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Vacation season is coming, and what's traveling to my house for a visit is existential angst. Because I know that while travel generally isn't great for the planet I'm trying to see, I'd still very much like to see the planet on which I am a traveler. What's a wayfarin' stranger in a strange land to do?
A reasonable compromise lies in green travel, the art of treading lightly on the land when we're treading elsewhere. It's a trend I'm glad to see; my trips are a lot less fun when all I can think of is the vacation the Earth is going to need once mine is finished. Green travel lets my inner environmentalist relax and enjoy the scenery, and it can do the same for yours.
First, keep in mind that green travel doesn't necessarily mean ecotourism, which refers to responsibly visiting unspoiled natural regions. Instead, it's about minimizing our impacts wherever we go and should be a part of every trip we take.
Start by choosing your destination wisely. Pick a place committed to sustainable development, good conservation practices, and respect for human rights. Then study up and learn a little about local eco-issues so you know what to watch out for when you're there.
Always pack mindfully and travel light. On our recent trip to Ecuador, we set a limit of one carry-on per person plus a bag for bulky items like hiking boots and a few souvenirs. Why so stingy? Less luggage meant less to carry and less energy to transport. We removed packaged goods from their packaging so that we'd generate less trash in a country with solid waste issues. And taking natural toiletries helped preserve local water quality and let us save any provided amenities for the next guest.
How we traveled made a big difference. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, trains and buses are better than cars, which are better than planes. For trips under about 300 miles, flying should be avoided. If you have to fly, calculate your trips' carbon footprint and buy offsets to compensate. Once you arrive, walk or rent bikes if possible. Or use mass transit. We study our options ahead of time so we're comfortable hopping a bus or train.
When it comes to lodging, shop for the greenest option around. You want accommodations that see resource conservation and waste prevention as a badge of honor. Don't be shy about making inquiries before reservations. In the Amazon, for example, we found a lodge that used only rainwater and energy-saving lighting. Big windows open to jungle breezes eliminated the need for A/C (though there was a day when we admittedly would have killed for it). There were even amazing toiletries handmade from local rainforest ingredients. Ours was a pretty low-impact stay as a result.
Wherever we sleep, we request no maid service. We don't need our sheets and towels washed daily nor do we need the room cleaned. Refusing these unnecessities saves all kinds of water, energy, and cleaning supplies.
When you're hungry, put local foods and regional specialties on your plate as these reduce carbon emissions and help local economies. Just watch out for endangered delicacies like turtle soup or produce responsible for deforestation, like hearts of palm. Knowing what to skip before you go makes menu decoding easy. When it comes to hydration, do what we did—buy one bottle of water and refill it from potable sources rather than buy new bottles. And use water sparingly—it's like gold in many locales.
Think carefully when you shop. Seek locally-produced crafts and indigenous items made from sustainable materials and sold by local merchants. Be very wary of souvenirs made from animals parts (for example corals, shells, ivory, or animal skins) or wood—you don't want anything made from endangered species. Not only can these items be confiscated—treaties regulate trade of roughly 5,000 animal and 29,000 plant species—they're just bad karma. Stay away from ancient artifacts, too, which belong to the culture from which they come.
Finally, keep your activities low impact and be a traveler not a tourist. I like the "take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints" philosophy, which reminds me that I don't need a four-wheeler or a jet ski to have an unforgettable experience and that the biggest thrills often come when it's just me and nature or the natives.
Remember: it's a big world with lots to see. We simple need to make sure that when we're done seeing it, there's plenty left for the traveler who's just arriving as we head home.