Conscious travel has become a high priority of late.
It's evident in current travel writing and conferences.
We also saw it in our last reader survey when 40% of respondents told us they want to travel more consciously and sustainably.
But what does this mean?
Fundamentally, conscious travel is about being mindful of your impact as you travel. It's about making choices and acting in a manner that will have a net positive effect on a destination. To travel consciously:
- Plan your travel well.
- Choose destinations that need your tourism dollars and avoid places experiencing the problems of overtourism.
- Book with tour companies that hire local tour guides and choose locally owned accommodation.
- Design your trip with a lower carbon footprint by traveling locally, slowly, and/or buying carbon offsets.
- Be respectful of the local culture and communities as you travel.
- Support local tourism businesses rather than multinational companies.
- Minimize waste.
Conscious travel takes a little extra effort at the travel planning stage and while you are on your trip.
Travel Planning for the Conscious Traveler
Where do you plan to go? How will you get there? Where will you stay? Many travel decisions are made before leaving home that have a direct affect on how sustainable your trip will be. Here are things to consider in the planning stage.
- Avoid crowded destinations. Overtourism is a serious problem for many destinations. While tourists bring money to an economy, there is a tipping point where the strain on the infrastructure, damage to the environment, and imposition on locals' lives far outweighs the economic benefits. Whether you adjust the timing of your trip to avoid the crowds or choose another destination altogether, doing so will make for a better travel experience for you and will be better for your destination. Read How and Where to Travel to Avoid the Crowds and The Importance of Travel to Developing Countries.
- Stay in smaller cities or towns. You don't have to stay in Rome to see Rome's sights. Choosing a smaller city as your base and then using transit to see some of a country's highlights spreads tourism revenue around and gives you a very different, more relaxed place to stay. For example, Bologna is the perfect place to base yourself for exploring Florence, Venice, and all of Emilia Romagna.
- Plan to travel slowly. The more you move from one destination to another, from Paris to Nice for example, the more your travel demands of the country's infrastructure and the more emissions your travel is responsible for. Slow down, dig deep into a culture, and relax. It is good for everyone that way. Read Slow Solo Travel: Connecting to Yourself and the World.
- Choose a tour company that focuses on sustainability. If you're planning to go with a tour company then choices two through four are taken care of for you. What you can do is choose the tour company wisely. Look for their sustainability policy and see what associations they belong to. Also see if there is an appropriate charitable organization that they support. Read How to Choose a Tour: Top Tips for Solo Travelers.
- Learn a bit about the history. Understanding the origins of a culture will help you better understand their world view and specific customs. Before your trip, do a bit of research so that you can be a more respectful tourist when you're there.
How to Travel Respectful of Local Cultures and Communities
One of the most exciting aspects of travel is exploring and growing your understanding of other cultures. While there are often more similarities than differences between cultures, it is important to recognize the differences and act with respect for the culture of your destination.
- Take a step back and observe. Take pause and observe what the locals do before you walk into a public space or even pick up a tomato at a vegetable stand (an error I made 20 years ago in Barcelona). You’ll avoid going places you shouldn't tread and discover what good manners are in that culture. Read How to Be a Good Traveler: Solo or Otherwise.
- Avoid multinational chains. Whether it's your hotel or a restaurant, by avoiding multinational companies, by eating at local establishments, you will ensure that the benefits of your tourism dollar stay in the country you're visiting.
- Respect what is highly valued in the countries you visit. Electricity and water are often precious commodities. Conserve both as you travel and you can't go wrong. Likewise, show respect for dearly-held traditions. Here are a few examples of customs you may encounter around the world.
- Live the rhythm of the destination. If siestas are the norm, don’t disturb people by looking for an open store mid-day.
- Dress conservatively. This is especially important in cultures where dress is a reflection of respect. Better to try to blend in than to draw attention to yourself and risk offending.
- Be respectful when taking photographs. There are ethical issues around taking photos as you travel. This is especially true when it comes to children and for any photos taken in developing countries. Generally, it's not wise to take pictures of children unless permission is specifically given (or requested as is sometimes the case) by parents or teachers. Read How to Photograph People on Your Travels.
- Give back to the community. You can do this by giving to a local charity, supporting local artists and craftspeople, or lending a hand when the opportunity presents itself. Solo Travel Society member Bobbie once found herself helping out locals in the aftermath of an earthquake in Sauraha, Nepal. In the process, she learned much from how the community responded in the face of disaster, and how they kept her safe.
- Recognize your own prejudices and leave your biases at the door. Don't judge the culture through the lens of your own. Look for commonalities as well.
- Look for the good. Realize that, just like at home, what one person does or says is not necessarily representative of an entire culture. Be patient. Find the good and you'll likely stay on the right side of safety as well.
- Show your appreciation. If you're in a hotel, don't forget to tip the housekeeping staff. They are so often forgotten. For all those many people who make your trip wonderful but for whom tipping would be awkward, offer a spontaneous coffee or surprise flowers. At minimum, take the time to learn something about them, smile, and thank them.
Conscious travel is mindful travel. It's about being thoughtful and respectful. How do you think about this topic and incorporate it into your travel plans and as you travel? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.