Travel Smarter 2012: New approaches to sustainable travel

When most people think of ecotourism, they imagine off-grid rainforest lodges and volunteer work in impoverished communities.

While those can certainly be great experiences, they’re not the only way to travel sustainably. These days, the definition of ecotourism has broadened, and travelers are embracing a new consciousness around the way we travel, how we interact with places, and what kind of impact our visit has on our surroundings. The best thing is, this new type of conscious travel doesn’t have to be restrictive. In fact, it often leads to much more meaningful experiences. Consider the following approaches as a starting point.Slow down
Taking inspiration from the slow food and slow fashion movements, “slow travel” has evolved as a backlash to the manic pace that traditionally accompanies air travel and mile-a-minute sightseeing vacations. Slow travelers cherish the journey as much as the destination. They’ll choose leisurely modes of transport like trains, bicycles, and barges; stay in long-term vacation rentals instead of hotels; and structure itineraries that allow enough time to savor experiences. Not only is the slow travel mindset easier on the environment because it cuts out unsustainable forms of transport, but it can also be cost-effective since the emphasis is on quality of experiences rather than quantity. For resources on planning a slow travel vacation, check out the community.

Get local
Many travelers are tired of following the tourist path, preferring instead to experience new places as locals. Enter, the “local travel” movement, which focuses on connecting with local people, being sensitive to the local environment, respecting local culture and heritage, and spending money locally. The popularity of the local travel movement is evident in the explosive growth of home-stay listing service Airbnb, which experienced 500 percent growth in the last year and recently announced its 5 millionth night booked. Another website that can help facilitate local experiences is GuideHop, which allows city residents to host and post their own custom tours. Recent listings included a tour of Austin‘s urban farms and a bike ride along the San Francisco waterfront.

“Voluntour” smarter
The practice of voluntourism — which combines travel with volunteer work — has grown more and more popular in recent years. At the same time, it’s also become more and more controversial. Critics say that voluntourism often hurts communities more than it helps them, and that tourists who pay thousands of dollars to paint a school in a developing country are better off donating that money to a non-profit that can handle the task more effectively. Valid points — but the truth is volunteer travel can also be a tremendously positive and transformative experience, both for the individual and the community, when done smartly. New certification programs are in the works from groups like UK non-profit Tourism Concern, but nothing really beats personal research. Rather than limit yourself to the top Google search results for “volunteer abroad,” use your social networks to find friends who live or have lived in your target destination and ask them about well-respected organizations. In the U.S., you can also use Charity Navigator to see how non-profit groups stack up against each other.

Though ecotourism and sustainable travel can take on many forms, the first step to more conscious travel is awareness. Once you take care to explore the world while being kind to it, the rest will come naturally.

[flickr image via Stefano Lubiana Wines]