It should come as no surprise that traveling is a subject close to our hearts. We met while traveling, we visited 9 countries on our honeymoon, we’ve spent over 30 straight months traveling through Africa and Latin America – we just love life on the road.
Moreover, travel can be a great thing for the environment. Seeing so much natural beauty in person can inspire people to appreciate the planet in a way that just seeing photos or videos never can. And of course the same applies for environmental destruction. The first sight of the sheer desolation of a clearcut forest is something you’re unlikely to ever forget; standing at the feet of a disappearing glacier will always touch you far more than just looking at a photo in a book about climate change.
But travel can also be a terrible thing for the environment. Mass tourism is a destructive force. How can a sensitive ecosystem like that of the Galapagos Islands, for instance, adapt to the waste, noise, and the sheer presence of millions of visitors every year? From Zanzibar to the Amazon, the stories of hotels emptying their waste directly into local water supplies or of local tourists participating in the trade of endangered species are too numerous to count.
Again and again, we’ve found ourselves wondering if simply by being somewhere beautiful and special, we were contributing to its destruction.
How to reconcile our desire to see the world then with how much we want to love and preserve it? Where do sustainability and travel meet?
Enter Elizabeth and Alejandro, los Viajeros Sustentables (the Sustainable Travelers), a Mexican/Argentinian couple who set out to travel through Latin America to get to the bottom of just what it means to travel sustainably. They chronicle their voyage over on their website, viajerosustentable.com, with the goal of compiling a free on-line guide to sustainable travel in Latin America, and to show that it is possible to enjoy the world without destroying it.
So just what is sustainable travel? For the Viajeros, it comes from two sides, that of the traveler just as much as that of the local tourism businesses. A true sustainable traveler, according to the Viajeros’ website, is one who, “contracts local guides, buys local products supporting the local economy, and doesn’t over-negotiate with local artisans (the value of their work can be underestimated sometimes, and we can finish paying less than their work is truly worth)…” Moreover, a sustainable traveler respects the places they visit. They, “dress with discretion according to local customs (to not offend the local population), they limit their participation in rituals and festivities (not getting involved unless invited), and are open to local culture (typical food, festivals, dances, music, religion, etc.)…”
What most struck us looking at the Viajeros’ definitions, is that a sustainable traveler is probably also a happier traveler. How many times have we seen tourists that crave for some sort of authentic experience of a local culture, and yet are running around using only American tour companies, being driven by foreign guides, and never even meeting the local people? Elizabeth and Alejandro had the same feeling. “Being a sustainable traveler, you have the opportunity to invest yourself more with the people and the culture. Really we think that this is the best way to know a place. Many times, travelers only see landscapes, and very little of the reality of a place.”
What about the other side of the coin though, the companies? A sustainable tour company, according to the Viajeros, is one which “encourages the local economy, generating dignified work for its people,” “respects and values traditions and works to conservate them,” and which “doesn’t generate a negative environmental impact, conserving natural areas and respecting the resources that a locale has to offer.”
This can go horribly wrong, of course. “Something about ecological tourism is that it has become in fashion, and many places declare themselves ‘ecological’ for economic reasons, when in reality they have no interest or any concrete actions in this area,” the Viajeros told us. Which is so tragic because unsustainable travel can be a death knell for so many communities. “We’ve seen many communities with a huge cultural wealth that are losing their traditions and original way of life after opening themselves to tourism. They lose their language, clothing, celebrations, etc. to adapt themselves to the culture of the tourist. In other cases, community tourism, better managed, succeeds in the opposite, making tourism a motor for the reaffirmation of culture and identity.”
Which is what is so great about the Viajeros’ project – they find the people who are doing it right and share it with everyone – and when sustainable travel goes right, it can be amazing… One example Elizabeth and Alejandro told us about was of a co-operative in Oaxaca, Mexico called “Lagarto real.” “A few years ago, this community, which was connected to large mangroves, decided to work for the hunt and commercialization of the crocodile. When the animals started to disappear, the people realized that their activity had no future, that it wasn’t sustainable. So they decided to do a 180 degree turn in their actions, and to keep using the animals as a source of money, but with another vision. How did they do it? They declared it a natural reserve to protect the crocodiles and they offer guide tours of the mangroves to the thousands of tourists who come to the area. Their new focus conserves the biodiversity at the same time as it develops an activity that is truly sustainable.” The environment is better, the community is more resilient, it’s a win for everyone. “This is a clear example of how a destructive activity can be transformed into one that is economically, socially, and ecologically sustainable.” Which means that even the worst places can become the best if they know how to do it.
Sometimes, as a traveler, it is hard not to be struck by the thought that to see the world, we’re almost obliged to destroy it. The Viajeros Sustetables work against that though. Through their guide online, through workshops and conferences they give to teach about sustainable tourism in local communities and universities along the road, to the photos and stories they share on their site, they show how travel could be. Thanks to them, the day when we can see the world without destroying it is that much closer.