This article is the second of my Sustainable Traveller article series, intended for those who are currently already travelling, and just beginning to acquire an interest in sustainable travel. I recommend that you read the first article, for the two simple first steps you can take to cultivate a new, sustainable mindset.
For this article, I recommend the three habits which I think are the most useful to have while at the destination, to further cultivate a sustainable understanding. Combine it with the two simple first steps for maximum effect. Intend them in advance (customised to the trip), and then use what you learn to be better at your chosen change actions.
Remember, the specific actions each time can be very small at first. That’s ok. It’s the process that we’re after. If you think you have to be into bike touring, vegan, new age travel in order to do sustainable travel, you’re way too far ahead of yourself. Sustainable travel is a journey, and has as wide a range as there are reasons to travel. It’s also easier when it comes naturally through conviction rather than working off a list because you feel you have to.
And hey, you might come up with new ideas, because maybe people who travel for the reason you do haven’t cracked what its sustainable version looks like yet!
- I try to keep sustainable travel simple
- The sustainable traveller is willing to understand
- Three essential habits of the sustainable traveller
- The yin and yang of sustainable travel
I try to keep sustainable travel simple
Human beings like to complicate things.
Whether it’s solving a process problem by adding yet more processes, or by solving a social issue by adding more and more targeted intervention on symptoms, we like stopgap measures. It makes us feel like we’ve done something, there’s a visible near term result we can point to and celebrate… and then we can forget about it for a while.
We rarely think about simply sliding pieces out. Or re-arranging, pausing, smoothening. Even though this often works out better. Things that stalled for years, can be unstuck in this way within just one.
The catch is, this second way requires you to take time to understand.
The bonus is, afterwards – you understand.
The sustainable traveller is willing to understand
It doesn’t take very long these days, for us to think of examples where unsustainability happens because people have allowed activities to run away with itself. There’s one thing that you can say links such ill-fated examples together. They all involve underestimating the importance of taking the time to understand.
Most of all, we’re not very good at remembering that scale matters. Something well understood at a small scale, has a different significance and needs to be understood differently at a larger scale.
This is not to say that you never take action at all. It’s more about having the humility to be cautious when you are at the edge of your understanding. When you move out of a lighted room into a dark one, you move more slowly until you find the light switch for that room.
Three essential habits of the sustainable traveller
In the first article I recommended a couple of habits that you could easily do right away, yet has the biggest effect on becoming a sustainable traveller. These next three habits are about the things that would make the most long-term difference to you as a traveller.
I draw these next three steps from a decade’s worth of experience working as an environmental professional. These are the big skills that made the most difference to my ability to understand, and be a more effective sustainability advocate.
Perhaps it took me longer than it should to work it out, but that’s why I’m saving you the trouble.
1. Travel slower
I am myself guilty of underestimating my travel pacing. Someone recently accused me of being ‘Ms. Activity’. I didn’t tell him that he was seeing the mellow version of what I’m historically like.
The thing with over-planning and trying to fit everything into a very finite amount of time, is that you force yourself to keep moving.
This means there’s no time to engage with people in any but the most superficial way.
There’s no time to observe what the same things and places look like at different times of the week, or even a day.
There’s no time for people to relax around you and open up.
So it’s hard to understand.
Give it time.
I realised this when I spent three weeks living in the village of the Perhentian Islands. It was the longest I’d stayed in one place as a visitor. And I went again, twice more.
Now, of course I had the advantage of speaking the language (although you can argue that the Kelantanese dialect is an alien language!). And because I was with the Blue Temple, I had to speak with many people all around the island, since we were advocating a waste segregation initiative.
But, as a result, I understood the island life there quite a bit better than anywhere else I’d been before.
I learned what the water supply was like – and what it used to be like. What it’s like to live in the village when it rains.
How food is delivered to the village, and fuel. How waste is carried away, and to where. Who does these things.
When the ice cream lady is around on the promenade.
How often people go to the mainland, who does it, and for what. The latest machete incident on Long Beach.
