Thanks to el cheapo flights, faster-than-light access to itineraries, and a booming interest in exploring the world, growing droves of travelers are trooping up our mountains, swimming in our beaches, and visiting our top tourist hideaways year-on-year.
Good thing there are ways not just to curb travel impacts but also for us to make destinations even better when we leave.
Animal Scene readers, here are a few secrets to transform you from a tourist to an eco-traveler, allowing you to experience destinations with minimal disturbance while bringing out the best in you and your hosts.
All great trips follow at least a rough plan. Given time, weather, and budget limitations, chart the most efficient itinerary to take you from point A to point B. The web is your best friend in determining the most cost-effective routes, rates, and events to visit.
Recently, I booked a flight right before a snowstorm and flew before thousands of later flights were canceled—all because I checked the weather before booking. Twenty minutes of research can avert stressful, time-consuming, but often hilarious (only after a few weeks) detours.
Here’s a checklist!
A basic backpacking kit consists of:
- A mobile phone
- Power bank
- Quick-dry apparel
- A Swiss knife
- Toiletry kit
- A non-disposable water bottle
Consider the probability of actually using something enough times to necessitate hauling it about. Must you really lug that laptop just to check email if you can do it over your phone? Would you even want to check work mail on your vacation?
When packing, remember to weigh all your options, literally. My favorite trick is to bring just three sets of clothes and a small packet of detergent. Doing light labada before going to la-la land automatically makes my bags 50% lighter than those of most other travelers. The less weight, the less aviation fuel (among the most dangerous carbon emissions emitted by humanity) you’ll burn up during those butt-numbing commercial flights.
Make the most of Mass Transportation Systems like Ferries, Trains and Buses
Choose trains over airplanes, buses over taxis, and bicycles over scooters. This not only lowers cost, it significantly reduces carbon emissions. The best part? Being able to bond and interact with local people.
For one of our Palawan trips, we took the cheapest (I mean the cheapest) ferry accommodations—and loved the novelty of it. How many can say they slept soundly beside some giddy goats and a drugged-out fighting cock? It isn’t for the fainthearted though; on one of our ferry rides to Romblon, we slept beside a group of prisoners in orange uniforms who were shackled together (they were good company, though).
Remember that an inefficient itinerary wastes both time and money—and contributes loads of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. A great plan lets you do more.
Travel During the “Low” or Off-Peak Season
Ever been to Puerto Galera during the Holy Week? You know you’re in for it when every square foot of ivory sand is covered with drunken people…or stuff that came from them.
Travelling during the low season pays dividends: lodges which would otherwise gut you for P2,000 will suddenly offer rooms for P500. There will be fewer people and far more opportunities to find interesting side trips. Your hosts will not be as pressured, so your trip will be more laid-back. Best of all, your impacts will not tally along with those of the milling herds of tourists.
When possible, become more than a mere sightseer, after all, hundreds of millions have already gone down this path. Don’t you want to experience the usual or something uniquely yours?
Eco-travelers shy away from tourist hubs to wholly immerse themselves in the culture and traditions of the communities they visit. In college, we had the honor of living with a river-bound Dumagat community, who taught us how to fish sustainably (using thread from our shirts and hooks made of sharp stones), how to ford raging waters, and how to ride the gentle currents of life. Promise, these are the lessons that will stick with you forever.
Minimize Your Impacts Through LNT
When trekking, exploring, or diving, always abide by Leave No Trace (LNT) standards: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
Why do you think ninjas are so hard to track in the bush? Because they tread fast, tramp light, and travel in small packs. You too can be a ninja! Travel in a manageable group when visiting wild areas. Split a large team into subgroups spaced several days apart to allow trails, forests, and coral reefs some time to recover.
Eco-travelers know that preserving a destination is the best gift they can bestow on others. They don’t litter, vandalize, nor show disrespect for sites, be it misty mountain trails or venerable Shinto shrines. When visiting ancient structures, resist the urge to take tiny mementos. If every gung-ho traveler took a brick from Ayutthaya’s temples, there’d be nothing left but a pile of rubble (plus maybe Buddha’s blessings—if we’re lucky).
When in forested areas, never veer off-trail unless an emergency arises. Your impacts should be confined to as small an area as possible. For instance, large portions of Mt. Pulag in Benguet have trails made of stones. Though unsightly, they force climbers to keep to established trails. If paths are overgrown, refrain from hacking down harmless, innocent shrubs and trees. If a path must be cut out, remove the minimum amount of foliage needed to clear the trail and return rocks and stones to their original places. Never light a bonfire and go kumbaya; you might just light up the entire mountain, like what already happened to several Philippine peaks this year.
