Green Warriors & Greenwashers

How to travel responsibly

Steven Larkin,

Being a responsible traveller is more important now than ever before. Many people want their travels to be clean, green and respectful of destinations, but they’re often not sure where to start. Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be well on your way.

Before You Book:
1. Reduce your carbon footprint by planning your route to minimize emissions. When you’re at your destination, travel by train, subway or any other form of mass transport where possible.

2. Make your tour operator’s policies on responsible tourism a key part of your decision-making. Ask to see the tour operator’s responsible tourism policies.  Make sure they explain how they minimize their environmental impacts and support the local economy.

3. Beware of companies that use ’green wash” to inflate their environmental credibility (see below).

Before You Travel:
1. Research the culture you are about to visit. Learn a few words of the language and be aware of local customs, including culturally appropriate clothing.

2. Reduce your carbon emissions by packing lightly — the lighter the load, the lower the emissions.

3. Ask your tour operator about appropriate and meaningful gifts you can bring along for your hosts.

On Your Trip:
1. Support local shopkeepers. Never purchase products made from endangered species.

2. Respect local cultures, traditions and religions. It is customary for women to cover their hair and shoulders when visiting holy places such as mosques or temples. Short pants are often frowned upon when worn by either gender.

3. Use local transportation or your own two legs.

4. Use water sparingly as it is scarce in most places.

5. When taking photographs of people always ask for permission first and offer to send a copy if possible.

A growing number of today’s travellers expect the companies they choose to deal with to operate in a responsible way. Many do. In fact, many companies have always had a deep respect for their destinations and the sustainability of their approach, most notably in the adventure and overland travel sectors. But with many operators now jumping on the green bandwagon, it’s not always easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys – or in responsible travel speak, the ‘Greenwashers’ from the ‘Green Warriors.’

Here are a few questions you can ask your potential travel company:
1. Do they have a written policy on responsible tourism that covers not only the environment but local communities as well? If they do have one it will likely be published quite prominently on their website. If they don’t, then where have they been for the past 20 years? Do you smell something?

2. Ask the company how they measure their contribution to conservation of the environment and to local communities. Do they have a carbon offset program? Do they support local charities? If the answers are vague…yes, I do smell something!

3. Ask the company about what kind of information on local customs, religion and practices they provide to customers prior to arrival. Do they have guidelines for sustainable travel?  How do they convey this information?  Is it readily available on their website?  If not…yep, that smells like a greenwash!

4. Ask them about support for local communities.  Do they hire local guides? Do they support local businesses thus contributing to local employment?  Beware of the answer…”Yes, of course we do, we all do.” Vagueness is a greenwashing staple.

5. Ask them what they are most proud of in terms of responsible travel. Can they tell you?  Do they have to get back to you?  If so, I smell, you smell, we all smell a greenwash!

Travelling with responsible tour companies is not only good for the planet, but it makes you feel good too. Companies that interact well with local communities and give back wherever possible earn respect from local people. That often translates into a warmer welcome, making everyone a winner.

Steven Larkin is the Toronto-based North American president of Intrepid Travel, which has been offering “Fun, affordable & sustainable travel since 1989.”
Photo Credits: CDH_Design, Zview, LyaC