What happens during the monsoon. What happens when the season opens again.
The issues that islanders disagree about. Along with all kinds of beliefs and hopes and complaints, and getting on with getting on.
And when you learn these things, you understand better, why people do what they do.
TRY: Simplify your itinerary, and give more days to the remaining things. Or set aside one vacation where you’re not there to see ‘everything’, but to soak in just some of the things. It feels weird at first, like you have ‘wasted time’ and don’t know what to do with yourself. But you will. It feels like you’re gonna miss out – but when you return, it won’t feel that way.
2. Travel with curiosity
Have you ever thought about what it takes to make some of those unreal bucket list destinations, accessible to mainstream tourists?
Have you ever thought, maybe the place you’re at actually hasn’t been made ready for mass tourism?
We live in an age where the supply chain for the things we buy are so long and distant, we don’t really question how things came to be all around us. Or what our choices mean, for the chain of people and places involved in bringing those options into our hands. Or even, who makes it possible for us to have convenience, what infrastructure we take for granted.
Islands are a great place to be curious.
While on an island (or really, anywhere remote), wonder about these three implications of tourism: water, energy, and waste disposal. Generally, the people living in remote places are close to these issues by sheer necessity, and would be more aware than people living in a city.
You might find out about the unexpected solar power transition on Dhiffushi atoll.
You might come to understand the complicated waste collection system for Perhentian Islands. (Whether you’re amused by this or shocked, will depend on your personality!)
You might learn that trash has to be flown back to the Chilean mainland thousands of miles from Easter Island. (Think about it).
You’ll get a better idea of how heavily you tread, depending on where you go.
Water, water everywhere – which one do you drink?
I was curious while spending a layover on the atoll of Dhiffushi in the Maldives.
I stayed in a local guesthouse, and at breakfast there was bottled water on the table with the coffee and tea and eggs.
So I asked the guy, what do you drink? I had played with some local children the previous day, and knew that even the cheapest ice cream is an expensive treat. It was unlikely that the villagers drink bottled water that had to be flown or shipped all the way from India.
He said, we drink rainwater, like everyone in the village.
So I said, I’ll drink the same water as you. He was surprised, but took me to the rainwater tank where they get their potable water. I refilled my bottle from there.
You see, where would the Maldives get fresh water from? The sea is salty, and you don’t see desalination plants. Groundwater is probably briny on the small atolls, or would easily become so if overly extracted. Bottled water? Who has the cash to throw around on that?
So when I learned that the Maldivian people rely on rainwater harvesting, it was actually pretty obvious.
It pleased the Maldivian dive master who was there in the common area. Apparently the matter had come up before, and as a paying guest, I had just made his anti-plastic water bottle argument for him.
The mornings after that, there was a jug of rainwater at breakfast.
TRY: Even if you aren’t prepared to do anything right away, don’t let pre-emptive guilt stop you from being curious. Then think about what you would do next time. Pick just one small thing to start with – and just do that. Your impact will snowball over time.
3. Travel deeply
This step is inseparable from the previous one. Very often (hopefully not as often anymore from my own mouth) I hear people who are concerned about issues ask questions, but do not listen. Or they are not aware just how much their own views are likewise dependent on, simply, what they’re used to.
I had an Australian friend who took great exception that the sustainable farm project we were visiting in India had betel nut for its crop. Its use is highly integrated into local life – basically everyone chews it. Most of the litter in the otherwise tidy streets and rural walks were betel nut wrappers. The best quality products were given as gifts.
He was correct in that the crop itself is likely problematic from a health and dependency standpoint, even if its farming is done impeccably from an agricultural sustainability standpoint. That said, this is the same guy who displayed withdrawal cravings within only a week of having to be sober in Karnataka.
Local solutions make sense to local people.
This is a rule of thumb that I recommend highly. It’s a fast track for understanding others, once you accept this axiom as a starting point. It helps remove your own biases and expectations for how problems should be solved, and how things ought to be done.