Ideally, we want to leave an area in better condition than when we found it. To further heed the green call, convert all your trips into cleanups. Beach, reef, and mountain cleanups are some of our greatest gifts to Mother Earth.
You read more about this in last month’s Animal Scene issue, but remember that feeding animals distorts their natural behavior. When a well-meaning but unmindful tourist spoiled some macaque monkeys along Mt. Bongao in Tawi-Tawi some years back, the monkey trail was never the same.
Within years, the perky primates turned into professional simian snatchers, stealing what they could from visitors by ripping open bags and making off with food, wallets, and the occasional iPhone or S8. This is what your binoculars are for: to observe animals from afar.
When at the beach, never touch marine life—especially corals. Often, this destroys vital tissue and leaves animals open to disease. Besides, sea urchins, crown-of-thorns starfish, jellyfish, and fire corals can pack a serious punch when handled. Think responsibly. Lookie, but no touchie.
Respect the Locals
Always remember that you are a guest in your hosts’ territory. Be at your best behavior at all times and pretty soon, your kindness will be reciprocated.
Strive to be Culturally Sensitive
Before departing, check the regulations and special concerns for the areas you’ll visit. Particularly in religious sites, it always pays to dress conservatively as a sign of deference. When in doubt, bring backup wear.
Don’t Just Snap, Snap, Snap Photos
Along the forested slopes of Mt. Iglit-Baco in Mindoro we encountered true wild people: Tau Buid Mangyan tribesfolk, clad only in loincloths. Before I raised my camera, I asked our Mangyan guide if it was cool to snap pictures. He said that some Mangyan people believed that cameras wrought harm. Respectfully, I re-holstered my Nikon and just recorded the scene…with my eyes!
Try to Make the Best of All Situations
In Thailand, we overheard a tourist loudly ranting about how dirty Bangkok was compared with home. If you have to vent, do so in private. You represent your entire race whenever you leave home. In fact, don’t be a jerk…at home or out of town.
Some locals in major tourist hubs suffer from visitor fatigue and are prone to prey on the unwary. Never take advantage of others but don’t allow your team to be gypped either. Be firm yet polite; let them know that mutual respect is the one medium you deal in.
Learn What You Can From the Locals
…And teach them in turn, what you know. In Bohol, we met a wonderful couple who taught us to gather crabs and harvest rice. In return, we told them what we knew about blogging and the web. Enrichment should always be a two-way process. After all, happy memories for both parties are the crux of great trips.
Don’t Patronize Unsustainable Trades
- DON’T BUY OR GATHER ANIMALS, PLANTS, SHELLS, CORAL SKELETONS, DECORATIVE STONES AND OTHER ITEMS SOURCED FROM THE WILD. Unmanaged extraction is a relatively unsustainable trade and buying adds fuel to the furnace. Once, I took home some dried starfish to adorn my room. Somehow, they got wet and … and the rest of the story is too horrible to tell.
- NEVER EAT SHARKS, RAYS, SNAKES OR ANY OF THE LOCAL DELICACIES WHICH USE ENDANGERED OR THREATENED ANIMALS. Take it from someone who has tried; often, they taste worse than the regular fare. A lot worse. Promise.
- THESE TRADES MUST BE STOPPED AT THE SOURCE. When the buying stops – the killing, gathering and pillaging, will too.
Support Local Businesses
Especially in developing countries, tourism is the lifeblood of many impoverished communities.
Patronize cottage industries to help keep unusual arts and products alive and in circulation. It’s not just plants and animals which are endangered; even the cultures and traditions of our indigenous people are threatened by homogeneity and modernization.
As much as possible, stay in small inns or Airbnbs run by reputable locals, not in fancy international hotels. In hotels, you will be treated as a client, while in homestays and guesthouses, you’ll often be treated like family.
If certain items look a bit pricey, consider the amount of effort that went into producing it. A friend once explained that while a tiny rattan basket might cost R300, it probably took an entire day to weave. After some consideration, R300 for a whole day’s craftsmanship is a pretty sweet deal. Don’t scrooge up if the money goes to a good cause. Think of yourself as a patron of the arts!
Dine in local restaurants and eateries to partake of the local flavor. Order dishes with home-grown ingredients; this has lower impacts than buying imported produce.
Think global, support local. We want our money to line the pockets of needy local residents—not to fuel the interests of a few big corporations.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s May 2018 issue.