With Earth Day on 22 April, it’s a particularly good time to reflect on how we can travel more responsibly. Thankfully, it’s getting easier to make better choices, with more and more tour operators offering environmentally-conscious travel options. As proof of this, January saw the inaugural ASEAN Sustainable Tourism Awards in Chiang Mai, with 17 winners selected from across the region.
To help you play your part in the sustainable tourism movement, we’ve reached out to industry experts for advice.
Gili Back, sustainability manager at Khiri Travel, a tour operator specialising in responsible tourism in Asia, advises, “Understand where the money goes and who is in control. Find out what a community really needs, and look for sustainable partnerships rather than a one-time activity.”
Take part in unique experiences that make a difference
For scuba divers concerned about ocean protection, ZuBlu is a dive and travel platform that allows you to search for conservation-focused dive resorts and expeditions across Asia. The resorts and tours featured on ZuBlu are benchmarked against a set of criteria the founders developed in conjunction with Clear Oceans, an international movement that helps businesses make ocean-positive choices.
Be a responsible traveller
Avoid single-use plastic – Pack a reusable cloth bag for shopping. Bring a reusable water bottle and find out where you can refill it. If you are in Bali, you can use RefillMyBottle to find a nearby water refill station. refillmybottle.com
Buy and eat local – Eating salmon in the Maldives might sound appealing, but it’s more than likely the fish has been flown in from abroad and carries a high carbon footprint. As much as possible, eat local food and buy local produce.
Share a ride – While walking or cycling is always recommended, you may struggle with long distances A more realistic alternative is to use public transport or a shared taxi. Plus, sharing a ride also keeps your costs down.
ZuBlu co-founder Adam Broadbent says, “We are deeply passionate about conservation and we believe tourism can drive major change. This is why we give our guests the ability to make more informed choices.”
One example of a ZuBlu-listed conservation-focused expedition is a series of liveaboard dive trips run by Manta Trust, the world’s leading manta ray conservation organisation. Learn from Manta Trust’s scientists about the environmental issues impacting these creatures, and how to photograph mantas for research and conservation. This year, Manta Trust expeditions will be available in the Maldives from August and around Komodo Island in September.
For hands-on experiences, Kaya Responsible Travel, a social enterprise that offers volunteer placements in sustainable community development and environmental initiatives, has opportunities to repair the reef around Pom Pom Island in Borneo. With 2018 being the International Year of the Reef, it’s especially timely to help refurbish these reefs, badly damaged through years of destructive fishing techniques. On the trip, volunteers learn how to clean the reefs as well as carry out soft and hard coral planting.
Also on Borneo, close to Balikpapan, is the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project, where you can help with a variety of activities, from husbandry to enrichment. The latter involves providing stimulating environments for the orangutans through platform swings and climbing structures, as well as engaging the primates in prescribed activities to help prepare them for release back into the wild.
Other conservation-focused projects include Plan My Gap Year, which offers volunteer experiences ranging between one week to six months all over the world, including Bali and Hanoi, as well as The Great Projects, which links you up with animal-focused volunteer assignments worldwide, including working with pandas in Chengdu.
Elephant Camp, Myanmar
Lisa Smyth, freelance writer
“My partner and I arrived in Kalaw, a hill town in the Shan state of Myanmar, with the goal of visiting the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp. This social enterprise takes in working elephants and looks after them in their ‘retirement’, which means no riding, no tricks. With no government funding, the US$100 paid by visitors provides food and veterinary care for the eight retired elephants that live there.
In our small group of four, we were introduced to our first group of elephants. All female, these lovely ladies greedily reached for the pumpkin we offered – they eat 180kg of food a day! While feeding time is unlimited, we were eager to experience bath time. Initially, I was a little nervous, but our guides helped us wade into the water where 47-year-old Yu Moe Yin was already seated on the river bed. Eye-level with this magnificent animal, I was struck by how trusting she was as I reached up with a piece of bark to clean behind her ears. It was a small gesture of kindness from one creature to another, one I will always cherish.”
Eat better, feel better with these community dining projects
Having a foodie bucket list is all well and good, but one of the easiest ways to meaningfully give back on your travels is by supporting restaurants or cafés that work with the surrounding community. This could range from dining at venues that only use locally sourced ingredients or establishments that actively empower socially vulnerable groups.
KOTO Training Restaurant, which has outlets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, provides disadvantaged youths with employment and trains them in hospitality and culinary skills. Similarly, in Siem Reap, Bloom Café provides young women in poverty with vocational training and education. In Bali, Fair Warung Balé is dedicated to funding public healthcare programmes through its food – every meal enjoyed covers two medical treatments for people in need.
Kim JiHye is the marketing coordinator at TREE Alliance, a global network of training restaurants helping marginalised young adults, founded in 1994 and based out of Phnom Penh.
For travellers unsure of which training restaurant to support, Kim suggests researching the organisation’s social impact. Find out where the money goes and the track record of the people running these restaurants. To avoid being involved in harmful situations for children, it’s also worthwhile finding out which restaurants and businesses are certified ChildSafe.
