During the pandemic, when travel has been restricted, we’ve had time to consider the effect of our globetrotting on the planet—its cultures and environments—and how we might become better travelers.
Although people all over the world benefit from and depend on tourism, there have been unfortunate side effects: commercialization, overcrowding, and pollution.
Many destinations, from Paris and Venice to rural China and Peru, have been challenged with “overtourism.” In fact, since the advent of mass market travel, there’s hardly an untrammeled place to be found anywhere on the planet. These days, we search far and wide to find experiences that are far from the madding crowd (to borrow a phrase from the English author, Thomas Hardy).
As former travel editor for the Wall Street Journal Sara Clemence reported in a recent New York Times editorial, “Americans have long had a reputation for being terrible tourists: loud, rude, and too often clad in tube socks. In the years leading up to the pandemic, we got even worse. Not more boisterous or badly dressed. But—driven by cheap flights and cruises, an explosion of vacation rentals and social media-fueled FOMO [fear of missing out]—we were flooding the world and wrecking it. “
She continued: “It’s not just Americans who are to blame for the mess. There were 1.5 billion international overnight trips in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Europeans accounted for roughly half of these stays, Asians a quarter. But we Americans were the biggest spenders after the Chinese, lavishing some $150 billion on our holidays. Then the pandemic forced a reset. Now that we are traveling again, we have a chance to usher in a better era. We can stop loving destinations to death. To do that, we need to travel less—and more carefully.”
So what’s next? Travel to the moon? Or Mars? (Some of our well-traveled friends who’ve been everywhere…yes….everywhere… might think this is their only option.)
For most of us, obviously, this is out of the question. Instead, there are things we can do now to become better travelers and preserve the beauty of our planet for future generations. This involves exercising due diligence and evaluating in advance what impact our travel will have. (A tip from Clemence: Search for “overtourism” on Twitter to find fragile destinations you should avoid.)
Jeffries Blackerby, Editor in chief of Departures magazine, advises, “We can remedy over-tourism and use resources, both natural and human, more wisely—all without taking the joy out of being a global citizen.”
How is this possible? Following are a few suggestions:
Instead of blindly following the crowds to the latest hotspots, seek destinations that truly inspire you on a personal level, places that you remember from your childhood or have read about in books by travelers of an earlier era. For example, not long ago we read about renowned Norwegian travel adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s sojourn in Fatu-Hiva in 1936 with his equally adventurous bride. Fatu-Hiva is one of the most remote and beautiful islands in Polynesia. Inspired by Heyerdahl’s book, Fatu-Hiva, we decided to go there next year and relive Heyerdahl’s experiences, which are poetically described in his book.
Choose lower density destinations and travel to them in shoulder seasons. In France, explore, Annecy or the Dordogne Valley instead of Paris or Aix-en-Provence; in Italy, drive to Puglia instead of Tuscany; visit Oaxaca or Chiapas instead of Cancun in Mexico; and consider Mürren instead of Zermatt, Switzerland. And so forth. Furthermore, by visiting these places in a shoulder season (spring or fall), we don’t contribute to peak season crowds and can often enjoy better rates.
Other pristine destinations we’ve visited in recent years include South Georgia Island (located in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it has one of the world’s largest concentrations of wildlife) and remote, extraordinary beautiful places in Patagonia. Even in well-traveled Europe, it’s possible to discover lesser-known, fascinating destinations.
Build flex time into your itinerary so you can easily adjust your trip should you discover an enticing place. Years ago, in over-touristed Suzhou, China, we stopped at a cafe where we noticed an ink brush painting on the wall. It depicted daily life in one of China’s charming “water towns,” where ancient canals are overhung with feathery willow branches and traversed by small, arched stone bridges. The cafe’s proprietor identified it as Zhou Zhuang and told us that this town has been attracting Chinese artists for generations. We adjusted our plans and made time for a visit that has become unforgettable. Pure serendipity!
Prioritize travel to “greener” countries. Although European countries are usually considered most sensitive to climate-related issues, there are countries on all continents however People most sensitive to climate-related issues reside in Europe (Switzerland, UK, Sweden, Norway, for example), but progressive countries are identifiable on all continents. Visiting these places is a way to support healthy environments and more sustainable travel.
If you prefer to travel with a group (or travel independently), scrutinize tour operators more closely. Choose those who are committed to sustainable tourism, reducing their carbon footprint and promoting off-the-beaten-path, less crowded destinations. You might discover places you’ve never considered before!
Travel by train instead of car or airplane when possible and practical. Trains are much more energy efficient. Overnight train travel is, in fact, on the increase in Europe where there’s renewed popularity in rail travel. France has even passed a ban on short-haul flights in response to the European Green Deal, a plan to reduce transport emissions by 90 per cent by 2050. Paris-based Midnight Trains, described as a “hotel on rails,” plans to launch in 2024 with routes that will connect the “City of Light” with various European destinations.
If train travel is not possible, choose the most fuel-efficient car rental companies—and airlines. Delta Air Lines, for example, recently committed to become carbon neutral by 2030, while JetBlue has pledged to get there by 2040 and United by 2050. These companies are considering everything from new materials that will make planes lighter and more aerodynamic to a variety of alternate, green fuels.
Choose accommodations committed to renewable energy and sustainable tourism. Stay in small, locally owned places instead of large, foreign-owned resorts that, in some cases, can be less energy efficient. Sustainable accommodations significantly reduce their environmental impact through “green” best-practices in maintenance, services, logistics, products, and supplies. They have a commitment to reducing waste, saving energy and cutting down on water usage. Before booking a room, ask the management for a summary of their policies, if they’re not highlighted on the property’s web site.
If you like to cruise, choose a cruise line that aggressively supports green initiatives. Enlightened companies will install advanced water and waste treatment technologies; donate re-useable materials to at-need communities in port; produce cleaner ship exhausts with state-of-the art technologies; use more sustainable power sources such as solar panels and wind; purchase supplies from sustainable food sources … and more.
Simultaneously feed your body and your soul. Patronize restaurants, wherever you travel, that adhere to “green” policies and support charitable causes.
The above suggestons, though not comprehensive, at least point to considerations that might help you evaluate your next adventure from home and select a journey that is ‘kind to the planet.”
We welcome your advice on how to travel responsibly!