Few life experiences touch the core of being as deeply as travel. Experiencing nature through eco-travel can connect us in ways we didn’t think were possible when caught up in the urban jungle. But with all of travel’s benefits, come risks. To the environment, to local cultures, to local economies.

Imagine for a moment what a small town like Leh, India looked like before it opened to tourism in 1978. The town located high in the Indian Himalayas had clean water from the Indus River. It had fresh mountain air. It had serenity from a small population.

But tourism has since burgeoned to unsustainable proportions in Leh. Transport trucks and taxis crawl through traffic on narrow roads, spewing pollutants into the air that hang in the deep valley. The water is no longer clean, the effect of too many tourists demanding flush toilets, where previouly there were only dry pit toilets. With an influx of tourists in the summer, and a migrant workforce that enters the town to cater to them, the population grows exponentially. Where there was once quietude, there is now cacophony. Where there was once calm, there is now busyness. It’s obvious how locals engaged in the tourist trade benefit from tourism, but what about the many who do not? What do they get in exchange for the noise and pollution?

When choosing an eco-travel trip we decide whether to make it “eco” or destructive. We decide whether we’re contributing to a local economy, sharing something positive with the local culture or just entering, taking and leaving our waste behind.

Transportation

PROBLEM: In terms of carbon emissions, air travel is the worst, followed by cars, buses, trains, boats and renewable energy powered vehicles.

SOLUTION: Trains, boats and buses are the best, most common, ways to get around. Wherever possible, choose the largest mode of transportation possible (40-seater bus over a mini-bus). Using a renewable-energy powered vehicle such as an electric car may seem like a good idea because it doesn’t emit carbon, but its embodied energy could displace any benefit to the environment. So, don’t go out and buy an electric car for your mega-road trip when you could opt for the train or bus. And if you love riding in a car, consider hitch hiking if you feel comfortable with it. It’s a lot safer than people think and an exceptionally fun way to travel.

Hospitality

PROBLEM: If you don’t know how the locals live, learn. If you’re in a 5-star high rise hotel with flush toilets, shower, hot tub, TV and A/C, when the locals are living in small mud huts without a bathroom or fan, you might want to reevaluate what you’re doing there. Does your presence there seem normal in any way?

There are reasons why the local population live the way they do, and it’s not always due to poverty. When tourists demand a large amount of resources from an area that lacks infrastructure (e.g. water and electricity), the environment gets stressed, causing pollution and other problems. In addition to environmental stress, locals receive less access to resources because prices get driven up.

SOLUTION: Travel more simply. Opt for a smaller room with less amenities. And if you want a real cultural experience, consider a home stay with a local family. The living standards will likely be lower than you’re used to, but in exchange you get to eat with them, speak with them and learn their customs. Another homestay option is couchsurfing, and it’s free!

Economy

PROBLEM: Multinational corporations tend not to invest in the local economy. The larger a business is, the more disconnected it becomes from its community of origin and humanity in general.

SOLUTION: When traveling, purchase from small, local businesses, particularly those selling locally-produced fair trade goods. When planning your trip or booking tours, locate local tour guides directly or online and book directly through them. Cut out the middle-man to put more money in locals’ pockets, and save money yourself.

Other eco-travel tips

  • Plan less trips of greater duration to minimize carbon emissions resulting from transportation.
  • Stay in one place longer. Consider renting an apartment and living like the locals or doing a home swap.
  • Minimize resource consumption. Do less, relax more. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets. Opt for products and services that have a small carbon footprint.
  • Learn about the local culture and customs to avoid unforeseen problems that could contribute to irresponsible tourism.