From minding your own carbon footprint to mindful interactions with locals, I offered some suggestions on The Art of Conscious Travel for kulula’s khuluma in-flight magazine, looking at ways we can be more considerate and sustainable travellers.
THE SUSTAINABILITY BUBBLE
Private islands, off-the-grid walking trails and remote community-run game lodges are the current sweethearts of sustainable travel. Around the world, there are towns, cities and even entire countries focusing on finding ways to reduce human impact, whether by banning plastic bags or limiting the number of visitors allowed into sensitive areas per day. Closer to home, the small coastal village of Pringle Bay in the Overberg is doing it right by driving a plastic-free campaign.
Plastic straws are outlawed along with single-use bags, and the community arranges beach cleanups and is pulling together in anti-poaching efforts. Talking plastic bags, it is estimated that nearly one trillion of these awful things are used worldwide annually.Kenya recently joined the 30-plus countries that have banned single-use plastic bags, following Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda and more across Africa. South Africa is still to fully wake up, but as individuals, we can simply refuse to use them.
PICKING GREEN ABODES
When searching for accommodation to suit your evergreening heart, look to members of organisations like Eco Atlas, Fair Trade Tourism and Green Pearls to find places that have been vetted for adherence to a surgical list of criteria relating to sustainability and environmentally sound practices. Any place with an International Ecotourism Society endorsement is also worth scouting out. Or simply apply some time to reading their website for a better idea of their ethos. Make sure to do this in advance, as unbooking once you’ve arrived can be tricky.
BE A GREENER GUEST
Where disposable plastic is provided, ask if there’s an alternative. Insist, even. Don’t think that because you’re on holiday, the need to conserve water and energy is suddenly trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually someone else’s problem. It’s your planet, so think sparingly when you shower and pause before throwing your towel on the floor. Hang it on the rail and let the housekeeper know that your sheets don’t have to be changed every day.
When you’re in remote areas such as nature reserves, think about the footprint of everything you use. Food and drinks often have to travel great distances (just as you did) to get there, so opt for simplicity. You can probably do without the imported whisky in favour of local booze for a few days in the bush.
If you’re still leaving the air-con on when you leave the room, then you’re not being conscious enough. Adults turn off the lights and the AC before going out.Of course, as a paying guest, you should also give feedback to the owners of establishments you frequent – if you feel those plastic water bottles in your bedroom could be replaced by filtered drinking water, why not make the suggestion?
You could also suggest that they buy guest amenities in bulk and use refillable shampoos and soap dispensers rather than the little ones that need to be discarded once opened. And everyone should be banning plastic straws.
You may even want to have that minibar unplugged if you’re not planning on using it, and if you are in water-sensitive areas (like Cape Town and, really, most of South Africa), you should be suspicious of hotels that don’t remind you to use water sparingly. Say something – it’s your planet, after all.
If you’re still leaving the air-con on when you leave the hotel room, then you’re not being conscious enough.
ADOPT A CONSCIOUS ATTITUDE, AT HOME AND WHILE ON THE MOVE
Recycle. Just because you are far from home doesn’t mean the place you’re in isn’t dealing with the same regular crises that have arisen from human development: landfills are swelling, the oceans are filling with plastic, and resources are being used up. Opt for the environment- and animal-friendly toiletries. They’re often better for your body, too.
Shift towards a more plant-based diet. If you’re not quite ready to become a hardcore vegetarian, at least cut down the amount of meat you eat and try a few meat-free days each week. Eat only sustainable fish – you should investigate the sustainability of unfamiliar seafood before ordering. Eat what’s in season.
Connect with Pack with a Purpose, which promotes the ‘Small Space, Little Effort, Big Impact’ philosophy and encourages all tourists to include a few items such as stationery, medical supplies, deflated soccer balls or pet supplies in their luggage. These can be distributed to the closest community.
Leave the shells on the beach and your litter in the garbage bin. Live strongly by that old ccliché:take only photographs and leave only footprints.
YOU DON’T NEED THAT ANIMAL INTERACTION
Encouragingly, the ‘Hands Off Our Wildlife’ trend has meant a move towards fewer exploitative encounters with wild animals. There is less elephant riding and fewer opportunities to swim with captive dolphins. Instagram’s decision to launch an alert system to prevent wildlife abuse and remove selfies with captured and often abused wild animals, is a game-changer – but we need to change our own game, too.
Attractions to avoid include circuses with animals, bullfighting, walking with lions or other big cats, lion cub petting, ostrich riding, swimming with captive dolphins, dolphin and orca shows, dancing bears and performing monkeys. Even those poor imprisoned cobras lured out of their baskets by so-called snake charmers are victims of abuse – they’ve had their fangs removed, which is anything but charming.
As much as it’s a kick to climb aboard an elephant or have pictures of ourselves hugging cheetahs, it’s essential to be mindful of the circumstances under which the animals you’re interacting with have come to be tamed and harnessed in order to satisfy the human lust for experiences. Cuddling koalas may seem cute, but imagine being on the receiving end. Humans need to adjust their attitude and accept that animals should ideally only be seen in the wild.
Educate yourself by watching the documentary Blood Lions, which joins other films like Gorillas in the Mist, Echo of the Elephants, The Cove and Blackfish in changing our views about how we behave with wild animals.
Local is truly lekker
Don’t buy superfluous or cheap made-in-China souvenirs. Opt for the real thing. After all, if it’s locally made, it might just be accompanied by a priceless story.
Tip properly. Just because you’re on holiday doesn’t mean you should take a break from simple human decency.
Be mindful of what you post on social media. Selfies with caged animals are never going to be cool.
Walk the streets and use public transportation. You’d be amazed by how much more you see and delighted by the people you meet. Incidentally, asking for directions is a legitimate conversation starter. FYI: The conversation starts with ‘Excuse me?’ not ‘Hey, you!’.
Despite what your Mother told you, always talk to strangers.
Avoid cultural arrogance. Notice how your big city impatience flares up when you touch down in small, slower towns? Going with the local flow may be precisely what you need.
Be mindful of the circumstances under which the animals you’re interacting with have been ‘tamed’.
My recommended voluntourism options
One of my favourite voluntourism experiences was a week spent in Watamu on Kenya’s gorgeous East Coast with the Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch, a not-for-profit organisation that works with residents in protecting nesting sea turtles, rescuing and rehabilitating any caught in the fisherman’s nets and returning them to the waters. It felt wonderful to be making a difference in ensuring the future of these incredibly endangered animals and I’ll always hold on to the joy of watching the released turtles running into the ocean, and swimming out to their freedom.
The newly opened Panthera Africa in Gansbaai is an authentic wildlife sanctuary that provides a safe haven for captive-bred big cats that are rescued individually to live out the rest of their lives in safety. Also, the Drakenstein Lion Park, which was established specifically to provide lions in distress with a place to live free of abuse, and with the respect they deserve. Both offer long-term projects for eco-visitors, one in the Overberg, the other in the Cape Winelands.
In Cape Town’s Table View at the Rietvlei Wetland Reserve, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or Sanccob as its better known, is a non-profit organisation that conserves seabirds and other sea life, specifically the threatened African penguin, through hands-on intervention and rehabilitation. Since their humble inception in 1968, they’ve saved almost 100,000 seabirds.
For many of us voluntourism in Africa speaks of the opportunity to work with leopards and endangered wildlife, something that is offered by Wild Life Act in Zululand. The only Fair Trade Tourism-certified wildlife volunteer program in Africa, it is supported by the WWF and contributes to some of the most important and exciting endangered conservation work being done on the ground. It’s real conservation and the experience of a lifetime wrapped into one.