What is an ethical traveller? In my last blog I posed a series of questions and dilemmas I had encountered during my recent trip to Myanmar. Here are some thoughts on how one might be an ethical traveller. To me, being this means aspiring to travel in both a social and environmentally responsible manner.
Tourists, both through their travel to destinations and their activities at these places are leaving a dent on the environment. According to a recent study, tourism accounts for 8% of global carbon emissions. Tourists often demand luxuries like internet, hot water, even electricity and special food and drink, which are not always readily available or affordable to local people. This can put pressures on local infrastructure, energy and water supplies and adversely impact nature in the region or country. Conversely, it may encourage infrastructure spending which could also benefit local people. Many tourists areas have become/are becoming polluted as tourists hurriedly dash from photo opportunity to the next exotic experience, oblivious of the trail of land, air or water pollution in their wake. In Thailand, Koh Phi Phi Leh Island recently closed in an attempt to allow the marine ecosystem to recover.
Carbon emissions can be difficult to completely eliminate from international travel, (especially if you are from an isolated island such as New Zealand!) but utilising land transport can help minimise your carbon footprint. Travelling more slowly can also provide more interesting travel experiences: I took several overnight buses as well as a full day boat trip on the Ayeyawady River (Irawaddy River) during my Myanmar trip, weaving through rural villages and past riverside farming and fishing communities, which was fascinating and insightful. Despite my concern about climate change, huge distances and my depleted emotional capacity for night buses caused me to take a couple of flights between Thailand and Myanmar. This not ideal, but perhaps I am a hypocritical environmentalist?
And then there’s plastic. In many countries, clean drinking water is not available from taps, resulting in copious numbers of plastic water bottles being bought, drank and hastily discarded. In Myanmar, local people often fill their cups from large drinking water vessels, but most places I stayed at provided complimentary plastic bottles of water. I carried my own reusable metal (and insulated) bottle and many places were only too happy to refill my bottle from these, reducing my plastic footprint. Concern for plastic should also be applied to all pollution – we should aim to leave places as we’ve found them rather than littering them with toilet paper, cigarette butts or food wrappers (a common site in busy tourist areas).
Many hotels offer advice for reducing environmental impact, like Mr Charles Hotel in Hsipaw, who suggested minimising using the air-conditioning and the frequency that towels are cleaned to reduce energy and water use. In this digital age, I think it’s really important to give positive (and negative) feedback to accommodation and other tourist providers about environmental performance where due. This could help forge change within the tourism industry. Eating local, seasonal food where possible is also a great way to support local farmers and producers and reduce food miles. Shopping at markets can also be a fun interactive experience, as can trying new foods.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of how one might reduce their environmental impact while travelling, thus helping to become an ethical traveller. Part 2 of this blog will build on this, considering how tourists can be socially responsible travellers.