Sustainable travel: How to be a better traveller

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Rachel Lawrence
5/19/2020

We’ve all seen the pictures – crystal blue waters in Venice’s canals, Delhi’s India Gate without its usual blanket of smog and pollution, and wildlife encroaching on towns and cities in ways never seen before. We’ve witnessed road traffic in the UK return to 1970s levels and marvelled at how loud the birdsong seems without the ambient noise of traffic and construction that has become the norm in built-up areas, while homes under flight paths have found themselves blissfully free of noise pollution. This brief hiatus, which has seen planes grounded, car journeys restricted and cruise ships quarantined, has prompted talk of a “reset” in travel – an opportunity to look at how we can travel in a more sustainable and responsible way.

So, if lockdown has got you thinking about changing your own travel habits, what are the key things to consider? Here’s our guide to what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, protect natural habitats and ensure the money you spend stays in the communities you visit.

Be informed

Right now, with the global situation changing faster than travel writers can keep pace with, up-to-the-minute advice and information is more important than ever, which is why we’ve launched a new Rough Guides coronavirus news platform, with a daily round-up of the latest developments.

But as borders reopen and restrictions are lifted, many of us will be wondering where to go next. Tour companies and airlines will be maximizing their efforts to attract customers, but how we choose to spend our precious holiday budget will be more important than ever.

Holidaying at home

With hopes that domestic tourism will pick up later this year, for many of us our next holiday will be closer to home – and to help you discover the very best of what Britain has to offer, Rough Guides are busy working on a new British Breaks series, handy pocket guides to places from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight.

While social-distancing rules are still in place, popular spots such as the Lake District, Peak District, Devon and Cornwall will not be able to accommodate the thousands of tourists they are used to seeing during the tourist season. Tourist boards are also advising against travel to remote areas, such as the Scottish Isles, where limited health facilities need to be reserved for local residents. Longer term, however, opting to holiday at home will bring vital revenue to areas whose mainstay is tourism.

Staying in self-catering accommodation or at a B&B – not to mention eating and drinking at nearby pubs and restaurants – is a good way of supporting local businesses and accreditation schemes, such as VisitEngland and VisitScotland’s green labels and the Green Key Wales scheme, are useful in identifying sustainable businesses. They guarantee that a business has made a significant contribution to protecting the environment, such as energy efficiency, sustainably sourced food or promoting car-free excursions. For those wishing to get closer to nature, the Greener Camping Club has a directory of eco-friendly campsites in England and Wales.

Bed and breakfast accommodation © Oila Sequira/Shutterstock

Travelling abroad – fly less, stay longer

Flying is something of a dilemma for many travellers – the benefits of connecting first-hand with cultures and communities different from our own are manifold, but the environmental cost of flying is well documented. Air travel accounts for around ten percent of the carbon footprint associated with tourism, and has seen exponential growth in recent decades. While large-scale technological solutions, such as biofuels, are still a long way off, taking fewer flights is the only way to reduce your carbon footprint when it comes to long-haul journeys.

However, this needn’t be as limiting as it sounds. Researching your destination carefully and identifying how your trip could have a positive impact are part of a more sustainable approach to travel and can make for a more rewarding experience. Trips that offer a genuine opportunity to engage with local people can benefit both sides, as can choosing off-the-beaten-track destinations and tailor-made trips, such as those offered by Rough Guides.

Aymara mother and daughter weaving a traditional cloth in the Andean Highlights of South America © Ruslana lurchenko/Shutterstock

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    Calculate your carbon footprint

    Knowing what makes up your carbon footprint is the first step to reducing it. The WWF carbon calculator allows you to compare your overall carbon footprint against the average footprint required to achieve net zero in your country. When it comes to travel, there are numerous websites, including Atmosfair and Cool Effect, which calculate the carbon emissions generated by a specific journey, whether by plane, boat, road or sea, and allow you to offset them. The money you donate helps to fund projects that reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by an amount equivalent to the carbon burned by your activity. Always check that projects are Gold Standard certified. Whilst environmentalists are divided on the efficacy and ethics of carbon offsetting, it can be a useful way of quantifying the environmental impact of the journeys you make.

    Take the train or go electric

    From heritage railways and epic journeys like the Trans-Siberian Express or the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway to the expansion of the European high-speed rail network, train travel has seen significant growth in recent years. Whilst train journeys can be more expensive than flights, the convenience, relative comfort and endlessly changing views more than compensate. The Man in Seat 61 is the definitive source of information on train travel, covering everything from regional timetables to railpasses.

    Another growth area has been the proliferation of electric cars. With rental companies now offering electric vehicles alongside conventional ones, an electric-powered road trip is totally feasible in many European countries. There are over 200,000 charging points in Europe, with the biggest concentration in Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and France, plus another 11,000 in the UK.

    The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway travelling along the cliffs heading towards Skagway, Alaska © Rocky Grimes/Shutterstock

    Travel from your living room

    It goes against the grain for many travellers, but it's worth asking yourself whether you actually need to witness the world’s most famous sights first-hand. Will crowding around the Mona Lisa give you more insight into the subject’s mysterious smile than viewing it online, for example? For some of the world's most visited sights, such as Stonehenge, the Giza Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, immersive virtual tours may offer an acceptable alternative to long queues and restricted views in future.

    Being willing to review how and why we travel could give us a greater appreciation of what travel can bring – fun, relaxation and new experiences, but also greater empathy with the people we share our planet with. Corporations and governments have a key role to play in regulating the many sectors which make up the travel industry but, as the COVID crisis has shown, individual choices can make a big difference. Something to keep in mind when booking your next trip.

    Stonhenge Google street view screenshot

    Top image: Aymara mother and daughter weaving traditional cloth, Andean Highlands, South America © Ruslana lurchenko/Shutterstock

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