How to be a more ethical, mindful and sustainable traveller

Many of us aren’t always as responsible as we would like when we travel

4 mins
Written by:
Gemma Clarke

Like us, you want to learn how to make less of an impact when you hit the road, which – given the rather fragile situation Earth and many of its inhabitants are in at the moment – has never been more important. 

Photo by sk

These days, it can be tricky to make choices around what is actually sustainable as opposed to just green-washed. There is also so much lingo floating around that it’s confusing to work out what everything means! Not only that, but as the cost of living and travelling continues to climb, it can be challenging to resist the lure of convenience and price in the name of making a more ethical decision.

However, we must always come back to the fact that travelling for pleasure is a huge privilege, and that gives us as travellers a big responsibility. 

First and foremost, tourism destinations are also people’s homes – places steeped in culture, history and story – meaning we need to be respectful of locals and their customs in furtherance of their continuing existence. 

Also, the reason all these places we love to visit are so coveted as tourism destinations, whether they’re urban or natural, is because they are magnificent! When we travel, we therefore need to act as caretakers of the planet so that future generations can continue to be as enchanted by its beauty and biodiversity as we have been. 

Accordingly, we at Freely have put together this handy guide on how to be a more ethical, sustainable and responsible traveller.

Photo by Mike Swigunski

Hang up your do not disturb sign and leave the single-use toiletries alone

Do you really need a fresh towel every day? One of the easiest ways travellers can be greener on their vacations is by hanging up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door so that the room isn’t serviced daily. You’re saving the electricity needed to vacuum and the water needed to wash, plus you’re reducing the amount of harsh chemicals being released into the ether. Some hotel chains will reward you for opting out of daily housekeeping – though if they’re doing so, they need to make sure it’s for environmental rather than cost-cutting reasons (see here who’s made the naughty list). They also need to make sure it’s not impacting their workers’ hours, pay and workload. Oh, and one more thing: cool it on the single-use toiletries (come on, that conditioner sucks anyway).

If you can, take the slow road; if not, fly greener

Given the ease and speed of air travel, transport is one of the parts of holidaying where even the most eco conscious of us can fail. Though it might not always be possible due to time restraints (coupled with the fact that Australia is surrounded by ocean), if you can, opt for the train or bus over a plane. If you can’t, the best thing to do is fly less: try to take longer holidays rather that a series of short breaks, and fly direct wherever possible, as planes burn the most fuel on take-off. A recent study found that a direct route saves about 100kg of carbon dioxide per person than one that has stopovers and connecting flights – which is enough to power a fridge for a whole year! Also, as much as it can be nice to have a seat that reclines all the way down, flying first class can be more than five times as heavy on carbon per person!

Photo by JK

Ask before you take pictures

Travel photography has a huge consent problem – especially when it involves pictures of children or people experiencing homelessness. Not only is it extremely rude to take a photo of someone without them agreeing to it, but using the image of someone you don’t know to share on a social platform in an effort to make your travels seem more authentic is tasteless, objectifying and quite often racist. Just because a person is of a different culture to you doesn’t mean that you are entitled to use them as a souvenir. If you’d like to take a picture of someone, build up their trust first and ask.

Think before you geotag

Geotagging is the act of marking the exact location of a photograph when posting you post it in the internet, and is a feature enabled by social platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. The impact of geotagging around the world has been undeniable in terms of it contributing to overtourism at sensitive wild places. For instance, 20 years ago, Horseshoe Bend in Arizona use to play host to just a few thousand tourists each year. Now, thanks to its popularity on the ‘gram, it’s more like 2.2 million annual visitors: a vastly unsustainable number for a lookout in a national park. Of course, there is also a compelling counter argument in favour of geotagging: public lands and nature should be accessible to all, and by sharing locations on social media, we are able to introduce new groups of people to the outdoors who may not have had access to it otherwise. But we need to find a balance! Think before you tag by asking yourself questions such as how many followers you have, whether the place can handle a huge influx of visitors and whether you need to tag the precise location – or can perhaps just give a hint. If you do have a big following and you are choosing to geotag, then use your platform for good – reminding your audience to leave no trace and respect the lands they are on so as to help preserve our Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Photo by Isuru Perera

Research your destination

No one likes an ignorant tourist! Whether you’re travelling down the road, interstate or internationally, research your destination to learn about what social and environmental issues the community is facing along with any local laws and cultural expectations. It’s also super nice to learn a bit of the language spoken in the place you’re visiting (which is so easy to do these days with apps like duolingo). Even if you’re terrible at it, locals will appreciate that you have taken the time to learn and are trying! 

Also, often when we hit the road – both in Australia and in other countries – we’re on Indigenous land, so make an effort to consider whose it is you are on. Not only will this enrich your holiday experience, but it will also deepen your understanding and respect for people, places and the planet.

Photo by Dan Gold

Be wary of voluntourism

Most of us have a strong desire to help the people around us, and that’s a beautiful thing – but we cannot let ourselves be guided by ignorance. Voluntourism is the concept of combining volunteering with tourism, but it’s important to be aware that not all voluntourism opportunities are created equally. Many programs do not actually benefit the community they claim to be helping, with some even making the problem worse. Even your generosity and donations can have unintended consequences.

This is especially true in the context of voluntourism at orphanages, where there are many documented cases of exploitation and abuse. Research has also shown that short-term orphanage visits can create unhealthy short-lived attachments that have long-term impacts on children’s emotional wellbeing. Other criticisms of voluntourism tend to centre on its necolonialist nature and the white/western saviour complex, how inexperienced and unskilled volunteers can be (such as those contracted to build homes or teach English), poor supervision and the draining of local resources. 

