From 7 April to 1 June 2020, Singapore was in its “Circuit Breaker”: the city-state’s version of COVID-19 lockdown. For 56 days, non-essential retailers were forced to close; working from home became mandatory; gathering outside or at home was banned. Of course, long before then, international borders had been shut tight.
Although I started lockdown life with optimism and flights of fancy to where I’d travel “when all this is over”, fear and negativity soon took over. As a travel writer/copywriter, I’d lost my anchor client and freelance work early on in March, while reader numbers here have also plummeted. The thought of having to give up both travel and writing, frankly, turned me into a sobbing mess.
Though I’m getting by and economies around the world are now cautiously reopening, this coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to reevaluate our impact on the environment and inequality in our societies. As a traveler, it begs the question:
Pre-COVID, I always took a neutral tone in travel writing. I thought that reflected my acceptance of multiple perspectives, even if I don’t agree with all of them (like traveling for Instagram shots). I’d like to think that all travel is beneficial, at least to the individual traveler whose horizons are broadened.
But I realized that’s no longer enough.
“Sustainable” travel, “responsible” travel, “mindful” travel…this is our chance for a travel reset. A chance to turn these buzzwords – which have been trending for the past few years – into the mainstream. The default. Travel.
Government policies and the travel industry will no doubt change how we travel – or even our ability to travel – in terms of costs, visa restrictions, and health and safety protocols. It’s all the more important that we make our travels fulfilling for ourselves and our host destinations. From when we’re planning our trip to when we’re on the ground, here’s what we can should do:
1. Travel for the right time, to the right place
Let’s start with trip planning. Travel writer Ilona Biro shared a wonderfully simple rule that we can all adopt: Fly one hour, stay one night. For instance, I stayed for three weeks when I traveled to Canada, just right for a 20-hour transpacific flight from Singapore.
Slow travel like this is my favorite way to explore new places, but if you’re used to a 9-to-5 lifestyle with limited days off, this might feel unreasonable. However, look at it this way: why would you want to spend precious time and money flying long distances for a brief holiday, half of which will be spent in a haze of jet lag? Instead, choose a destination where you can fly one hour, stay one night, and explore in greater depth.
Choosing the place less traveled doesn’t just help reduce overtourism in hyped-up destinations. It can also be easier on your wallet and give you unique experiences that no one else has. The same goes for traveling to a popular destination in off-peak season: flights and accommodation are cheaper, attractions are less crowded, and you’ll have more opportunities to engage with people everywhere you go.
2. Stay with locals
Staying with locals is my favorite tip for travelers who want to immerse in local culture, but it’s also important for ensuring socially sustainable travel. Instead of staying in a hotel or hostel, my first choice is always Airbnb.
If you absolutely need an entire place to yourself, try alternative platforms like Fairbnb, which partners with homeowners and uses a co-op model to fund community projects. You should also check if private home rentals are legal where you’re traveling – if it isn’t, you may encounter last-minute cancellations or get scammed.
If staying with locals isn’t an option, a unique boutique hotel can be the perfect introduction to a destination’s culture.
3. Pack eco-friendly travel gear
Ready to pack for your trip? The positive impact of global plastic-free and zero-waste movements has made it much easier to find travel gear that reduces the waste we generate on the road. Here are a few ideas for green gear to start with:
Reusable water bottle + water filter: no more PET bottled water!
Quality wool clothing: no more stinky synthetic materials that shed microplastics! Wool is better at regulating temperature and is odor-resistant, so you can pack less and wash less.
But wait – don’t rush to throw out your existing gear and go shopping just yet. That would mean buying into consumerism and generating more unnecessary waste. Instead, use what you have while transitioning to more eco-friendly goods.
4. Go on local-run tours
Community-based tourism led by locals is the best way to understand a destination’s culture. Not only will you learn about local history, language, traditions, and food, but you’ll also get locals’ perspectives on everyday matters that impact their lives. Are they experiencing greater inequality? Cultural shifts due to foreign media influence? Dying trades shunned by the younger generation?
Be a respectful guest
How would you feel if a total stranger came up to you and started taking photos of you while you were just going about your day at work or walking down the street? This is what happens all too often when tourists photograph locals without warning – especially in group tours when you’re just sweeping through scenes like a tornado. I have been guilty of doing this as well, especially when I’d just started traveling and felt too awkward to ask for permission.
Instead of just shoving your camera in people’s faces, treat them as subjects, not objects. For instance, when shooting at markets or cafes, I’ll chat with people I want to photograph, ask for permission to take photos, and buy something if I can. If possible, I also offer to give them a copy of their photo: using Wi-Fi/Bluetooth from my camera, email, or even an Instax printer.
Speck on the Globe has a great guide about taking ethical pictures, too – and if you’ve shared photos of people you met during your travels, like my photos of Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia, make sure you don’t sell or allow the reuse of your shot without your subjects’ permission (in commercial photography, this necessitates a model release). Just because they “won’t know” or “can’t sue you” doesn’t make it all right.
What about voluntourism?
About five years back, voluntourism was a worrying trend. People who sought to travel cheaply were seeking out volunteer opportunities that were not vetted, did not require qualified skills, or worst of all – were free. Luckily, it seems most travelers have become more educated on the harm that voluntourism can do to communities and individuals.
If you’re thinking of volunteering overseas, consider asking yourself these questions to ensure you’re ready and able to make an impact. Then, prepare to be pushed beyond your limits and assumptions. Volunteering in Kenya was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, and I learned so much – I’d do it all over again.
5. Eat, shop, and get around like a local
One of the best things about travel is realizing how we’re all so similar and yet so different. And the best way to discover this? By trying to do the same things we do back home. You’ll also have a much richer experience while spending less money.
Eat at local establishments and try street food.
Follow local recommendations over crowd-sourced lists that typically feature places no local will go. Observing good hygiene by washing/sanitizing your hands, avoiding raw food and cold/iced drinks, or even using your own eco-friendly utensils will go a long way in reducing the risk of falling ill.
Shop at local stores.
As other travelers will attest, the humble grocery store (or market) can be a most fascinating tourist attraction. It’s a living museum that tells volumes about a society’s agricultural history, eating habits, cost of living, and more. Plus, you may find unique snacks that make great souvenirs.
Navigating new lands has never been easier or more fun in an age where highly detailed maps and transit guides can be accessed from our smartphones. Walking also lets us observe more and connect more with our surroundings.
Give yourself room for spontaneity and you might be able to collect some personal favorite haunts (and memories). In Japan, for example, some of the very best restaurants and craft workshops shun publicity to avoid sacrificing their quality for quantity.
Most of us can’t do 100% of the things above on 100% of our trips – I definitely can’t – but that’s perfectly fine. What’s important is that we change our mindset of privilege and even entitlement to travel. If we demand more from ourselves and from tourism businesses, we can make sustainable travel the norm.
Will you do some of these things the next time you travel?