Don’t take pictures at locals, only buy fair trade- locally grown food, do not ride elephants, do not ride camels, don’t pollute, be aware of cultural differences, etc, etc. Nowadays, you have to follow all these unwritten rules to be a sustainable traveler but, even if you do, are you really impacting your surroundings with these attitudes? Are we really being sustainable? and most importantly, are we really connecting with people?
What people define as being a sustainable travel varies from traveling slowly, not using airplanes, supporting local economy and understanding local cultures.
I have mixed opinions on these sustainable travel views, specially because not everyone has the time and money to spend months in a country and really do it “sustainably”. But what I think is essential to travel sustainably is understanding the local context and ways of being. The lack of cultural awareness really bothers me. When people go to a country and don’t want to dress more modestly (in traditional countries) or complain about waking up early (if that’s how is it in the country), then they will never understand why and how people live differently from them.
Connecting with a culture
Connecting with a culture during a trip that’s less than a month is hard. The first 3 days you’re trying to figure out the routine, what time people wake up, if it’s safe to walk alone in the street, if it’s disrespectful to take pictures, the dress code, etc. And once you start getting to know the country, people will likely treat you like a foreigner.
It’s hard to make actual connections and get past the initial phases, and to me being a sustainable traveler is not following some environmental/social guidelines, but actually taking the time to listen to people’s stories and understanding the dynamic of a country, its history and why people behave the way they do.
Understanding the history
In the case of Colombia, one thing that many people see is how happy we are, we’re always dancing, singing and partying. But why is that? My theory is because 50 years of war left us with no other option than to see the bright side of horrible situations. We got fired? Party! We broke up with our partners? Dancing and guaro! The one thing no one can take away from us is our happiness!
And when you understand the past, the history and see the present of the country, you can value this attitude a lot more.
How to create local connections
Once you’re in the country the best way to understand the history and interact with people is to find local friends. You can do this through friends in common, Facebook groups, Couchsurfing, etc. So you can see what people do on a daily basis.
You will probably miss the fancy restaurant featured in your travel guide but you will see another side of the country.
Ask questions. Ask about the the way they eat, why they dress a certain way, what’s the history of the country, of that city. At least in Colombia people always like to tell you the country’s history.
Also, share experiences from your own country and find common points between them.
How to be a sustainable traveler?
While researching for this article I found two very interesting resources that can help you decide how to travel sustainably.
The Ethical Traveler puts out a yearly list of the World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations, taking into account the country’s practices and policies, its history and its efforts in promoting human rights, preserving the environment, and supporting social welfare. The 2018 travel list is:
St. Kitts & Nevis
Justice Travel is a startup that does immersive travel tours that show you the country’s social reality while engaging with local NGOs that promote human rights. I called them to ask about their model and how they really empower local communities. They have tours in Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala. They have travelled around each country contacting medium-size NGOs that will be able to benefit from the interaction with tour goers. The idea is that tour goers will take this opportunity to interact with the local reality and promote human rights once they go back home.
If you use the code NAIRA you get an extra discount for Justice Travel tours in Colombia. I rarely promote anything but this is something I believe, it’s necessary to counterbalance the extremely fast-paced tourism that’s invading Colombia. You can understand the peace process of Colombia by interacting with former guerrilla members, learn from indigenous leaders and see amazing landscapes. I think this way you can experience what being a sustainable traveler is really like.
If you have any other questions you can leave them in the comments or email me at email@example.com