Some people look for the pool. Others head to the concierge.
Me? The very first thing I do when I arrive at a hotel is stand in the lobby and take a visual 360.
Can I tell what country I’m in (or even what continent I’m on) from the décor, the staff uniforms, the architecture? If not, I head for the door. I want lodging that embraces a sense of place, not conquers it.
The way I travel reflects my values: environmentally friendly, protecting natural and cultural heritage, and supporting local people—all combined with a sense for adventure, discovery, and fun.
There’s a reason I approach travel this way. In 1950, there were 25 million international travelers (“tourist arrivals” in business parlance). Last year more than a billion globetrotters tapped into the promise of falling in love with the world–from the Eiffel Tower to the Great Barrier Reef. And by 2027, the UN’s World Tourism Organization predicts we will eclipse two billion people crossing borders on holiday.
That forecast can be good and bad; done well, travel is a powerful opportunity for enriching our lives and safeguarding the planet. My plan? To share with you where and how this new vision for “travel with meaning” has taken root, and what you can do to be part of this doing-well-by-doing-good revolution.
Two decades ago, I could count the number of eco-friendly tour companies on one hand. Now they can fill a book—a good thing. But some operators walk the talk better than others. So how to know what to pick?
Before I sign on, I sleuth out a company’s sustainability cred on the Web and I ask questions: Do they support the protection of nature, help safeguard cultural traditions, engage in leave-no-trace camping, give priority to hiring local people?
If answers are vague, I move on. I want my hard-earned vacation dollars going to operators who feel as passionately about the world as I do.
If you ever see me in a chain hotel, it’s because I’m attending a conference or need to be close to the airport. Otherwise, I opt for lesser known, authentic, and surprising places to stay. Among them: Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman, where you can hangglide into the reception area for check-in, and Bulungula Lodge on South Africa’s “Wild Coast,” run by village women who make fresh fruit smoothies using a bicycle-powered blender.
Each summer I spend my days as an organic blueberry farmer in Maine, so it will come as no surprise that you will also find me dining in restaurants that are pushing the boundaries of farm-to-table cuisine–like Fore Street in Portland or Patria on the outskirts of Quito in Ecuador.
When it comes to sampling fresh and local delights in Asia, it’s hard to beat Singapore’s Old Airport Road food hawker stalls. If you are a seafood lover like me and want to avoid accidentally dining on threatened fish stocks, I pull up the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sustainable Seafood Watch app on my iPhone.
Once in Dakar, I stepped onto a tour bus to see this pulsating West African city. And see it I did. I just didn’t experience it. Missing was the possibility of unscripted interaction: stopping to listen to a group of street drummers, exchanging pleasantries with tie-dye-clad women amid towers of exotic fruit at a weekend market, sitting among locals at a café serving Ceebu jën, Senegal’s national dish.
Don’t get me wrong—there is safety and camaraderie on a tour bus. But if I can explore by foot or bicycle, I always do; it is more meaningful for me, better for the environment, and I can also choose where to spend my dollars to benefit people away from the tourist hubs.
You will also find me raising red flags when going local goes too far: Last year 30,000 tourists poured into Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley to see the Mursi and other semi-nomadic tribes before their culture is lost in the whoosh of modernity. And this wave of well-meaning travelers is prompting the very changes they wish to avoid. And what about voluntourism? You might be surprised to find out that I’m a skeptic, based on my own experiences.
In the months ahead, I invite you to join me on a journey of discovering the world in a more sustainable and yes, fun and enlightening way. For me, traveling sustainably means our children and their children will also be able to have remarkable journeys, whether exploring a biodiversity-rich rainforest in Peru or a tropical island in the Philippines. What about you?
Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic Travel, including his “Trending” column as a contributing editor for Traveler magazine. Follow Costas’s adventures on Twitter @CostasChrist.