What Travelers Can Do to Save the Planet

Travel can be used as a force for positive change.


Photo by Shutterstock

What a different world we live in now, compared to a month ago. What have we learned since COVID-19 changed our global way of being and forced humanity indoors? That the sky is clearer and the stars are brighter. Lions have reclaimed roads in South Africa and goats have taken over an empty Welsh town. We are doubly, triply aware of our physical reach and impact. So in 2020, as we rethink travel as a force for good in a post-coronavirus world, conscious explorers may ask: What can we do to sustain the planet that provides our playground? AFAR has outlined a number of ways we can be better travelers: For each category, we’ve focused on a product, a small change in habit, experiences to sign up for, and ways to encourage companies to make change. When the world reopens, let’s be ready to take action.

Reversing Carbon Emissions

The Experience.jpg

Photo courtesy of The Inn at Dos Brisas

The Experience

Air travel has become the scapegoat for the industry’s oversized carbon footprint (temporary groundings aside), and while the reality is more complicated than that, taking fewer round-trip flights per year would still shrink any traveler’s annual emissions significantly. Rather than “pulling a Greta” and joining the flight-shaming flyskam, trend, Paula Vlamings, chief impact officer at Tourism Cares recommends you simply “choose overland travel where possible rather than domestic flights.” According to national rail operator Amtrak, a rail journey emits 70 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a short-haul flight of the same length. Trains also allow you to experience more of the destination, as anyone who has taken a train from Brussels to Paris, or San Francisco to Los Angeles, can tell you.

The Product

Hailed as “the Fitbit for your carbon footprint” Capture is a brand-new app launched this past January that tracks your carbon footprint every day and helps you find ways to reduce it. Unlike other carbon trackers, which rely on manual input, Capture uses your phone’s GPS to follow your daily transportation, adjusting your footprint as you go. You can set up reduction goals and purchase a monthly offsetting subscription, which goes to Gold Standard–verified forestry projects. Over time, the app will roll out new features that track your emissions from food decisions, purchases, home electricity usage, and more.

Small Habit Changes

“Food waste, believe it or not, is a huge contributor to the carbon problem,” says Vlamings. Methane gases released by decomposing food in landfills create between 8 percent and 10 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions. And according to the World Wildlife Fund, an estimated 40 percent of the world’s food waste happens in hotels and other consumer-facing businesses. Vlamings recommends that travelers mind their “food-print” in addition to their footprint: Skip meat, opt out of buffets, and seek locally produced food and in-season ingredients instead. All hail farm to table.

Conscious restaurants make it easier for travelers to choose sustainable cuisine. Relais & Châteaux, a luxury hotel association, launched a partnership with Slow Food International in 2018; its 580 members focus on local and seasonal produce and reducing meat content in their dishes. Terrenea Resort in Los Angeles sets a great example by donating surplus food to local shelters and community feeding programs. You can also find Zero Foodprint restaurants, which support the nonprofit’s work with carbon farming projects.

Use Your Influence

It is getting easier and easier for travel businesses to make choices to reduce their carbon footprints. Air France/KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Jet Blue, and United are increasingly relying on biofuels. Just last year Lindblad Expeditions announced it was going carbon neutral, joining industry big-names Natural Habitat Adventures and Intrepid Travel, and Hurtigruten runs a fleet of the world’s first hybrid electric cruise ships. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) is launching a collective offsetting effort, which will particularly help its smaller members, called Neutral Together. “It’s about the travel industry banding together to push towards being more responsible for offsetting,” says Shannon Stowell, CEO of the ATTA and AFAR Vanguard member.

Travelers can show that they want this trend to continue simply by talking about it. “Ask ‘Can you tell me about your commitments to environmental protection?’” Stowell recommends. “This is much better than asking if they are sustainable or responsible. They should wow you with a clear set of actions [that show] they clearly support environmental protection.”

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Sustaining Local Communities


Photo courtesy Beks Ndlovu’s African Bush Camps Foundation

The Experiences

Operators worldwide offer travel experiences that give something back to locals, whether remote indigenous groups or nearby residents. In Chihuahua, Mexico, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) works with two indigenous communities, Huetosachi and Bacajiare, offering women-run cooking and handicraft demonstrations, as well as hiking and storytelling tours in the Copper Canyon region.

