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When people travel, it’s easy to engage in what may seem to be great ‘photo op’ moments without thinking of the real life consequences on things like the environment. Conversations around sustainable travel have therefore never been more vital, writes Wanjiku Kinuthia.

Many were appalled when Kim Kardashian recently shared a throwback photograph of herself posing next to an elephant, with a rider straddling it, in Indonesia. Kardashian insisted that the elephant was photographed in a ‘sanctuary’, but many were quick to point out that elephant sanctuaries do not share in some of the practices visible in the photograph. All over the world, when people travel, it’s easy to engage in what may seem to be great ‘photo op’ moments without thinking of the real life consequences.

I’m certainly not an expert in sustainability models across tourism industries, however I have learned lessons from working on a conservation landscape for over seven years where sustainable practices are key, and interactions with highly conscious travellers and friends have ignited conversations over many sundowners as to how we can all see the world and not ruin it while at it.

MINIMISE YOUR TRAVEL FOOTPRINT

One of my dearest friends, Abagi, is a vegetarian. When I first found out about this, I automatically thought that it was for the benefit of animal welfare. But she said, “Ciku, I fly too much for work. I’m a vegetarian to minimise my negative impacts on this world.” This brief conversation ignited my thinking around how we travel, what we do during these trips, how we can take ownership of our impacts and try to do better.

According to a study published by Nature Climate Change in 2018, the carbon footprint of global tourism is four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, shopping and food are significant contributors. While travelling, how often do you consider, alongside cost and convenience, the most sustainable form of transportation to get to your destination? In many cases, aeroplane travel is unavoidable. But with regional and in-country travel, choosing a train, bus or car over an aeroplane is a better option. According to a study on green travel by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this can mean 55% to 75% fewer emissions than flying.

 

PICK DESTINATIONS THAT ARE GENUINELY DOING GOOD

I often joke, working in conservation in Kenya, that most tourism properties are quick to declare how their models promote development and livelihoods in local communities. Usually, there are claims of sustainable practices, but the reality on the ground is different. Greenwashing, as it is called, is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits.

Another dear friend, Kasmira, only travels to places where she can effectively research and substantiate their green practices and social impact. “I usually choose to stay on properties that are locally owned or managed. Popular tourism sites become less impactful for the country and residents because they become commercialised and focus less on an authentic product. This means that they offer little or no real benefit to local people.”

One of the quickest ways we check for this is to look at the management of a property, and then ask ourselves, if we stay here for a few days, who does it truly benefit? Does it benefit endangered species or forests and ecosystems? Does it improve livelihoods with direct and clear benefits to people? Do they have practical and visible sustainable practices?

FIND WAYS TO GET INVOLVED

Incorporate activities that involve supporting the ecosystem. If you wish to run a marathon, run it on Lewa where funds raised directly support conservation and development work across Kenya. While in Watamu, visit the Local Ocean Trust, volunteer for beach clean up activities and learn more about the marine environment. Every two years in January, make a point to visit northern Kenya, go glamping and become a citizen scientist by photographing and collecting data on the endangered Grevy’s zebra. Around the world, find similar activities that not only enrich your experiences but also contribute to creating an improved environment.

EMBRACING SUSTAINABLE LIVING

We all know the negative effects of single use plastic. But beyond plastic, there are other products that we use in our day-to-day lives, and mostly while travelling, that are harmful to the environment. Two examples are sunscreen and fast fashion. I only discovered recently from The London Chatter, a Kenyan lifestyle blogger based in London, that there’s more to think about than just SPF when it comes to responsibly choosing your go-to sunscreen. Most have an active ingredient, Oxybenzone, that can be toxic to ocean life by damaging coral reefs. According to some reports, between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen end up in reef areas each year. The fashion industry is also one of the major polluting industries in the world. To make better choices, buy less. Buy second hand (yay to mtumba!), swap clothes with your friends and buy good quality items that last longer. Buy clothes from sustainable brands while being aware of ‘fake’ sustainable ones. While at your destination, wear clothes and accessories made using locally sourced, sustainable materials to promote industries and boost income for the people.

BECOME A SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL CHAMPION

Sustainable travel needs allies, now more than ever. Behaviour change is key and we all have the power to influence our friends and family. Travel influencers and travel platforms have already established platforms to impart sustainability messages. It’s cool to care.

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