There is no ingenious code of conduct for sustainable travel. A lot depends on the context, but in any case respect for people and planet take priority. Here are 17 tips to help you on the right path.
1. Respect local standards and values, and find out in advance about:
dress codes, greetings, bodily contact, eating habits, contact between people of the opposite sex, or a different status, visits to religious sites, etc. Take time to discover the culture and meet people.
2. Don't just spontaneously take photos.
First approach the people you wish to photograph and ask permission. Negotiate a fair price if people ask for money. It is better not to give money to children (see point 4). Taking photographs of some locations and objects may be offensive and unwelcome in certain cultures and religions.
3. Do not enter a village or go among native people unannounced.
Make clear agreements in advance, possibly with the village chief: in terms of fees, camping spots, places you may visit, etc. Respect their culture.
4. Be extra vigilant around children.
Sex with underage persons in return for payment (money, goods, other promises) - wherever it takes place in the world - is punishable in Belgium. It generally also leads to prosecution in the travel destination itself. It is better not to give money to (street) children, even if they ask for money for a service such as taking a photo of them. If they earn good money, their parents may keep them home from school. Or they might purchase alcohol, glue, or other drugs. You can also donate something useful to a school, preferably bought at a local market.
5. Travel slowly and offset the carbon emissions of your trip.
Use a train or an economical car instead of an airplane. And support specialised organisations such as CO2logic.be, Greentripper.org, Treecological.be and Greenseat.nl. These organisations calculate the amount you need to pay to offset your emissions, and they invest your money in sustainable energy and reforesting activities. Ideally use public transport at your travel destination. If you do use a rental car, consider a hybrid or electric version. A holiday close to home will always be greener and cheaper. And remember, most cruise ships pollute even more than air travel.
6. Plan your trip thoroughly.
If you travel to a distant country, it is better to go for a longer period. Look for accommodation with ecological initiatives such as solar energy. Carefully plot your route so that you don't need to make any unnecessary detours if you need to use the car. If you choose a travel package with a sustainability label, find out exactly what it entails. Recycle your travel brochures: pass them on to family or friends.
7. Don't consume energy unnecessarily.
Ensure that you have unplugged all electronic devices at home before you set off. It is better to unplug all unused electrical devices at your destination as well.
8. Leave nature intact.
Take your waste with you, and avoid polluting public water. Use biodegradable soap. Leave animals and plants alone, and don't unnecessarily deviate from paths. Exercise caution when starting fires, and only use driftwood or dead branches. Preferably cook using gas or sustainably-produced charcoal.
9. Look for alternatives to plastic.
In some hotels or shops, you can obtain 'separate' drinking water. You can simply refill your water bottle or jerrycan. If in doubt, you can always purify the water. If you do use plastic bottles, put them with the waste, or give them away. Plastic bottles can be useful for people. Take a reusable bag from home, that way you don't need to accept a plastic bag when shopping.
10. Always be frugal with water, even when on holiday.
For example, it is better to use a beaker to brush teeth, and take a quick shower. Don't have your bedlinen changed every day, and use reuse hand towels.
11. Eat locally-produced food as much as possible.
That is good for the environment and the local economy. In addition, you can discover local specialities. But beware of illegal bush meat (from poaching).
12. Do not take any illegal souvenirs or plants:
endangered animal or plant species, or cultural heritage such as fossils, arrowheads, coral, potsherds, ancient and archaeological objects... Even sand, pieces of rock or shells.
Furthermore, it is forbidden to bring plants from third (non EU) countries into the EU without a “phytosanitary certificate”. This includes also fruit, vegetables, seeds, cut flowers and other forms of plants. However, there are a few exceptions: pineapple, dates, bananas, coconut and durian. In this way, the EU aims to prevent the emergence of new plant-diseases.
13. Make use of local amenities.
Avoid all-inclusive holidays or international hotel chains, preferably sleep in smaller family hotels. You can also look for 'Community based tourism', which closely involves the local population. This is a great way to make direct contact with the locals. Check whether they get their fair share of the income. Or you could perhaps try agro-tourism? You can experience day-to-day life on a farm on every continent. An accommodation with the Green Key label - which stands for environmentally friendly management - is also possible.
14. Let local people work for you.
Don't skimp on minor expenditure. Take a tuktuk or rickshaw, have your cases or backpack carried, and pay for it. Or enlist a local guide.
15. Don't forget to tip.
For many families, a job in the tourist sector is all they have, the wages are low and the work is seasonal. An extra tip to a maid or bellboy is a nice gesture. Find out what a reasonable tip is.
16. Only give to beggars if the locals do likewise.
In Islam, giving alms is one of the five pillars, and it is also customary in India to help beggars. Adapt to their culture. It is preferable to give little and often rather than give an extravagant amount in one go.
17. Purchase (legal) souvenirs.
And if possible, buy them from the makers themselves. Make sure that. e.g., necklaces are not made of illegal coral or ivory. And that it doesn't have a 'Made in China' sticker on it. Remember, you can't buy real antique figurines without an export license.
Haggle by all means, this is part of the culture in many countries. But don't push it down to the limit. The seller has a minimum price in his head in any case.
Take care of your health !
People planning to travel to faraway destinations are strongly advised to consult a specialist travel clinic such as the ITM in advance. A list of Belgian centres can be found here. The aim is to provide professional advice to travelers regarding current health risks, specifically for the planned travel destination and type of travel. The health and condition of the traveler may also be taken into account. Based on this, he or she can receive appropriate advice on what to do in the event of illness during or after the trip. The ITG app Wanda is a useful tool in this regard, but does not replace proper consultation before you travel.
Find out more:
Duurzaam reizen in de praktijk (Sustainable travel in practice) (2007) – Jolijn Geels
The Ethical Travel Guide (2009) – Polly Patulo and Orely Minelli
Le Guide de l'écotourisme (2008) – Le Petit futé
‘Tourisme durable (2009) – Le Guide du routard