“We began our partnership with these two Rarámuri communities to help them see the benefits of tourism in the region and create economic opportunities that preserve their lands, wildlife, and culture,” CREST executive director Gregory Miller says. “In the wake of COVID-19, it is critical that we help community-based tourism enterprises like this one to recover from the current crisis and prepare to welcome new visitors in the future.”

AFAR Vanguard member Beks Ndlovu’s African Bush Camps Foundation (ABCF) has been using tourism dollars from its safari camps for scholarships for local children, small-business loans, and other community projects (such as a women’s sewing initiative near Hwange National Park) since 2006. It supports conservation in eight different parks and concessions in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Bostwana, assisting local communities with “human wildlife coexistence programs, lion guardian initiatives, holistic land management practises, alternative income generation and more,” the company says.

Sheila Gallant-Halloran, a travel advisor with Vision Travel, recommends the National Geographic Journeys and G Adventures trip in Peru. The latter’s Planeterra Foundation invests in local healthcare, conservation, and social enterprises and aims to help communities become self-sufficient. “I visited the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-operative, which has grown from three women in 2005 to over 60 local women,” Gallant-Halloran says. “Children of the original women are now in university, funded by their mom’s earnings.”

The Product

Every purchase we make has the potential to divert dollars to the right places. The Sherpa Adventure Gear Yatra Adventure Pack is a great example. Not only is it a smartly designed, well-priced, sustainably produced, and functional bit of kit, but the company also was founded by Himalayan mountaineer Tashi Sherpa, and for every bag purchased a Nepalese student is given a day at school. Look for these, and consider downloading a language app before you take off; a few shared words of understanding can go a long way.

Small Habit Changes

Most thoughtful travelers want to get outside the resort complex and engage with the locals, but there are several things to consider. “Community tourism is easy to get wrong,” Shannon Stowell says. “Each situation is different and requires that a good operator build relationships with communities to understand what they would like out of tourism in their destination. When done right, sensitive low-impact, high-value tourism can help communities economically and also create a sense of pride in who they are and what they have to share.”

Stowell adds, “Travelers should have this as their mantra: Visiting these people is my privilege, not my right. I’ve seen travelers walk into locals’ homes uninvited because they want to see what’s inside. Imagine a stranger doing that in your home. . . . Resist the urge to think you know what they need. I heard a community tribal leader in Thailand say, ‘Don’t bring us toothbrushes. Unless you plan on bringing toothpaste every few months the rest of our lives! Otherwise you interrupt and disrupt what is already working here.’”

Use Your Influence

Many hospitality brands extend their in-house expertise to the local community. Consider the Belmond Road to Mandalay, a luxury cruise up Myanmar’s Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, where onboard physician Dr. Hla Tun disembarks three days a week to offer a free health service (with a team of 17) to locals. Guests are encouraged to see his work during onshore excursions and to donate glasses for the elderly.

Travelers can look for these initiatives when they travel, celebrate and support them, and keep asking whoever’s hosting the trip: How have locals been involved? What do they stand to gain from my presence here? Tourism Cares’ Vlamings points to G Adventures, the Travel Corporation, and Intrepid as having good initiatives, adding that the surge in demand for authentic, experiential travel has encouraged companies to think this way.

Donations to the right organizations are always welcome, but when travelers actively look for experiences that give back, it creates long-term benefit. As Vlamings says: “It’s about really using the travel industry to create economic development just by the way you travel, as opposed to a donation or charity model where people are dependent on that money and it’s not very sustainable.”

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Saving Coral Reefs

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Photo courtesy of Conservation International

The Experiences

The tiny nation of Timor-Leste in Southeast Asia is fringed with fragile coral and believed to have the most biodiverse waters on the planet, with an average of 253 fish species in each coral site surveyed by Conservation International (CI). Here, the nonprofit is working closely with local dive businesses, with annual fees for access divided among local communities. The money is spent on basic necessities, such as rice, and for infrastructure, including the maintenance of 12 community-run marine protected areas (MPAs).

