Hi! This article is Part 2 of my Sustainable Traveller article series, intended for those who are currently already travelling, and just beginning to get interested in sustainable travel.

Maybe sustainable travel seems overwhelming, like there are a lot of things to remember and to do (although if that’s what you’re looking for, then here’s a good list to get into). Maybe you feel like it would make travelling no longer fun.

Well, that’s not the case!

Sustainable travel is actually more interesting, when you put its core principles above specific actions. Sure, you’re very likely to end up doing many of the same types of actions, but it’s easier when it comes naturally through conviction rather than working off a list because you feel you have to. 

So 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. 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

Human beings like to complicate things. I’ve seen it in many completely unrelated fields of human experience, in things as wide apart as religious practice and healthy eating, from urban planning to law.

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.

Or we like to quickly move to action, without thinking about whether we know what the right action is, or misreading the level of urgency. Like accidentally dooming Malaysia’s leatherback population by moving their eggs into shade to save them from poachers, inadvertently skewing the gender balance*. Or, Australia’s ill-fated attempts at ecological engineering

We like to fix something out of whack, by adding more things.

We rarely think about simply sliding pieces out. Or re-arranging, pausing, smoothening. Even though, I’ve found this usually works out better. Things that stalled for years, have been unstuck in this way within just one.

The catch is, this second way requires you to first take time to understand.

The bonus is, afterwards – you understand.

The sustainable traveller is willing to understand

Globe lights in Bag of Beans Cafe

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.

You would not see a martial arts master waste movement. Nor would an expert diver appear to move very much at all. A witty remark needs only a few words – or it ceases to be clever. The person who changes hearts isn’t the one who lectures with many words, but the one who shows empathy with few – or none at all.

None of these outcomes are achieved by knowing more moves, or having the most gear, or learning the most words. You achieve it by understanding what matters, and what does not.

Three Essential Habits of the Sustainable Traveller

If in the first article I recommended a couple of habits that you could do right away, easily, yet has the biggest effect on becoming an effective 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. There’s nothing quite like being made responsible for solving other people’s problems, to give a serious reality check to one’s youthful idealistic imaginings of how things must rightly be.

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

Divers resting on sea floor | Dhigurah | the Maldives | Three Essential Next Steps to be an Effective Sustainable Traveller | Teja on the Horizon
Photo credit: Arvind

I am guilty myself 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 in 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 it can be argued that the Kelantanese dialect is an alien language! And because I was with the Blue Temple I had to speak to 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. Not by being told – but by living bits of it myself. 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 ‘downtime’ 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

Close up photo of a hermit crab | Dhigurah | Maldives | Three Essential Next Steps to be an Effective Sustainable Traveller | Teja on the Horizon

Have you ever thought about what it takes to make some of those unreal bucket list destinations, accessible to tourism?

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. So we find it hard to care.

Islands are a great place to be curious. 

If you’re 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 there are close to these issues by sheer necessity.

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? He said, we drink rainwater, like everyone in the village.

I thought for a moment. There’s not really an industrial city emitting smog into the Maldivian cloud-forming sky.

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, if you think about it, where would the Maldives get fresh water from? The sea is salty, and you don’t see desalination plants. Groundwater is probably briny for 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 point for him.

The mornings after that there was a jug of rainwater at breakfast.

TRY: Even if you aren’t prepared to do anything, 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. The impact of your action doesn’t matter at this stage, because the most important impact is within you. You will then find you are up for another change that felt ‘too hard’ before! Your impact will snowball over time.

3. Travel Deeply

Harvest of betel nuts | sustainable farming | Karnataka | Three Essential Next Steps to be an Effective Sustainable Traveller | Teja on the Horizon

This step is inseparable from the second 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 once, who took great exception that the sustainable farm project that 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 are 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 a sustainability standpoint. That said, this is the same guy who displayed withdrawal cravings within only a week of having to be sober in Karnataka.

So, while I did concede his point, when he again made snarky remarks in my ear about touring the ‘drug fields’, I calmly replied, “Yes, the vineyards”.

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.

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 initiative accidentally removed the reason for something the women liked!

It’s more interesting to learn why it makes sense, 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 at least most of them, than because of some faction or other forcing it on the whole group. Whole communities simply don’t pass down things down generations, unless there’s value.

Now, whether it makes sense today, or it had once made sense, that’s a different story. But in any case, that’s irrelevant to a traveller. The only people who may decide to change to a new normal, 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 strange that people do, different from your expectation, makes sense somehow, you stand a far better chance of understanding people and what they have inherited from their history. 

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 expectation that there should be. It’s hard to give a good answer to a bad question. 

Ask instead, “I notice there are only men out walking. In my country there would be women also. What do the women do in the daytime?” They will be more likely to share their ways with you.

The Yin and Yang of Sustainable Travel

There are two sides of a coin.

A lot of 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 cruel animal tourism). 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 traveler. We take active action to make our travels more responsible. ‘Doing something’ is familiar ground, remember?

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.

The effective sustainable traveller tries to achieve both.

TIP: The capacity to understand, also enhances the experience of travel itself! There’s no downside! 


*Temperature determines the sex of turtle embryos, and shading them produced exclusively male hatchlings. That said, global warming is making more of them hatch female, so for those populations that are still breeding at some level, maybe paradoxically there’s hope!

Pin for inspiration! For the final article in this series, check out One Key Choice to Sustain the Sustainable Journey.

2 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    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.

    • Teja says:

      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.