This is our chance to commit to new ways of moving around the planet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about travel lately, which is ironic because I can’t go anywhere. Much of the world remains in lockdown and, even if everything reopened tomorrow, I would not be lining up to buy a plane ticket. My thoughts on travel are more focused on how damaging the tourism industry has become in recent decades and how this pandemic-induced lockdown is a rare opportunity to rethink the way we move around the globe and to make it more sustainable.
Having some distance can allow for better perspective, so I’m using this time to think long and hard about how I want to approach travel once the opportunity resumes. Though unplanned, this post has turned out to be a sort of follow-up to my 2017 story, “6 travel tips so locals will hate you less.” These are additional travel tips that I plan to embrace and hope you, as conscientious travellers, will, too.
When I was a child, a grownup friend told me that she had to get to know her own country (Canada) before going to see others. She stuck to it, visiting every province and living in the Arctic territories before venturing to South America in her mid-thirties. This advice stuck with me because it does seem silly to pay thousands of dollars to visit rainforests, tropical beaches, and distant monuments when there are so many stunning destinations within my own country that other foreign tourists are paying equivalent sums to visit.
I want my children to have a good sense of where they come from, not to look blankly when people in distant countries rave about Banff and Jasper, Haida Gwaii, Prince Edward Island, and the cobblestone streets of Quebec City. These destinations may not seem as exotic to us Canadians, but they’re important and undeniably beautiful.
Visiting local national destinations is so much simpler than overseas travel. You don’t have to worry about currency exchange, visas, passports, language barriers, cultural differences, clothing, and more. You’re more likely to have contacts and friends to meet up with or to offer advice on what to do and see. This frees up more time to relax and enjoy the experience.
If reducing one’s footprint is a goal while travelling, making “smaller and simpler” a priority will always be better. Keep this in mind when booking accommodations. When I’m in foreign countries, I look for small, privately-owned hostels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, or house rentals. In Canada, I usually camp in a tent, but also opt for privately-owned hotels or rustic resorts if planning a getaway with my husband. This is because I want my hard-earned dollars to go directly into people’s pockets, not to a huge hotel corporation that pays its employees minimum wage.
The same philosophy applies to transportation – choosing the simplest, a.k.a. the humblest, way of moving between points A and B. Public transit is my go-to rule, unless there’s a time crunch or an emergency; not only does it cost and waste less, it gives a great window into the everyday life of a particular place. If I have to rent a car for my family, we choose the smallest size that will suit our needs. The slower the mode of transportation, the better. Hiking trips, cycling trips, train trips, canoe trips – all of these are simpler ways of moving around, and thus kinder to the planet.
By extension, this means rejecting certain modes of transportation, such as cruise ships, big tour buses, and helicopter tours. I will not go on these as a matter of principle. I don’t like how they perpetuate the industrial-type travel that is so causing so much global damage by moving too many people too quickly through ancient, fragile spaces. Travel should not be an excuse to let one’s environmental and ethical standards slide, to justify wasteful
I never thought I was one for guided tours until I joined two short tours in Istanbul last spring, both arranged by Intrepid Travel. One was an evening walk of the city’s street food vendors and outdoor markets, which was a fascinating delve into many delicious foods I’d never tried before. The other was a visit to a resettlement center for Syrian refugees that included a wonderful dinner and a tour of the facility where refugee women make beautiful handicrafts and study Turkish, while their children are cared for in an in-house daycare. (This was after hours, so we didn’t see any of the families.)
I realized that participating in short tours is an excellent way to infuse some structure into an otherwise open and loose travel schedule, especially when you’re in a foreign country. It educates and informs in a way that a guide book cannot, and leads one to places that are off the beaten track. (You won’t find everyone from your hostel at the same handful of restaurants recommended in the Lonely Planet guide!) As someone who often travels alone, it’s a great way to make some friends and find a temporary travel buddy, whether it’s just for another meal or excursion. And depending on the company you use, it’s satisfying to know that money is going straight into the hands of local experts.