“Timor-Leste and Atauro Island in particular sit firmly in the global epicenter of marine biodiversity,” says Mark Erdmann, VP of CI’s marine programs. “At the same time, the coastal communities of Timor-Leste are considered some of the poorest in Southeast Asia, and they are very dependent upon these reefs for their livelihoods. CI has been working closely with the government and local communities to expand their livelihood options, with tourism one of the most sustainable ways to increase the value of their reefs in a non-extractive manner. Properly managed, marine tourism in Timor-Leste can provide significant income to local coastal communities and decrease their dependence on fishing—leading to a positive feedback loop wherein the fish populations on the reef recover and increase the tourism value of these reefs.”

Paula Vlamings also recommends Florida’s Coral Restoration Foundation, which lets visitors help plant new coral nurseries. The nonprofit has planted more than 100,000 staghorn and elkhorn corals on the Florida Reef Tract since 2007. (The company says the area has lost nearly 97 percent of those plants since the 1970s.)

The Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef project, meanwhile, aims to survey the famous reef system’s entire 1,400-mile stretch. Participants will be able to upload photos from their dives tagged with GPS location. The University of Queensland will use the images for a broader overall map of the reef and its ecosystems. It’s one of many projects calling on the public, like Virtual Reef Diver—which asks helpers to identify marine photos from home.

The Product

Picking the right sunscreen is a simple option every traveler can do. Essentially, you want to avoid the harmful oxybenzone (or BP-3), which causes coral bleaching and prevents coral from reproducing, and opt instead for something less damaging to fragile reefs. The key is to look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Hawaii’s Safe Sunscreen Coalition offers a sample box of five products to try.

Small Habit Changes

Reefs aren’t just affected by sunscreen, however. Overfishing, local pollution, and the warming and acidification of the oceans all play a part. Offsetting carbon could help in the long run, but shorter term options include opting for sustainable fish and seafood; respecting coral on your own dives; ensuring any boats you rent treat wastewater correctly; conserving water; and of course eschewing that novelty coral decoration. As the Coral Reef Alliance says, leave only bubbles.

Use Your Influence

Travelers can make enquiries about restoration during bookings, insisting hotels and operators lay out any conservation efforts before they put down a deposit. Plenty of places worldwide are starting to treasure their neighboring reefs—and shouting about it on their sites.

Take the Brando in French Polynesia, which is recommended by Jessica Hall Upchurch, travel advisor consortium Virtuoso’s vice-chair and sustainability strategist. “The resort is air conditioned by the deep sea water of the lagoon, staff work to protect the coral reef and the sea turtles that nest there, and through their partnership with nonprofit Tetiaroa Society, the Brando supports education and research that blends traditional wisdom and scientific understanding to sustain this beautiful and culturally significant destination,” she says.

It’s not the only one. In the Indian Ocean, the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi’s resident marine biologist Emma Bell combines her work on coral restoration projects with guest education, whether through snorkeling trips or presentations. The Christopher St. Barth supports an Artireef project that uses marine cement to regrow new coral in Pointe Milou’s warm Caribbean waters. And in Jamaica, a nine-year preservation program at Island Outpost owner Chris Blackwell’s Oracabessa Foundation has seen an increase in fish biomass of 1,313 percent and coral coverage by 153 percent. Guests at the company’s GoldenEye property can witness the results on snorkeling tours. Vlamings has viewed the impact firsthand. “The difference [one year later] is amazing,” she says. “The colors have come back. The fish have come back.”

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Fighting Plastic

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The Experience

More than 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Travelers can do much to address this, whether they’re clearing a couple of handfuls of trash on a day at the beach or taking part in Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Shannon Stowell thinks tour companies can do more to encourage travelers, too. “You don’t want to say, ‘Hey, you’re on vacation, please pick up garbage,’” he says, “but you can say, ‘This place used to be pristine. If you’d like to pick up trash, we’ll provide bags.’”

The coronavirus crisis has the potential to redefine the battlelines in the war on plastic, at least temporarily, with some retailers like Starbucks banning the use of reusable cups over fears of virus spread and bottled water sales soaring, while the plastic bag industry has seen the pandemic as an opportunity to reverse disposable bag bans. The onus is on travelers to shun plastic and insist that businesses taking their money do the same.

