Round of Applause

An Expert's Advice on Being a Responsible Traveler

by Pavia Rosati
Let's keep Torres del Paine looking like this, shall we? Photos courtesy of CREST.

We've all agreed that things will never be the same — indeed, should never be the same again — after the pandemic, and that we should earn better habits and become better travelers. But what does this look like? One person who knows is dedicating his life to this: Dr. Gregory Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Tourism, the nonprofit dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of tourism. In addition to sharing the misconceptions of what responsible travel is, he has excellent recommendations on steps we can all take to move about the world in a more thoughtful and considered way, with better impact and influence. This interview originally appeared in the Fathom newsletter. If you're not getting it, you can sign up here.

What do you do?

I am a global tourism and conservation leader committed to people, planet, and prosperity, joining CREST (Center for Responsible Travel) as Executive Director in 2019. I’m co-founder of Future of Tourism Coalition and for 25+ years was VP at The Nature Conservancy, president at American Hiking Society, and an environmental advisor for USAID. I’ve been recognized by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as a leader in climate change projects, experienced across a broad spectrum of tourism’s economic, social, cultural, and environmental challenges.

What's the biggest work challenge you’re facing right now?

Travel and tourism are a privilege, not a right. And with this privilege, companies and travelers alike must accept the responsibility and obligation we all have to dedicate ourselves to a holistic approach to sustainability that incorporates the natural, cultural, and spiritual elements of place. This is the essence of People, Planet, and Prosperity.

Any post-pandemic changes you'd like to see?

We are confronted with a formidable dilemma of past (pre-COVID, overtourism), present (COVID, early climate change effects), and future challenges. In addition to the terrible, ongoing impacts of the pandemic, no one has escaped the hazards brought on by the climate crisis — extreme heat, wildfires, drought, coastal and inland flooding, and increased frequency and intensity of storms. As the climate crisis serves up change at a rapid clip and destabilizes destinations worldwide, how does the tourism sector, defined by the movement of people and hammered by the pandemic, also decarbonize?

Since we cannot predict what the climate is going to do, immediate efforts are needed to address climate change adaptation, resilience, and mitigation.

It is less about meeting the next challenge when it arrives, shoulders squared, with laptop in hand. Rather, it’s about being prepared beforehand to meet any challenge and by having the right mindset to take action.

Our intention is to recognize and be open to change NOW, so that destinations, accommodations, and tour operators can define and address tourism emissions and respond to continued climate change uncertainty. At CREST, we encourage everyone across the tourism sector to develop this mindset — to master and practice thoughtful, deliberate climate action planning, and show that such a mindset can also act as a kind of force multiplier in your business and across the sector, in part by showing why taking action now is beneficial — to your bottom line, local community, and our collective future.

Is there a travel trend you’re excited about?

As a sustainable tourism thought leader and ecologist, I’m encouraged by the growing recognition and commitment by travel companies and accommodations to address the myriad negative impacts of food waste. The COVID pandemic has shown the fragility of our global food supply chains, with many supermarkets and restaurants in almost every country having experienced food shortages. Millions of people in the UK alone have experienced severe food insecurity during COVID-19, according to a recent report by the country’s Food Standards Agency. But food shortages were prevalent long before the pandemic. At the same time, one-third of all food produced each year is squandered or spoiled before it can be consumed. Research also suggests that high-income countries waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. This food waste then ends up in landfills to rot — which releases greenhouse gases. And when this is combined with the amount of energy it takes to produce, manufacture, transport, and store this food, it contributes a staggering three billion tonnes of CO2 to our planet.

To put that in context, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the United States and China.

But the good news is there are numerous techniques, technologies and policies that together could help reduce global food waste at every point in the process of producing and consuming it.

Dr. Gregory Miller in his element in New River Gorge in West Virginia.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about responsible travel?

1. Sustainable tourism is only about the physical environment.
Yes, the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by the land and seascape of a destination are fundamental to a sustainable future. However, it is equally important to protect the cultural heritage and economic well-being of local communities and to provide an equitable, fair, and respectful tourism ecosystem at any destination — whether it is in a remote, wild place, or in a major metropolitan area.

2. Traveling responsibly is expensive.
Not necessarily. There are a variety of price points for the discerning, responsible traveler to achieve sustainability. Find responsible travel sites and operators; follow CREST’s responsible travel tips.

3. A responsible traveler should be ashamed to fly — always.
While the spotlight on GHG emissions from air travel is merited, the responsible traveler must keep GHG and tourism in a climate crisis in perspective. Approximately 100 major companies in the world contribute to the majority of GHG emissions, and the shaming of travelers has conveniently shifted the spotlight from them to the individual. Yes, we absolutely need to reduce our use of air travel, but we must also remember that responsible, sustainable travel contributes a considerable portion to the experience-based economies of more than 125 countries and >80% of the world’s developing countries depend on tourism for hard currency exchange. The experience-based economy must be supported so we don’t slide back to more destructive, unsustainable extraction-based economic activities.

How can we be (more) responsible travelers?

We are defined by our choices, which are noticed by our peers and community. Travelers have control over their choices and are defined by these choices and noticed by our peers. Responsible travelers can be influencers through the choices we make and share.

1. Destinations We Pick
Be an informed traveler and decide the experience you want, look for deeper experiences, be informed and creative in choices. Avoid the “bucket list” and “quick selfie” mentality and “rapid fire” tourism visits and instead be present at the destination. Explore less traveled locales, neighborhoods, or national parks, even hiking trails and camping locations. Consider including a staycation in travel options.

2. When We Go
Off-season, off-the-beaten path, avoid over-tourism.

3. How We Get There
Tour vs. independent; airlines, cruises, ships, drive, walk; good tour operators like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, REI Adventures, Country Walkers.

4. Where We Stay
To be a true champion of sustainability, any hotel or lodge should be committed to supporting all factors related to destination stewardship: commitment to sustainability, harmony with local surroundings, contribute to impactful environmental and community projects, utilize renewable energies and energy efficient technologies, minimize waste, source products and employment locally, good stewards of their community and environment.

5. How We Move Around the Destination
Once you have an understanding of where, when, and how you go, it's important to get around a destination with the most responsible options. Don't take a car when you can take public transportation. Use local operators. Walk when you can. Think about the impact your mode of moving will have.

6. How We Behave
Situation awareness, self-awareness of impact, opportunity to do good, leave no trace (LNT); reusable bottles; no single-use plastics; conserve resource use; avoid wasteful resort buffets. Eat at restaurants with locally sources foods. Buy local handicrafts. Support local businesses.

About carbon offsets: CREST recommends using sites run by non-profit organizations that provide advocacy and education around clean energy and climate change, while also passing as much of the donation as possible to the project of your choosing. Cool Effect and do a good job of finding offset projects that are ethically proven and scientifically validated. Ensure that the project itself is Gold Standard Certified, which utilizes United Nations’ protocols and the Sustainable Development Goals to assess every project.

Where do you want to travel next?

Cuba, Iceland, Australia.

Do you have a travel happy place?

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.