This story is part of the VICE Creators Summit, a series of panels and workshops to co-create futures for a habitable planet. Find out more here.
From partying by the beach in the Philippines to elf-hunting in Iceland, traveling is a luxury that promises to satisfy our escapist desires, and one that we (well, most of us, anyway) have been deprived of for close to two years. Many mourn the loss of their globetrotting ways but others see this as a time to rethink how we travel.
Global tourism leaves a huge impact on the environment, accounting for about 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. An influx of tourists also troubles popular destinations with plastic pollution and sewage problems.
As borders start to open up and more people mull over the ethics of tourism (a tough discussion heightened by the pandemic), below are some questions we can ask ourselves while ethically planning a vacation.
Why am I traveling?
Traveling has long been lauded as a profound experience. Interacting with cultures outside your own, they say, broadens your horizons and worldview. Studies in the past decade have shown that traveling does make you more open-minded and emotionally stable, but some also argue that social media has ruined the experience for many, feeding our desire to flaunt vacation photos to acquaintances and strangers on the internet.
Amid mounting fatigue of trophy travel culture, comes a rising movement touting the value of slow travel and harking back to what globetrotting was like in pre-social media days. People are also now questioning the ethics of posting aspirational vacation photos while travel restrictions are in place, and taking time to re-evaluate priorities when it comes to exploring new destinations.
People travel for a variety of reasons, from meeting locals to learning more about historical landmarks and taking in the full glory of natural wonders. Being more mindful and purposeful about what we want to achieve in our travels can help us rethink where and how we travel, recentering our true travel desires while avoiding the pitfalls of a social media-centric and carbon-intensive travel experience.
What’s my carbon footprint?
After recentering your desires, you may find yourself forgoing destinations that require air travel.
The term “flight shame” has recently risen to prominence among eco-conscious travelers, for good reason. While flying is often the fastest way to get to faraway destinations, it also greatly impacts the environment, as it produces more greenhouse gases than other modes of transportation.
Scientists have been coming up with alternative aviation fuel using sustainable sources, but before those are widely available, most of us are stuck with the conventional variety.
Instead of traveling abroad, consider going to domestic destinations through cross-country road trips or train rides. We have long romanticized finding (or losing) ourselves in other countries, but there’s also immense value in exploring sceneries and cultures that are closer to us.
If you need to fly, you can opt for airlines that incorporate sustainable aviation fuel (mostly biofuel) into their flights. Such flights are still relatively rare and expensive, though they’re becoming increasingly common. A flight calculator can also help you gauge your carbon footprint, taking into consideration factors such as flight distance, number of passengers, and aircraft type.
How am I impacting local communities?
From lagoons strewn with plastic bottles to contaminated waters in sacred towns, pollution has become a pressing problem for hotspots that host throngs of tourists all year round. Postcard destinations are now often destroyed by a backbreaking influx of both influencers and the influenced.
When you’re finally at your travel destination, remember your individual responsibility as a fleeting visitor and leave no negative traces of your holiday. Besides the basic courtesy of not littering, you can also educate yourself about local environmental initiatives and support these plans in the way that best suits you yet fulfills the purpose.
Of course, vacationing can be all about shutting down. But a switch in mental gears—immersing yourself in local culture and consciously being a respectful visitor—can see you reaping an equally (if not more) fulfilling experience while de-stressing and having fun. From joining educational tours to befriending locals, there are plenty of learning opportunities as long as you keep your eyes and mind open to getting acquainted with a vastly different way of life.
How does the local tourism industry operate?
If you’re down for even deeper reflection on tourism ethics, consider how your arrival interacts with local businesses and the tourism industry.
Are you buying into faux eco-tourism that’s urging you to “get one last peek” at iconic landscapes before they’re “gone forever?” Are you really supporting the local economy (and the environment) by buying those mass-produced souvenir T-shirts? That organized cultural tour in your itinerary—is it potentially exploitative?
Getting to know the dark underbelly of how tourism works in certain places isn’t just for the sake of disillusioning travelers with grim examples of capitalism and opportunism—knowing your impact as a visitor can also help you plan holidays better. Instead of following the most obvious tourist itinerary, you can make conscious choices to patronize sustainable local businesses, participate in local environmental projects, and raise awareness of local environmental challenges to your social circle. It may even sway you from certain tourist hotspots in favor of other travel destinations.
Supporting structural changes can go a long way in pressuring local governments and businesses to become more sustainable, even though its effects may not be immediately visible.
Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.