The Product

One of the most effective ways to cut down on plastic on the move is to create a special travel kit—something we could all be doing while we’re stuck at home dreaming of our next trip. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, told AFAR about a number of her favorite zero-waste products, including Colony Co.’s mesh bags—great for groceries on extended trips—and To-Go Ware’s bamboo utensil kit, which includes a knife, fork, spoon, and chopsticks and comes in a travel pouch with a useful carabiner, meaning you can skip that plastic airport spork.

Small Habit Changes

An easy win: Invest in your own reusable stainless steel water bottle, something from Klean Kanteen (the company just announced that it’s 100 percent carbon neutral and Climate Neutral Certified) or Dopper perhaps—bearing in mind, as Stowell notes, that they have their own hefty production footprint. “It’s pretty sobering to realize that for you to be sustainable with that steel or porcelain mug or glass, you have to use it thousands of times,” he says.

Companies often insist that bottled water is the only safe option in certain places they operate, but Stowell says ATTA has tried to remove this obstacle by working with partners like the Grayl and Lifestraw purifying systems to provide solutions to member companies.

Use Your Influence

Numerous hotel chains and airlines—including Hyatt, Royal Caribbean, and American Airlines—have pledged to purge plastic in one form or another in recent years. Marriott International and IHG are ditching plastic bottles ahead of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s forthcoming ban on small bottles in hotels of 50 rooms or more. Last summer, San Francisco Airport banned plastic bottles for water outright.

Travelers can push for more change at a grassroots level, at the concierge desk, or on social media—asking where the water fountains are, or why every sandwich comes wreathed in plastic wraps—until corporate HQs get the message. Hotel policy changes are “driven by consumers asking for that,” says Paula Vlamings. “Making those inquiries to the companies or asking if they have a policy and what they’re doing for that, companies really pay attention to that. . . . The traveler has a big impact in the decisions these companies make. It’s driven by consumer interest and consumer inquiry.”

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Reforesting the Earth


Photo courtesy of Trees for Life

The Experiences

The world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, threatening wildlife habitats, the livelihoods of some 1.6 billion people, and the frontline of defense against climate change. But tree-planting efforts do make a noticeable difference—just ask the naturalist who planted a forest around India’s Brahmaputra river, stemming soil erosion and bringing biodiversity back to the once-barren area.

Travelers can get their hands dirty—literally—by planting seedlings. In Scotland, rewilding organization Trees for Life offers weeklong conservation trips and partners with local travel companies like Away from the Ordinary to offer a day of tree planting in the Caledonian Forest as part of a larger itinerary. In Fiji, where salt-tolerant mangroves protect coastal areas from tsunamis and cyclones, Kokomo Private Island Resort’s Mangrove Reforestation Program grows seedlings that guests can help transplant, water, and maintain. And travelers visiting Iceland with Intrepid can spend a day at the Smáratún farmstay planting birch trees, which covered the island before the Vikings razed its forests.

The Product

For every travel-friendly garment that Tentree sells, it plants a tree. The company supports community-focused reforestation projects in Indonesia, Senegal, Haiti, Mexico, and Canada. Each piece of apparel comes with a unique code that customers can enter on the company’s website to see where their tree was planted and track its impact. Better still, Tentree is a certified B-Corporation, meaning it’s demonstrably dedicated to ethical and sustainable practices. Its joggers, T-shirts, jumpsuits, and jackets are made with eco-friendly materials like Tencel, hemp, recycled polyester, and organic cotton.

Small Habit Changes

Trees are the most effective tool for sequestering carbon, so many carbon offset programs support planting campaigns. Simply by buying offsets, a traveler can help reforest the world.

Offsetting an average, round-trip domestic flight can cost as little as $10 with the Arbor Day Foundation’s carbon credit program. You can also use reputable organizations like Gold Standard or Green-e, which support many offsetting efforts, choosing to direct your money to a tree-focused project. The trip organizing tool App in the Air can calculate your carbon footprint using your flight details (including plane type and your cabin class), and it encourages you to offset with the nonprofit One Tree Planted.

