How to be a responsible tourist

How to be a responsible tourist

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In Hawaii, the Mālama voluntourism program supports local community initiatives like beach cleanups, native tree plantings and cultural research.Heather Goodman/Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA

Tourism builds bridges, educating and introducing us to other cultures, languages, traditions and environments.

But there’s no denying travel is severely problematic. The World Travel and Tourism Council projects that in 2024, international tourism numbers will surpass pre-pandemic levels from 2019. Commercial airlines are responsible for 2.4 per cent of global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. One seat on a return international flight from Toronto to London creates 859 kilograms of carbon emissions. There are 53 countries where the average person creates less than that total in an entire year.

Short-term rental platforms contribute to issues of housing affordability in cities around the world. A report from Cornell University’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise flags invisible burdens of tourism, such as undermined community values, amenities for residents displaced by tourism and an increased influence on local supply chains.

So how do you plan a holiday while minimizing its impact?

It takes work and rethinking old patterns, but it’s doable. “You are not just looking for convenience, price point or the easiest way to travel,” says Amanda Ho, of Regenerative Travel, a travel agency that connects hotels, travel advisers and tour operators focused on responsible tourism. “You’re really trying to deeply understand the destination so that you know your values are aligned with the businesses that you support.”

Here are expert tips on how to be a respectful visitor as you experience all that the world has to offer.

Getting around

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Parkbus is a great transportation option for nature lovers, whether it’s a day trip or overnight camping getaway. Operating in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, the company organizes bus trips to some of the country’s provincial and national parks and beach destinations.Parkbus

Whether cars, ships, trains or planes, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles are better, though there’s still pollution from their production process and the source of power to charge batteries. But it’s hard to travel without actually, you know, travelling.

“The concern with flying is that it’s a very fast growing source of greenhouse gases, and as the middle class grows internationally, more and more people are flying,” says Gideon Forman, climate change and transportation policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

Forman admits he’s on a “fairly strict carbon diet,” but makes decisions we can all take inspiration from. Air travel should be done infrequently. “I would only really do it when there’s no alternative,” he says.

He’s skeptical of flight search engines, like Google Flights, that list low-emission flight options. “If you’re flying, you’re producing a lot of emissions, particularly those shorter trips,” Forman says. Nor is he a fan of purchasing carbon offsets, which many airlines allow you to do when buying a flight. “If the offset is planting saplings, a lot of those are not going to become big mighty oaks, so their ability to sequester carbon is quite limited.”

And while electrified airplanes are being developed, they likely won’t be an option until the 2030s. (United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines, among others, have all invested in electric aircraft. Many are also developing biofuel, derived from things like sugarcane, to lower emissions from flights.)

This shouldn’t stop you from booking a vacation, though it may mean zooming in on a map to choose a destination closer to home. “The good news is that there are a lot of things we can do if we get to know and explore our local areas,” he says.

For journeys between, say, Toronto and Ottawa or Edmonton and Calgary, opt for public bus. Parkbus is a great option for nature lovers, whether it’s a day trip or overnight camping getaway. Operating in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, the company organizes bus trips to some of the country’s provincial and national parks and beach destinations – Bruce Peninsula, Algonquin, Elk Island and Joffre Lakes to name just a few.

If you’re travelling internationally and electric train is an option, that’s an ideal way to get around. Electric car is the best choice if driving is a must and, once at your destination, walk or cycle. “My own view is that the real way you learn about a city is by walking it,” Forman says. Public transit, especially if it’s electrified, is the next best option.

Choosing a home away from home

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Fall berry season at Fogo Island Inn, Nfld. in October, 2018.Mike Dell/Fogo Island Inn

A popular hotel isn’t always beneficial to the neighbourhood or city it’s located in.

“The question that needs to be asked is who does the money ultimately benefit from your night’s stay? Is it staying in the local community or is it benefitting an individual that doesn’t even live in the country?” Ho says. Her team recommends staying at independently owned hotels, because the likelihood of that money remaining in the local community is much higher.

“Fogo Island Inn’s economic nutrition label actually identifies where all the money goes from a stay,” Ho says. “It’s an incredible role model that we have encouraged more hotels to adopt because it really is the most transparent way to actually help travellers understand where their money is going and who is exactly benefitting.”

But be wary of claims of sustainability or environmental sensitivity – “there is a lot of greenwashing out there that is happening on a lot of different levels,” she says. You can avoid this by asking the hotel directly for impact or sustainability reports or inquiring about community initiatives. “If the hotel is doing the work, they will be very proud to share that.”

