As we dip our toes back into international waters, the time is ripe to consider how we might make our travels more meaningful and less harmful for the environment, and leave the places we visit better than when we arrived, writes author, travel writer and sustainability advocate Nina Karnikowski.
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It’s the moment many of us have been waiting for. The moment we may just feel brave enough to start packing our bags and planning trips again.
But before we rush off and book the first cheap ticket to Bali for a ‘fly and flop’ holiday, let’s take a moment to pause and reflect on our past mistakes, and proceed in a way that is more nourishing - both for ourselves, and for the planet and its people.
Having worked as a travel writer for the better part of the last decade, I have spent the past two years preparing for this moment.
I have been busy researching how to become a more conscious traveller, and interviewing some of the world’s most inspiring eco-adventurers on the topic for my latest book Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet.
In doing so, I have discovered there are hundreds of things we can do to rebuild the way we travel, making it less carbon-heavy, more uplifting for local communities, and more reparative for our planet’s wild places.
Image credit: Peter Windrim
I feel a little like The Grinch Who Stole Travel when I say this, but one of the most potent things we can do to become more conscious travellers is to take less, but longer and slower, journeys.
By taking one longer international trip every year or two, for example, we’ll emit less carbon emissions (pre-COVID, air travel generated around 2.5 percent of global emissions), and have the time and space to connect more deeply to the destinations we visit.
This kind of soothing slow travel is exactly what our frazzled nervous systems need right now. And it has the added benefit of allowing us to make a bigger economic impact on the communities we visit.
According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, just 5% of money spent by tourists stays in the communities they visit, while 95% ends up in the pockets of multi-national corporations.
When we support locally-owned businesses, however - including eateries and hotels, local guides and tour operators, and Indigenous artisans - our money slips directly into the pockets of locals. The importance of using our powerful travel dollars to uplift local communities becomes especially clear when you learn that only six percent of the global population has ever set foot on a plane.
After so much time pent up indoors over the past two years, it’s wonderful to know that putting nature at the centre of our journeys is another big step we can take towards becoming more regenerative travellers.
Studies in Italy and Japan have shown that being in nature increases brain health, attention span and creativity, and lowers blood pressure, heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
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Being surrounded by thriving natural environments also inspires us to feel wonder and awe, feelings that have been proven to encourage us to put the interests of others and the world before our own. All good arguments for weaving more hiking, biking, camping and sailing into our journeys. Or, if you want to take it to the next level, working a rewilding or conservation project into our trips.
Ultimately, being a more conscious traveller means thinking as citizens rather than consumers, and taking responsibility for our actions in the places we visit, as much as in our homes. And, even more importantly, thinking of how we can give as much to the places we visit as they give to us.
When I interviewed the founder of the sustainable tourism company African Bush Camps, Beks Ndlovu, for Go Lightly, he said something that made this point far better than any words I could write. “Travel is nurturing for us travellers,” he said. “We have a responsibility to ensure the communities and environments we visit receive that nourishment too.” And we do.
Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet by Nina Karnikowski is out now.