Use Your Influence

Choose to travel with companies or stay with hotels that are actively involved in forest conservation projects. In Uganda, Volcanoes Safaris helps protect the important biodiversity of the Kyambura Gorge by maintaining a forested buffer zone. The new Nayara Tented Camp in Costa Rica maintains a sloth sanctuary, for which it is planting 40,000 new trees. And REI Adventures, which is built on values of environmental stewardship, is sponsoring the One Million Trees for Machu Picchu program that launched earlier this year. How can you tell if a company is supporting projects like these? “If they’re doing anything,” says Paula Vlamings, “they’re talking about it on their websites. They should be by now.”

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Protecting Wildlife


Photo by LM Spencer/Shutterstock

The Experiences

Travelers used to cross the world to ride an elephant or swim with dolphins, but awareness of the cruelty of that sort of tourism has grown. Now, people can experience the world’s wildlife safely and ethically, at legitimate sanctuaries that put the animals’ needs first.

In Kenya, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust shelters animals orphaned by poachers targeting the country’s more than 30,000 elephants and 1,000 rhinos for their tusks and horns. Founded in 1977 by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE, the Trust has successfully rescued and rehabilitated 262 orphaned elephants and rhinos. The nursery in Nairobi National Park is only open for one hour per day (for the animals’ welfare), but guests can adopt an orphan for a year or up to 10, supporting its upkeep and tracking its growth and reintroduction into the wild.

The Libearty Sanctuary near Brasov, Romania, has rescued more than 100 bears from circuses and illegal zoos across Europe. Founded by the Millions of Friends nonprofit and supported by World Animal Protection and SPCA International, the sanctuary gives the bears a place to live in peace, since they cannot be released back into the wild. It offers three educational public tours per day, which are limited to 50 people and take place in the morning, in consideration of the nocturnal creatures.

The Products

In the same way that a Fair Trade label tells you that a product has been ethically made, a Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) tells you that it’s helping save wildlife. You can buy elephant-friendly tea from India, grown in gardens that have eliminated razor-wire fences, and jaguar-friendly coffee from plantations in Costa Rica that prohibit hunting on their lands. The certification body was founded in 2007 and certifies with companies around the world based on strict criteria. Executive director and co-founder Julie Stein says that the certification allows farmers to put a premium on their products, making it financially beneficial to protect the animals.

Small Habit Changes

It’s time to change our expectations when it comes to interacting with the world’s wildlife. Even if you’d never try to take a selfie with a wild creature, you might find yourself hoping to catch a glimpse of one scampering off into the bush. But WFEN’s Marissa Altmann says even that disturbs the animal and can negatively impact its well-being over time.

When you travel, make it your goal to disturb wild animals as little as possible. On a visit to Namibia with Wilderness Safaris, Shannon Stowell says that his group went out of their way to avoid scaring rare desert rhinos. “We had to walk more than a mile to hunker down and watch a rhino from probably half a mile away through binoculars so as to not disturb it. Bad management would [have been] 10 jeeps surrounding the rhino and being very close so people can get that perfect photo.”

Use Your Influence

But you needn’t avoid wildlife tourism altogether. “Managed tourism can support wildlife by making the animal worth more alive than dead,” says Stowell. He adds that badly managed or unmanaged tourism leaves the animals vulnerable to poaching, as many are now with humans driven inside by COVID-19.

Support the tour operators and accommodations that are doing it right. World Animal Protection maintains a list of over 240 travel companies that have stopped selling and promoting venues that offer elephant rides and shows. Some also refuse to sell or promote any wildlife entertainment activity, like dolphin shows and tiger-cub petting. WFEN certifies tourism companies that are actively engaged in wildlife conservation work. El Nido Resorts and Lio Tourism Estate in the Philippines just received the world’s first sea-turtle friendly tourism certification from WFEN.

Stowell points out that guides and tour operators in many parts of the world are used to captive wildlife experiences bringing in better tips. So if you find yourself encouraged to hold, pet, take selfies with, or feed wildlife, simply refuse. “We must, as travelers, treat wildlife as wild.”

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