As with many other things, our approach to travel and tourism will have to change now that global coronavirus restrictions are mostly lifted. After all, the prospect of spending your holiday shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists from all over the world kind of lost its appeal in these days of virological awareness. Not to mention the fact that queueing up for those crowded Instagram hotspots was never that appealing anyway. All the more reason to start looking at alternative, more culturally sustainable tourism options.
Let’s get one thing straight first. There is no need to drop your standards when participating in sustainable tourism; nobody is expecting you to spend your precious vacation days in a mud hut eating leaves and berries for two weeks. Sustainable travel simply means you re-examine your travel habits and look at how you might contribute more to local culture and development.
For example, you could spend a week in a locally-owned guesthouse instead of a hotel room belonging to a giant international corporation. Book activities that contribute to local culture, instead of drunkenly riding tractor tires on a Laos jungle river. Or you could find a new, out-of-the-way destination to explore as you postpone that visit to Paris, Rome or any other place that people will be visiting regardless of restrictions.
This way, you get a more authentic experience and your money goes to locals who need it now more than ever. Leaves and berries are still optional.
Why should we look to sustainable tourism now?
Tourism and travel, now that coronavirus travel restrictions are lifted, look and feel quite different from what you were used to. Mass tourism has been restricted in one way or another by most governments, and it remains to be seen how many countries will actually see their tourism sectors flourish at pre-pandemic levels.
This means local businesses have suffered a major loss of income, especially in less developed countries and upcoming destinations. These people are highly dependant on tourists visiting their corner of the world, and now that the stream of visitors has taken a big hit your visit can really make a difference. The way sustainable tourism can make a difference here is twofold; helping local tourism recover and keeping you away from crowded hotspots.
By booking activities and accommodations with locally-owned businesses in less popular destinations, your money will help these regions survive today’s economic recession. By visiting more out-of-the-way places, you will get to avoid the crowds. And if you can manage to leave a smaller ecological footprint while you’re at it, all the better!
With this in mind, here are several ways you can adapt your travel habits to the changing times ahead:
The best way you can contribute to the development of local tourism is by always booking with sustainable businesses. There is a simple way you can determine if a business upholds sustainable tourism practises. Just ask yourself this: Will my money go towards sustaining or the exploitation of local culture and ecology?
To take my earlier example of tubing on a river in Vang Vieng, this might seem like a harmless bit of fun. You might think that because your money goes to local businesses, you are helping locals earn money and thereby improving their lives. However, when the tubing business grows and the bar street becomes more popular, locals now face the fact that their village is turning into a permanent party town. And by now they are too dependent on this income to change the fact that their local culture is slowly changing into a jungle parody of Amsterdam’s red-light district.
By responsibly matching your chosen activities with local ecology and culture you can help preserve that which makes a destination unique.
Skip the hotspots
Due to past restrictions on mass tourism and the resurgence of massive crowds in popular destinations, it might be better to skip places like Bali, Rome or New York this year. These hotspots are getting plenty of visitors now that international flights are taking off again. Why not look for other destinations that offer a similar, but more isolated and authentic experience?
Instead of Bali, why not try one of the other islands on the Indonesian archipelago? And instead of hiking that crowded trail in the Swiss Alps, you could visit Bosnia-Herzegovina and explore the much less populated Dinaric Alps. Or perhaps you could skip that AirBnB-trip to Paris or Rome, and just focus your attention on the surrounding countryside?
Sustainable travel, once coronavirus measures have been lifted, may require you to be a bit flexible in managing your expectations. But look at it this way: instead of ‘crossing off’ items on your list of famous destinations, use this as an opportunity to discover new, meaningful experiences!
Even before the coronavirus situation, air travel had its drawbacks. Sure, it is still the fastest and sometimes cheapest way to travel, but the hassle of airports, cramped cabins and security checks is unlikely to improve when the next round of pandemic measures are implemented. And we all know the carbon footprint we leave behind while jetting towards our far-off destinations is not exactly something to be proud of either.
All the more reason to consider a trip closer to home and try out other methods of transportation. Take a train and relax in a spacious seat while you watch the landscape roll by. Or stuff a few friends into a car, go on a fun road trip and make the journey part of the holiday experience!
Consider an eco-holiday
Another way to avoid the crowds is to answer the call of the wild and seek out adventure in the wilderness. Activities like hiking, cycling, kayaking and trail running have always been staples of sustainable tourism, as they leave a minimal impact on the environment (when done right). Going on an active eco-holiday will also take you out to remote areas where your health is more likely to improve with abundant exposure to nature. And if you’re experiencing financial setbacks during these uncertain times, a nature holiday is often a lot cheaper than your average city trip.
Don’t feel like working up a sweat during your holiday? There are plenty of less intense ways in which you can enjoy the wilds while sticking to the principles of sustainable tourism. Plan a stay in an eco-lodge or eco-campsite and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding landscape without the distraction of electronics and constant internet connection. Or book a tour with an eco-friendly tour company and support local preservation efforts while getting the most out of your trip.
As always, booking with locally-owned businesses will make sure your money directly contributes to local economies. And by making sure your chosen businesses uphold sustainable values, you can be sure your visit contributes to ecological and cultural preservation as well. This ensures the next wave of visitors gets to experience the same pristine views as you did!
Volunteer your time
Are you looking to spend your holiday in a more meaningful way while saving some money? Perhaps you should consider volunteering abroad with a local business or non-profit organisation. The deal is as follows: you spend a certain number of hours every day helping out a local business. And instead of monetary compensation, you receive free meals and a room to stay in. By focusing your energy towards helping others, you get to experience local culture and everyday life in ways regular tourists can only dream of.
For businesses and non-profits hit hard by this virus-induced economic recession, people willing to work without receiving payment can really help them see their business through difficult times. In return, they are sure to show you the full extent of local hospitality.
Interested in a volunteering holiday?
Check out my guide to volunteering abroad!
Borders and airports have opened up once more, and the gears of the mass tourism machine have started to turn again. What matters now is that we utilise these circumstances to reconsider our options and choose companies, destinations and activities that put our money where it has the most impact: in the hands of local businesses and initiatives. Sustainable tourism not only helps these businesses survive the coming economic recession but also ensures that local economies thrive on maintaining local culture, instead of exploiting it.
When you book your next holiday, just keep this in mind: what really matters when visiting a place? Copying that famous Instagram post you once liked or experiencing the essence of a region’s culture while simultaneously investing in its future?