While traveling through Thailand a few years ago, I had booked a typical backpackers’ package – whitewater rafting, trekking through the jungle, and an elephant ride. At the time, I had thought that the best way to travel was to get the cheapest deal. I would even haggle over a dollar. So while I heard rumors that the elephants in Asia were often exploited, I wasn’t aware of alternative packages. Plus, the price tag was appealing. While on the tour, I was sad to see that the rumors were true. The mahouts (elephant handlers) would beat them until they bled and the “bad elephants” had chains laced across their legs to prevent them from moving too fast. I also learned that the wooden seats strapped to their backs were painful for them.
Through my job at The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), I have since realized that if you deliberately seek out the cheapest option, it is the local people or environment that pays the difference. An alternative and more sustainable experience with elephants would be through Save Elephant Foundation, where you can visit the elephants at a large nature sanctuary, feed and bathe them, and learn more about the plight of Asian elephants. Not only would you be engaging with the animals in a natural setting that doesn’t exploit them, but the profits would go towards elephant conservation. Sustainable tourism is about respecting other cultures, supporting local businesses, and understanding profits will be channeled back into the community. The variety of sustainable tourism initiatives can extend from interacting with indigenous communities to closing the gender employment gap to disposing of waste properly.
Here are some tips to be more sustainable:
1. Research, research, research. Every destination is different, both in its culture and its socioeconomic issues (whether it is a country, region, or city). Learn about what it is that makes your destination unique. Before booking with a tour operator or accommodation site, look up their website for their sustainable initiatives.
2. Don’t use plastic bottles, bags or straws. According to Ocean Conservatory, there is over 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile! Moreover, many developing countries do not have the infrastructure to dispose of the massive amounts of trash that tourism brings in. What can you do? Bring a re-usable bag, water bottle, and straw. To filter your own water, I recommend using a SteriPen.
3. Engage in Slow Travel. Instead of dashing off from site to site, slow down. Staying in one destination allows you to experience a place more authentically by establishing a connection to the local culture. It also has a smaller impact on the environment. Airplanes and cars are two of the biggest contributors to global warming, while biking and hiking are much more eco-friendly.
4. Learn the local language. When you can speak the local language, you can expand your social network to the local community. Even if you don’t have time to learn another language fluently, it is respectful to learn a few basic words.
5. Buy local. By shopping at a local store or market, instead of a chain, you are directly contributing to the local economy. This prevents communities from becoming clones, where every city looks like every other city around the world with the same fast-food and retail chains. It is also important to ask questions like, “What is this item made from?” In every country, people sell unsustainable products, from endangered species to ancient artifacts. Do your research and learn about a destination’s local and sustainable products.
6. Honor local traditions. In some cultures, it is not acceptable for women to show a lot of skin. In Thailand, avoid touching the top of a person’s head, as it is considered sacred and violation of their personal space. Be conscientious of respecting local cultures or risk offending the people whose countries you’re trying to learn about.
7. Practice photograph etiquette. On one of my first travel experiences, I was at Camden Market in London, which is known for its punk rock scene. So, when I saw a punk rocker picturesquely sitting on a bridge with the sun behind him, I snapped a photo. He flipped me off. Another tourist next to me also took a photo of him and the punk rocker lost it. He jumped off the bridge and yelled violently at the other tourist. While his reaction was extreme, I learned that many people don’t want to be photographed by strangers. Get to know the person first by interacting with them. Then ask for permission. Afterwards show them the photo and offer to send them a copy. This way, you are also establishing a connection with them. Be particularly sensitive with children and religious sites.
8. Give back. Wildlife, conservation areas, indigenous peoples, and developing nations around the world are badly in need of support. Traveling creates life-changing experiences, so consider giving back to a local nonprofit. Pack for a Purpose is a great organization in which you use available space in your luggage to provide supplies to the communities that you visit around the world.
Julia Guerra is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Travel Lightly.