals into the ground at rubbish tips.
12 Travel with biodegradable bodywash (which can also be used to wash clothes) such as Wilderness Wash, or Trek & Travel Pocket Soaps (leaves of soap, shampoo and conditioner that won't leak in your luggage). Even if you're not camping, they ensure that whatever goes down the drain in your hotel bathroom is harmless.
13 Be present with people. Consider whether you really need to take another photo (and if you do, ask permission first), particularly when visiting indigenous communities. Your limited time in a place might be better spent sharing a meal or just hanging out with the locals, doing your bit for cross-cultural understanding.
14 Carry hand sanitiser. It reduces water use (no need to wash your hands with soap and water) and keeps your hands clean so you stay healthy.
15 Try to leave every place you visit better, in some way, than you found it. Don't litter (even if there is already lots of litter about), pick up rubbish (where it's not offensive to do so) and recycle where you can. Consider donating to a cause or organisation in the country you've just visited when you return home.
16 Stay in eco-friendly accommodation. It doesn't have to be a tent or a treehouse. Ecohotel (ecohotel.com.au) lists sustainably run hotels, hostels, resorts and luxury lodges around Australia. The US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED, new.usgbc.org/leed) certifies hotels in North America that meet green criteria. Many hotel groups also have environmental and social sustainability measures. Things to consider include: where do the hotel's energy and water come from, are there dimmers on lightswitches or keycards that turn off the electricity when guests leave their rooms, does it employ local people and use local products, and does it "give back" through conservation and/or community programs?
17 Conserve natural resources. Save water by turning off taps while brushing your teeth, having short showers, reusing your towels, asking for bed linen not to be changed daily. Use less electricity by turning off lights, TVs and airconditioners when you leave your room; better still, open windows to save energy.
18 Bring, or buy locally, items to donate in the country you're visiting. Carry for Kids has wish-lists of items needed by orphanages and other projects in Bali, Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, and some airlines will increase your luggage limit by 10 kilograms if you put in a request two months before your trip. See carryforkids.org.
19 Eat local, seasonal food. This is one of the joys of travel so it's a happy coincidence that it's good for the environment: local food usually has less packaging and fewer emissions than food that has been imported or transported from far away. According to No Impact Man Colin Beavan, who lived in New York City with no net environmental impact for a year, the most eco-friendly diet is "local, unfrozen and unprocessed, seasonal, organic or near-organic, has no packaging and is based on mostly grain and vegetables, including little or no beef or dairy." See noimpactman.typepad.com.
20 Travel with tour operators that have a responsible travel policy (see, for instance, worldexpeditions.com, auroraexpeditions.com.au, intrepidtravel.com) to minimise their impact on the natural environment and ensure the health, well-being and fair treatment of trekking guides and local operators. See also the International Porter Protection Group (ippg.net). Responsible Travel, based in Britain, lists sustainably run tour operators worldwide; see responsibletravel.com.
21 Be aware of environmental issues affecting your destination (and worldwide) so you can make informed choices about what to eat, do and buy. Are there any local foods or products that might have come from unsustainable, illegal or inhumane farming, logging, hunting or fishing practices - such as shark's fin soup and foie gras? See sustainableseafood.org.au (and its iPhone app). The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) lists priority species and regions around the world; see panda.org.
22 Fly direct where possible; taking-off and landing generate the most carbon emissions from flying. Consider travelling by land or sea. Take fewer, longer trips. Or base yourself in one destination and branch out from there, to minimise flying. The good news is that many airlines now have measures to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
23 Reduce your emissions (see above), offset the rest - with an airline or with an organisation that specialises in carbon offsets, such as Sydney-based Climate Friendly, which invests offset funds in renewable energy. Offsets might not be the perfect solution and they don't remove emissions from the atmosphere, but they're the best countermeasure for now and send a clear message to governments and industry that renewable energy is the way of future. See climatefriendly.com.
24 Use your own energy to get around as much as possible - by walking, cycling, kayaking, sailing or canoeing - to reduce your consumption of fossil fuels, particularly in countries where vehicles don't have strict emissions standards. Or travel as the locals do - in rickshaws or gondolas, by camel or on horseback. There are also pedicabs, hybrid taxis and green buses in hundreds of cities around the world.
25 Keep it simple. It's easy to forget about climate change, environmental issues and being a good global citizen when you're away, especially on holiday. So tread lightly, travel simply and don't worry if you end up doing high-impact things you might not do back home. Just keep your eyes and ears open, focus on the things you can do to make your trip more sustainable and share your experiences with others - because the world needs more responsible travellers.
Follow Louise Southerden's ecotravel blog: noimpactgirl.blogspot.com.