The ChildSafe movement – developed by Friends International, the parent company of Tree Alliance – was set up to protect children and youth from all forms of abuse. The movement has also created seven tips for travellers, such as reporting child labour, not giving to begging children and working with local caregivers to share professional skills. “It’s important that travellers educate themselves and understand their role and impact before being welcomed into local communities,” Kim says.
Jennifer Johnston, freelance writer
“I participated in a tour, which includes a noodle-making class at STREETS International School in Hoi An. This not-for-profit group helps disadvantaged youth gain the skills to work in the country’s hospitality industry. This class, known as Oodles of Noodles, gives trainees the chance to hone their language and presentation skills.
We learned to make mi quang noodles, a dish from central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province. Like most Vietnamese dishes, it comes with an array of fresh vegetables and herbs, and is comfort food at its best. Over lunch, a couple of the trainees explained how they could not afford to attend school but through STREETS, they now have the credentials needed to work in the tourism industry. A truly eye-opening and meaningful experience. ”
Go green to help you sleep more soundly
According to the popular travel search engine Kayak, there was a 30% increase between 2016 and 2017 in Singapore-based searches for eco-friendly hotels.
However, Megan O’Beirne, the sustainability officer at Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives, cautions travellers about hotels that “greenwash”. She says, “Be wary of hotels that say they are environmentally friendly but don’t have truly responsible operations. Positive things include local food and gift shop items, proper recycling, and certifications such as Energy Star.” At Six Senses Laamu, apart from water and energy conservation initiatives, the resort has an on-site Earth Lab where they experiment with new ways to re-purpose waste materials, such as recycling towels into flower pots. It’s not just resorts pursuing these sustainable goals. City hotel PARKROYAL on Pickering in Singapore, has won numerous environmental awards thanks to its sustainable practices, which include 15,000 square metres of sky gardens and terraces, a rain harvesting system and recycling bins in every room.
Hotels championing the environment are on the rise. Opened in November last year, Cardamom Tented Camp in Cambodia is located in the Botum Sakor National Park. Designed to be low-impact, it relies heavily on solar energy, manages waste water and allots part of its revenue to Wildlife Alliance. Wild Coast Tented Lodge, which opened in late 2017, is situated in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park and has employed several eco-initiatives, including its own solar plant and water recycling system. It also has a conservation station to monitor and protect the wildlife in the area.
Ethical Trekking, Nepal
Elen Turner, freelance writer
“Nepal is famous for its tea-house treks where travellers stay at locally run lodges. The Annapurna Community Eco-Lodge Trek takes this concept a step further by operating a network of community-run lodges and homestays on a trekking route that takes either five or 10 days. This project was conceived in 2010 by Nepalese social entrepreneur Mahabir Pun, with the aim of bringing the benefits of tourism to local communities, especially the women who run the homestays, allowing them to generate an independent income.
On the first day of the trek, we passed through an ethnic Magar village where my travel companion and I got a chance to sit and chat with some local women who were preparing food for a wedding. They made sel roti (sweet, deep-fried circular pieces of bread) and packed a few pieces for us to eat along the way. This was just one of the many small but heartfelt interactions we had with the locals during our trip, and these moments of connection – coupled with the splendid views along the trek – made it a truly unforgettable experience. ”
Make sure your money is going to the right people and places
Ethical shopping is about supporting brands that have a sustainability-focused ethos – whether that’s buying locally made products or shopping at social enterprises that give back to the community. For example, in Luang Prabang, social enterprise Ock Pop Tok employs local women across the country to design, make and sell textiles. Over in Yangon, ChuChu is a social enterprise that transforms waste materials such as plastic film and packaging, umbrella textiles and rice sacks into beautiful bags, baskets and jewellery for sale. In Hanoi, the label Chula Fashion, which now has five stores across Vietnam, works closely with small communities and people with physical disabilities to produce a variety of women’s apparel.
While it has become trendy for brands to tout themselves as fair trade, it’s equally important to look for evidence that back up these claims. Hilary Kilpatric, head of marketing and sales at Ock Pop Tok, says one way to determine if a brand truly gives back to the community is to research its business practises. Questions to consider include where the materials are sourced, employee welfare and how they figure in the story of the business. Ask how the business measures impact and for concrete examples of this impact in the community.
“Brands who answer these questions in a meaningful way are most likely truly giving back.” It’s a mantra worth considering when you’re planning your next sustainable trip.
3 apps to kick-start your sustainable journey
Green Globe – As a leading certifier of environmentally-friendly travel spots, this app helps you search for Green-Globe certified hotels, cruises and attractions.
Splinlister – Use this app to reduce your carbon footprint and rent a bicycle (or even paddle-boards, skis and snowboards) from like-minded folks.
Fairtrip – This app lets you find and share places – homestays, local restaurants, activities and NGOs – that support the local community.
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine