After flying thousands of miles for what seemed like days (OK, two 8 hour flights) I just arrived in Borneo.
I’m so excited to be surrounded by lush green trees, noisy nocturnal animals, and gloriously rich biodiversity – but also hyper-aware that Borneo is a country in the midst of an ecological crisis. Its rainforest is being destroyed at an alarming rate for palm oil, and recently it was suggested that the island’s most famous inhabitant, the orangutan, could be extinct in the wild by 2020.
All of this had me thinking about how, as a tourist, I can keep my negative impact on this place (and everywhere else I go for that matter) to a minimum.
1. Limit those flights
Making conscious choices about travel is what’s most important to me. This year, I have taken two European return flights, but a couple of years ago I committed to to ditching all UK domestic flights in favour of on-land travel by coach and train, and to continue to look closer to home when planning the majority of my holiday time.
2. Offset your carbon footprint
Almost every airline will let you pay an extra charge to offset the carbon footprint of your flight – the money goes toward an environmental charity or initiative thus ‘cancelling out’ the impact of your flight. If your carrier doesn’t offer this, you can visit a website like www.carbonfootprint.com and pick a scheme for yourself.
It’s really important to remember though, that carbon offsets should not be used to validate more flying. Many environmental campaigners view Carbon Offsetting rather dimly. As George Monbiot puts it, it’s the idea that you can “buy yourself a clean conscience by paying someone else to undo the harm you are causing.”
But for the times when a flight is the only way to go, it can at play a part in reducing your eco-guilt, providing you seek out a reputable / trustworthy scheme. Find out more about Carbon Offsets and my own approach to flying here.
2. Research and if needed – reconsider – your animal encounters
Some once-in-a-lifetime activities on offer overseas aren’t exactly what they seem. Yes those elephant riding pictures look cool, but it’s widely understood that the process of ‘breaking in’ an elephant causes immeasurable suffering and that riding them is never a good idea. Ditto swimming with captive dolphins.
You will also find that the term ‘sanctuary’ is also used widely by a variety of shady outfits abroad who are nothing more than zoos – if somewhere is letting you physically stroke a tiger, it sure as hell isn’t doing the tiger any favours.
Check your facts by doing some digging around on google before you book: I tend to search for the name of the activity / venue, plus the word ‘ethical’ to see if any concerns have previously been raised in the press / by other visitors.
Most importantly, don’t go getting any selfies with that monkey / baby bear / sad-looking parrot who can swear on demand. It’s not worth it.
3. Book trips with sustainably-minded, local companies
My friend once went on a snorkelling trip where the guide said “don’t worry if you get in too deep, you can stand on the coral to get your balance, that’s fine”. Terrible advice, seeing as standing on coral will effectively kill it.
It highlighted the need to search for ethical, environmentally-conscious tour providers who make money from their country and its resources in a sustainable way. An hour spent on Google should be all you need to find the good guys.
4. Research your hotel
I like to find out about how the hotel is run – do they hire local staff? Do they cook using local produce? Do they use locally sourced materials in the décor? Companies that utilise indigenous resources tend to be more sustainable, as they’re investing in the local economy.
Most hotels will shout about their efforts to be green if they are going to the trouble of making them – be that by saving water, using renewable energy or investing in local clean-up projects.
5. If you wouldn’t do it at home…
…don’t do it overseas. Be that dropping or leaving litter, climbing all over sacred monuments or eating endangered species. Try to be respectful to the cultures and traditions around you whilst also keeping sustainability in mind.
6. Drink smart
Bottled water is the worst invention ever. It eats up so much energy in the process of being produced, and then the leftover bottle itself more often than not ends up in landfill. Or in the sea. Drink tap if you’re in a country where it’s safe; the refill app can connect you to more than 274,000 places around the world where you can find clean drinking water refills – entirely for free. If you need to drink bottled, buy the biggest bottle you can (using less plastic over the duration of your stay) and decant each day into a reusable bottle for hydration on the go.