Travel has made the world a much smaller place. If we have the means, most of us think nothing of hopping a flight to the latest exotic locale or tourist hotspot. But while travel boasts scientifically proven benefits, from improved happiness and stress reduction to better educational performance, it also has a dark side, leading a recent New York Times article to ask, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” Short of stopping traveling completely, there’s still plenty you can do to ensure your travels do more to help the world than to harm it. Here are five ways to be a better traveler.
1. Try Ecotourism
“Ecotourism” is an ongoing hot topic for responsible travelers, but what does it actually mean? The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
Being a responsible ecotourist abroad can mean making conscientious decisions like choosing an eco-friendly resort, supporting the local community by donating your time or money, or respecting the local wildlife by avoiding participating in activities like riding elephants and choosing to visit them in sanctuaries instead. Closer to home in the U.S., you could incorporate a visit to a National Park into your trip — simply paying the nominal entrance fee can go toward helping preserve the area.
Making these small, consistent changes to the way you travel can add up to big impact.
For more travel ideas, including the best spas to visit this year and the country’s biggest charity galas to attend, visit Better Travel.
2. Go Off the Beaten Path
When traveling to new places — or the next time you return to your favorite spot — look for ways to really immerse yourself in the local culture. On your next vacation, don’t just be a passerby, visiting a place without really experiencing it. Limiting your visit to heavy tourist areas keeps tourism dollars in the hands of big corporations rather than the local community.
ShoreTrips prides itself on facilitating once-in-a-lifetime experiences for travelers that help them connect with locals and develop a deeper appreciation for their destination: find spiritual well-being in Beijing, get a true taste of Uruguay, or travel the Gatun River and learn about the Embera people in Panama.
3. Support the Local Community
Tourism — and especially overtourism — can leave rural and local communities in shambles. In the Caribbean, many big businesses have stepped in to create all-inclusive paradises while negatively impacting the local residents.
Kind Traveler is working to change this by aligning their goals with the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development in the hopes of reducing the inequality and poverty. They make it easy for tourists looking to travel responsibly by providing a curated list of hotels to choose from where a portion of your nightly stay is directly donated to make a positive environmental or community impact. Guests participating in the program can even get special rates at these hotels and 100 percent of donations go directly to vetted charities. Kind Traveler works with more than 100 hotels and 60 charities in 14 countries.
4. Offset Your Carbon Footprint
If your ideal vacation is a relaxing getaway where you can truly switch off, that’s OK — and good for you. Even if all you want to do is lay on the beach, you can still make a difference by minimizing your impact through a carbon offset program. Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the leading causes of climate change, and BlueSkyModel reports that “on average, a plane produces a little over 53 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile.” Through a carbon offset program, you can pay extra to offset the greenhouse gases produced by your travel.
5. Slow Down
Americans give up 400 million paid vacation days each year, says Cait DeBaun, spokeswoman for Project: Time Off, an organization working to change the way the U.S. workforce thinks about vacation. This year, commit to using all those vacation days, but travel slower.
Slow travel can allow you to cover a larger region on just one roundtrip plane ticket. Instead of hopping from city to city on short flights, reduce your carbon footprint by traveling by train, bike, or even foot where possible.
Lauren Bowman is a travel enthusiast, book lover, and minimalist based in Georgia. She loves experiencing new cultures, trying new foods, lending libraries, and learning about the world around her. Follow her on Instagram/Twitter @lbowmantravels.