These radical, sustainable travel tips could help save the planet
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Years ago, Nina Karnikowski was working as a travel writer in Australia when she got a once-in-a-lifetime email from her editor — a dream assignment for a 19-day tour of Africa by private jet. “Three days with the gorillas in Rwanda, two days exploring Ethiopia’s ancient rock-cut churches, three days visiting South Africa’s winelands . . . it was the assignment of my dreams,” she says.
But Nina turned the assignment down. Dreams aside, the trip would have been a carbon-heavy burden on the environment, without providing any benefits to local communities. But saying no gave Nina an idea: later that same day, she pitched a new book to her publisher, inspired by her decision.
That book, Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet, is a groundbreaking guide to sustainable travel, including new — sometimes radical — ways to plan, fly, eat, stay, and spend abroad. “We can figure our way out of the mess we’re in, but it requires a huge shift in collective consciousness,” she writes in the introduction, “and to dismantle everything we do, especially the way we travel, to make it more circular and regenerative.”
I recently spoke with Nina about the sustainable travel techniques she recommends in Go Lightly, including longer and slower vacations, offsetting carbon debt, making positive impacts on local communities, and more.
Why are longer and slower vacations better than short, fast trips?
It’s like having a full meal as opposed to snacking – slower travels leave us more satisfied, because we’re sinking deeper into the destinations, so we don’t feel the need to take, say, three trips a year as opposed to one good long one. That means less flights, which equals less carbon emissions, and a deeper relationship to the people and places we visit. Traveling at a slower pace also means we can make a bigger economic impact on the communities we visit, and gives us more time to figure out the best way to give back to them. ‘Going lightly’, and living lightly more generally, is all about reciprocity.
On the subject of packing lightly, what are some of the most common things people pack that they don’t need?
Too many clothes is a big one (I put my hand up for making this mistake more times than I can count). We always need less clothes than we think. Packing a capsule wardrobe can be really helpful – basics in durable fabrics like denim or linen, in basic darker colours that mix and match well and require less washing. Toiletries is another one. I’ve become a big fan of multi-purpose products and cutting unnecessary products out of my routine. For example, jojoba oil instead of cleanser and moisturiser, and cutting out earbuds since our ears are actually self-cleaning.
I’d never come across the concept of buying carbon offsets for air travel before. What’s the easiest way to do this?
We should all be flying less, but if you have to take a flight and there’s no other transport options, carbon offsetting is a big step in the right direction. The easiest approach is to jump onto a carbon calculator (native.eco and climatecare.org are good ones) to calculate the combined emissions of your flight, ground travel and food. The site will then figure out how much you need to pay them to ‘offset’ that, which they do by investing into offsetting projects, from reforestation projects, to capturing methane from landfills, to distributing solar lights in developing countries. You’re essentially paying the company to cover the emissions you can’t reduce yourself.
“According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, just 5 percent of money spent by tourists actually stays in the local community,” you write in the middle of the book. What’s the best way to ensure we stimulate the local economy when traveling?
One of the most powerful and simple ways is choosing local businesses every step of the way, so that every travel dollar you spend goes back into local communities. Choosing small locally-owned hotels (or better yet, homestays) and eateries, local guides and tour operators, and also buying locally made and hand-crafted goods, to support local artisans.
When you wrote, “organize less and keep yourself open to discovery,” my first reaction was, “Over my dead body!” For obsessive planners like myself, how can we overcome our anxiety over uncertainty when traveling, and how does it contribute to sustainability?
Trust me, you’ll open up a whole new world for yourself if you loosen your grip a little bit. That’s not saying you should leave the whole trip unplanned, but leaving a couple of days plan-free is very liberating. It keeps us open to the natural flow of life, and gets us out of that conditioned, organised way of thinking and behaving, which is really beneficial for us as human beings. We pack our travel itineraries to the brim because we’re terrified we’ll miss something. But what we’re really missing is serendipity, and the simple ability to fall in love with our planet – the very thing we need to do if we are going to live in harmony with it, and create the change we want to see.
Where are some of your favorite examples of under-touristed destinations, and how do we avoid making them over-touristed, too?
A really good example is the country Georgia. It is the quieter, lesser-known side of Europe, squished right on the edge of Asia, free of the cruise ships and package tours and over-development that has come to clog vast swathes of Italy, France and Croatia. I hiked through Georgia’s remote mountainous Svaneti region a few years back and met only a handful of other travellers along the way. It’s changing quickly, though, which links to the second part of your question. We avoid over-touristing places by choosing destinations that excite us and link in with our own unique interests, as opposed to just following the crowds or ‘hot lists’ in magazines or the places that everyone is posting about on social media. As I say in Go Lightly, searching ‘alternatives to [popular destination]’ is a good place to start when looking for off-piste places, as is contacting locals on social media to ask about their favourite hidden spots.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in sustainable travel? And what’s the biggest change that needs to happen in travel?
Riding an elephant in Nepal, which I later discovered was being controlled by an incredibly cruel bull hook. I told myself did it because I was an animal lover, but really the best way for us to love animals is to leave them alone. Any situation where an animal is forced to behave in opposition to their natural instincts should be avoided, which includes everything from cuddling koalas in Australia or riding camels in India, to visiting zoos, circuses or aquariums.
As for the biggest change that needs to happen in travel, aside from all energy going green (as in solar, wind or hydroelectric) as quickly as possible, I’d say it’s changing what we view as ‘aspirational’. Instead of traveling to take glamorous selfies or to laze by a chlorine-laden pool sipping cocktails, I’d love to see more of us wanting to take trips focused around things like rewilding efforts or conservation projects or learning, say, about permaculture. Trips that make the destination healthier while we’re there, and us better people once we return home. That’s a shift I’d like to see.
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