Regenerative Travel recommends a minimum stay of three nights, enough time to really connect with your destination in some way. (This also means less laundry for the property; water waste is a top source of waste for hotels.) If you’re dining at the hotel’s restaurant, inquire about locally sourced ingredients, and if you’re planning tours or day trips look for guides from local companies.

Avoiding being part of overtourism

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The town of Banff, Alta., on July 21, 2017. Parks Canada closed Moraine Lake Road to public access this year to minimize traffic around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Too many tourists leads to increases in air pollution, water consumption, litter and overburdened infrastructure like waste management. To combat this, destinations around the world are making changes: Thailand has shut down public access to beaches for months at a time to rehabilitate the natural landscape. Next year, Venice is implementing a daily visitor fee of 5 euros for day-trippers during peak weekends. Closer to home, Parks Canada closed Moraine Lake Road to public access this year to minimize traffic around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Visitors must arrive by shuttles.

How do you avoid being part of the problem? Travelling outside of high season certainly helps; during these periods the strain on local infrastructure is notably less, and as a visitor you’ll likely get more attention from guides and hotel staff. Another important thing to do, regardless of when you travel: Research.

“The biggest thing is understanding local issues,” says Wes Espinosa, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a U.S.-based non-profit that advises and educates businesses in the tourism industry. “When you understand those local issues, you’ll have a more nuanced idea of how to navigate that place. Beyond just, ‘take the train instead of the plane,’ it’s ‘take the train, but here’s one that’s locally run’ and you can get this catered experience and stop in a cultural community on the way.”

He also advises looking up local non-profit. “Are they working on issues related to water or waste management? Are they working on issues related to plastic? Once you get a feel for what those non-profit are doing, then you can say, ‘I really need to make sure that I don’t buy single use plastic in this place,’” he says.

Visiting a destination in recovery

A valuable source of information if you’re considering visiting a destination that’s in recovery after natural disasters, for example, is the local tourism board or destination marketing organization (DMO), the official organization that promotes tourism for a city, region or country.

When heavy rains caused flooding in New Zealand, the country’s tourism board posted safety information and travel advisories on its website, and other communication channels. Similarly, Northwest Territories Tourism had up-to-the-minute info about access and safety during and after the wildfires in August.

Tourism boards also often share guides to exploring a destination in new, respectful ways. In Hawaii, the Mālama voluntourism program supports local community initiatives like beach cleanups, native tree plantings and cultural research. New York City’s tourism organization has several cultural-specific guides that encourage visitors to see the city through the lens of the Asian, Black, Latino, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities.

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Volunteer plants a hala (pandanus) tree Location: Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge, Wailuku, Maui Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Heather GoodmanHeather Goodman/Handout

Respecting your host community

Being a responsible tourist means respecting local customs, adhering to rules and regulations and paying attention to the desires of local communities.

Despite guidance warning against doing so, it’s become a summer tradition on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast for rescue services to find and help tourists who’ve decided to “hike” the rugged coastal mountains in flip flops. A rock formation in Ka’anapali, Maui, that has cultural significance for Native Hawaiians has signs around it warning tourists not to jump off of it into the ocean, yet they still do.

And don’t put your trust in online maps.

“There was a story from the North Shore recently where search and rescue came to find someone because they thought they could find a certain secret spot that was on Google Maps, but the trail didn’t even exist,” says Diana Mulvey, of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).

When it comes to respecting the environment, there’s a pretty easy rule to follow: Stick to the trails. “There are a couple of reasons why,” Mulvey says. “One is to contain the footprint, which erodes the soil and habitat. If we can contain it to a certain area then the rest of the area will thrive. The second is for safety. It’s difficult terrain out here, so staying on the trail keeps you safe.” For hikers of all levels, hiring a local guide can provide insight into flora, fauna and wildlife.

Whistler’s population is just shy of 14,000 and the town receives three million visitors a year. The municipality’s goal is the cut its carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, and tourists have a big role to play in that. AWARE promotes environmental initiatives in Whistler for residents and businesses but this is programming that tourists can learn from and it’s all available on its website, such as safety tips for cyclists if their path is taking them into bear country, actions to take to minimize the spread of invasive species when paddling, and a recommendation for eating at plant-based restaurants.

Mulvey notes good transportation choices are easy to make. If you’re flying into Vancouver’s airport, there are many shuttles providing service directly to the village, where you won’t need a car.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but ultimately the research and connections made while doing it will create a richer travel experience.

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