I read an article once from aid workers somewhere in Africa. They noted how the women had to walk very far to get water for the community. So, similar to other places they’ve worked in, they installed wells in the village ‘for them’, so that the women ‘didn’t have to’ do this. They assumed that this village was just the same as other villages who wanted the wells.
However, in this particular village, a sort of culture had sprung around the daily water collection activity. It was a female outing of sorts – because it naturally gave the women time together without the men! So the feminist initiative accidentally removed something the women liked!
When you accept unconditionally that other people have agency, without it having anything to do with you, you’re more likely to check beforehand whether something you see is just the best available option, or an actual conscious choice. Either way, you would probably learn something new, rather than nothing at all.
It’s more interesting to learn why, than to make people become you.
Whatever is normal in the local culture, is far more likely to be so because it makes sense to most of them, than because of some faction or other forcing it on the whole group. I emphasise most, because the people most likely to engage with foreign tourists (and therefore whose opinions we are most likely to hear) may not necessarily represent most local people. They may not benefit from the culture, and may not depend on it. Their opinions still matter, of course. But you cannot extrapolate from them.
‘Culture’ is inherently something that is passed down across generations. Whole communities simply don’t pass things down generations, unless there’s a practical value. It’s actually not something a group can force without most of the people co-operating. This is especially so for cultural practices that have survived the longest.
Now, whether that practical value still exists today, or whether it had once made sense, that’s a different story.
But that’s irrelevant to a traveller. The only people who may decide to change and adopt new cultural practices, is the community themselves, not an outsider. Because the risks and consequences of change are borne by the community – not the outsider.
Either way, if you simply accept that something that people do makes sense somehow, no matter how strange, you stand a far better chance of understanding people and what they have inherited from their history. Ask questions in a way that positions you to learn your host’s worldview, not in a way that forces them to have to make it fit in yours.
TRY: Open-ended enquiries are better because you are allowing the other person to freely share. As an example, when you ask a local person “Why aren’t there local women out in the streets?” you have bound that person to your value expectation that there should be. It’s hard to give a good answer to a bad question.
Ask instead a neutral question, “I notice there are only men out walking. In my country there would be women also. What do the women do in the daytime?”
The yin and yang of sustainable travel
There are two sides of a coin.
Most content on sustainable travel focuses on reducing the negative impact of your travel to the host nation (such as tips to avoid generating plastic waste), or to avoid inadvertently driving a negative impact (such as tips to avoid overtourism). These are all on point and necessary.
But let’s not forget the host nation also derives benefit from travel. That’s why tourism is generally welcome. Sustainable travel is also about consciously enhancing these positive outcomes of travel.
The first side is proactive on our part, as the traveller. We take active action to make our travels more responsible. ‘Doing something’ is the familiar territory. Many people in the sustainable travel sphere find this more intuitive.
The other side requires yielding to the host, as only the host can define what is a positive impact to them – whether it is your tourism dollars, your time, your skills, your knowledge, your support, or just your jovial company and friendship. This is more rare; but if you find the previous side harder, it may be the case that you’re better at this side.
The effective sustainable traveller tries to achieve both.
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Environmentalist, but literate in all 17 SDGs. Promotes insightful travel & sustainable transitions with collaborative Global South worldviews.
A really great, thought-provoking article. I’m always looking for ways to travel more ethically and responsibly, so these are great suggestions. I love the way you drank the rain water, it reminds me of in Nepal, when we trekked to Everest Base Camp drinking boiled water from the tea houses rather than bottled water which has to be carried by hand into the mountains and the bottles are left there as rubbish, polluting the very environment we’ve travelled thousands of miles to see.
I’m just about to go to Nepal! I’m trying out travel with a portable water filter for the first time. Hope it works out :p
I wrote this series having in mind travellers who have yet to really cross the threshold to sustainable travelling, or are struggling to stay on it. So if you travel with others who are like that, do share and see if you can make it easier by focusing on these mental habits which I feel are precursors to the motivation to be sustainable.