Sustainable travel is a broad umbrella, and everyone might have their own definitions and criteria. But, in general, this kind of tourism aims to support local cultures, to be ecologically conscious and to reduce environmental and social costs in the area being toured. It also speaks to the sustainability of your method of travel, in its effect on the global environment and on the attitudes and perceptions of the people you encounter.
Limit car and air travel. Both may be unavoidable realities for some legs of your trip, but because of their greenhouse-gas emissions, use them judiciously. Look at the possibility of traveling by public transportation, such as bus or rail. A bicycle is an excellent tool for navigating around a destination once you're there (or, for the more ambitious, to rely on the entire trip), and you can avoid the fumes, headaches and at least some of the danger of maneuvering a car around an unfamiliar terrain. Walking, too, is an obvious choice --- healthy, environmentally friendly and supremely intimate. Biting off a smaller territory to explore --- concentrating on northern Italy, for example, rather than multi-country sightseeing, or spending a week in one particular campground to get a true feel for the landscape --- makes reducing fuel use much easier.
Navigate the local economy with care and respect. Research your destinations prior to departure, and plan to spend your money at businesses that funnel some of the profits into local conservation or social programs. Keep an eye out for the sale of plant and animal products derived from endangered or otherwise threatened species, and avoid contributing to this chronic problem (see References 1).
Seek out less-trampled corners. There is something to be said for concentrating tourism in one area to preserve more vulnerable sites, but it's also true that overuse can lead to increased air and water pollution, soil compaction, the trampling of vegetation and alterations to the travel routes of animals --- affecting their breeding and feeding habits. Cultural sites may be damaged from similar excessive visitation. (See References 2) In a national park or other wilderness area, ask park rangers or staff about the less-traveled areas to hike and camp.
Learn something of the local language (see References 3). This long-standing truism for broadening awareness helps demonstrate respect for the people whose communities and landscapes you're exploring. Locals who get the impression that tourists are willing to take the time to converse with them in their own tongue --- and attempt to use local names for menu items and locations --- may be more willing to support ecotourism in their area. Of course, such communication enriches your own experience as well, and the goodwill engendered might even land you a home-cooked meal or a personal escort to your destination.
Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.
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