When done in a way that is sustainable, well-thought-out and mutually beneficial for both the volunteer and the host community though, voluntourism can be a fabulous experience.

 Photo by OCG Saving The Ocean

We strongly suggest doing your research before you sign up, looking for ethical organisations that make a long-term positive impact and aren’t trying to sell you a spot based on poverty porn. If you’re keen to make a donation, consider signing up with something like Not Just Tourists, where you can carry a suitcase full of medical or pharmaceutical equipment with you and give it to a clinic in need.

Also, remember that to better the world, often you don’t even have to leave your own neighbourhood! You can volunteer in a soup kitchen, teach adults or new migrants to read, visit the elderly, help out in an animal shelter or do a bunch of weeding. There are also lots of wonderful citizen science and conservation-based opportunities out there, too!

Be a responsible wildlife tourist

Animals shouldn’t be used for human entertainment – period. If you’d like to see them in their natural habitat, go for a bush walk or an eco-safari rather than paying a zoo or a wildlife park to see them huddled in cages and enclosures. Be wary of the word ‘sanctuary’ too: it gets thrown around a lot and doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. Avoid elephant rides and photo opportunities with captive animals, from lions to monkeys. The legends at World Animal Protection have put together a very handy Wildlife Selfie Code to help travellers make better choices: “Only take photos if you’re a safe distance from an animal, they can move freely, and they’re in their natural home.”

Photo by redcharlie

Spend your money locally

If tourism is to truly be a mutually beneficial experience for both the traveller and the host, then we need to be supporting the local economy when we’re on the road. Not only does it ensure that local people are profiting from tourism in their own countries – which makes a positive impact, but it also makes for a way more authentic travel experience. 

This can look staying in locally-owned accommodation (such as a family-run guesthouse rather than a chain resort or an AirBnb owned by a wealthy foreigner), eating at independent restaurants (street food is delicious, and it’s fun to sample local wines and craft beers), buying locally made products and opting for locally-owned experiences (such as guided tours).

Photo by Daniil Silantev

If you can, travel out of season

At peak holiday season, many places around the world struggle with the enormous pressure placed on their residents, infastructure and natural environment. The dispersal of tourists is a strategy that is being explored to help lessen the strain – both in terms of time and location. If you have the luxury of choosing when you take your holidays, try to travel off-peak. Not only will there be smaller crowds, but the money you spend will help businesses that don’t do so well outside of peak season. You can also consider travelling to lesser-visited parts of cities and countries, though there are of course considerations over whether this solution is actually viable, as not every off-the-radar place is prepared for its own influx of tourists.

Embody cultural relativism

Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging another culture through the lens of your own, which often results in bias. Rather than looking at a practice occurring in another country with your own pre-conceptions, try to have an open mind, placing it in the cultural context of where it occurs. This is called cultural relativism. For example, at a night market in Bangkok, you might see crunchy delicacies in the form of fried grasshoppers on sticks for sale. Instead of thinking something like, “Gross – I don’t want to eat a bug!” Instead, ask yourself why insects are considered a delicacy in other cultures (hint: they’re full of protein and actually make the tastiest snack).

Photo by Markus Winkler

Think about how you consume water

In many places around the world (and even in parts of Australia), safe drinking water is not freely available from the tap – but constantly churning through plastic water bottles is not the solution. Instead, invest in a water filter! This is a long-term cost effective solution to have clean water on hand wherever you are, as it can come with you on all your adventures. Alternatively, water purification tablets are another option, but they do tend to make the water taste a bit gross. Depending where you are, there are also lots of waterbottle refill stations too – such as in Southeast Asia, where you can use this app to top up your supplies with drinkable goodness.

Carry reusable items

We’re all quite good at using keep cups and reusable water bottles when we’re at home, so don’t slack off overseas! Pack a little kit to carry around in your backpack or handbag. When we travel, we bring a sarong (so we can say no to the plastic-wrapped blanket on the plane), a reusable shopping bag, a water bottle, a coffee cup, a food container (collapsible ones are really good for travelling), a bamboo straw and a set of cutlery (some of us even a handy spork). We’re also big fans of zero waste toiletries, like deodorant pastes, shampoo bars and tooth tablets – which as well as producing less waste, stops the issue of liquids leaking through our suitcases!

Photo by Bluewater Sweden

Never forget that travel is a privilege – and be mindful of your own

Travelling for pleasure is a privilege, not a right. In 2018, only 2% of the world travelled internationally – as most people simply cannot afford to or don’t have the privilege of having access to a passport that lets them in everywhere. We also need to remind ourselves that so much of the world actually needs to travel for necessity, with 89.3 million people forcibly displaced according to stats gathered at the end of 2021 due to conflict, persecution, violence and other events such as climate change. 

Another thing to remember is that race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, physical ability and even country of origin all have serious impacts on everyone’s ability to travel freely. For the most part, travel and tourism caters to straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied people. Even for those who are lucky enough to be in possession of a powerful passport such as an Australian one, the experiences we have overseas are largely impacted by the way our intersecting identities are perceived. Queer couples often have to hide their relationships; disabled people have to add hours of research to their trip (and often money) to figure out accessible travel options, BIPOC are likely to experience systemic racism both at immigration and in the country they are visiting and women, trans and non-binary people have to take a bunch of extra safety precautions. 

There’s nothing wrong with having privilege, as often we were born with it – but we need to remember that the advantages that it gives us were not earned. What also matters – other than acknowledging it in the first place, especially because it tends to be invisible to those who have it – is what we do with it.

 Photo by elCarito

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