How to travel without hurting the environment

Are your travelling habits having a negative impact on the world?

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The concept of travelling to the other side of the world has become commonplace. Many of us don’t bat an eye flying to faraway destinations, taking multiple flights, cars, buses and trains to get to get there in the process.

But as the sheer number of international travellers continues to increase, so does the fear of our harmful impact on the environment and people.

This concern has given birth to the concept of sustainable tourism.

“Last year alone, 1.235 million travellers crossed international borders in one single year. By 2030, this will become 1.8 billion,” Taleb Rifai, World Tourism Organisation secretary-general, says.

“The question is how we can enable this powerful global transformative force, these 1.8 billion opportunities to contribute to make this world a better place.”

Just a trend or here to stay?

UNESCO defines sustainable tourism as travel that respects local people and the traveller, cultural heritage and the environment by looking to provide tourists with an enjoyable and educational trip that also benefits the people of the host country.

Sustainable tourism covers a broad spectrum – from eco-friendly initiatives like reducing plastic use and respecting the natural and cultural traditions of a place to buying local products and volunteering.

According to Tamara Withers, corporate sustainability manager at Emirates-Wildlife Society-World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF), the concept of sustainable tourism has three pillars: environmental, economic and socio-cultural.

“Sustainable tourism can preserve a local community’s cultural heritage and offer sustainable livelihoods,” Tamara explains.

“Tourism can provide financial support for the preservation and conservation of the environment and natural resources. However, tourism’s potential can only be realised when it’s appropriately planned and managed.”

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Tamara Withers, corporate sustainability manager at Emirates-Wildlife Society-World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF)

Globally, there are encouraging signs that the concept is starting to catch on.

Rwanda, for example, is sharing revenues from its national parks to the surrounding communities to help build schools and health centres, while providing employment to villagers including reformed poachers.

The Finolhu Villas in the Maldives operates mainly on renewable energy through solar power while guest activities include lectures on marine life and local culture.

“Tourists are increasingly attracted to pristine destinations, natural and cultural experiences and interaction with communities,” Tamara adds.

“According to a 2012 survey, the green travel trend is gaining momentum with sustainable tourism, as a niche market, growing three times faster than the tourism industry overall.”

Be a sustainable tourist

Embracing a sustainable lifestyle when travelling can be easily achieved and doesn’t need to be complicated, according to Tamara.

“Even before arriving [to your destination], it’s important to make decisions to practise sustainable tourism. Do your research in terms of transport, lodging and booking tours.”

There are booking sites that actually offer ecological tours across the globe. Websites such as Lokal Travel, Urban Adventures, Intrepid Travel and G Adventures all promote a love for environment and local cultures through tours, immersions and themed activities that highlight a destination’s natural beauty.

There’s even an economic benefit to these kinds of tours. A 2011 study by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, supported by the United Nations, shows that ecotourism can yield as much as 95 percent of revenues to the local economy, compared to only about 20 percent for standard all-inclusive package tours.

When choosing an airline, go for a company that exhibits a strong desire in reducing carbon footprint from flights. Airline firms such as Qantas, American Airlines, JetBlue and Lufthansa are reportedly purchasing energy-efficient aircrafts that burn less fuel to reduce harmful emissions.

When scouting for accommodation, Tamara says, “Look for hotels that have a written policy covering their environmental impact, employment and cultural policy.

“It’s important to look for properties that partner with local conservation organisations, such as EWS-WWF. In addition, look for hotels that are GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) accredited, Green Globe or Green Key certified.”

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Here in the UAE, EWS-WWF has been working tirelessly with hotels to come up with interactive ways to effectively measure water and energy consumption and reduce excess usage, but a lot of it comes down to us.

“At your hotel, be conscious about wasting water and energy. Re-use your towels and turn off the faucet while brushing teeth. Turn off lights and AC before leaving the room. Take the stairs and make the most of the hotel offers to support local community conservation,” says Tamara.

Wherever possible, try to minimise your pollution and impact on the environment by looking to high-occupancy transportation, renting a hybrid or electric vehicle or simply exploring the sights by foot.

If venturing outdoors, help preserve natural and cultural beauty by following designated trails, respecting caretakers and not removing archaeological or biological treasures from sites.

Likewise, make sure to reduce, reuse and recycle waste by discarding unwanted items in designated recycle bins and using reusable bags instead of plastic ones when buying souvenirs and reusable bottles throughout your trip.

Keeping The Environment Clean With Recycling

If you’re out shopping, particularly in local markets, it’s important to consider the impact of your souvenir.

“Do not buy products that could be involved with illegal wildlife trade,” Tamara warns.

“Avoid purchasing illegal wildlife products that are decimating  global populations of elephants, rhinos, tortoises and other endangered species.”

In general, travellers are advised to buy only what they need and opt for locally handmade craft items instead of mass-produced gifts, in order to help support local businesses, especially the small businesses that locals rely on to support their families.

When it comes to dining out, Tamara also adds, “Reduce consumption of intensive carbon-emission meat products, namely lamb and beef. On menus, select sustainable dishes that are organic and vegetarian.”

While as travellers, we can take these small steps and make changes in our habits, more needs to be done around the world to help drive the message of reducing our environmental impact to the public and encourage more travel and tourism companies to revamp their programmes with more eco-friendly options.

“Tour operators and hotels alike should develop awareness campaigns for guests to understand natural heritage and how they can help protect it,” Tamara reflects.

“Operators should develop policies that take into consideration local biodiversity and practices that could reduce impact.

“Additionally, hotels and other entities can support local organisations, such as EWS-WWF, which are driving large-scale sustainability and providing the tourism industry with the tools needed to advance their own sustainability.”

For more information and tips on how to be a sustainable tourist, visit: uae.panda.org

WORDS Ferdinand Godinez

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