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How To Travel For Good

We live in a time when everyone is thinking about the impact of their choices. We seek make-up that hasn’t been tested on animals, look for fair trade clothing, buy handicrafts from organisations that directly support artisans. “Ethical living” is the catchphrase of our times, and often we live up to it, as much as we can.

But all our good intentions fly out the window on holiday.

Vacations are a time to laze, to unwind, to soak in the beauty of nature, and venture into unexplored territory. They’re not a time to follow rules. And so-called ethical living can mean a lot of rules. So we drown out our voices of reason, temporarily, and say goodbye to the conscious citizens within us. But in truth, vacations are a great opportunity to preserve the surroundings we’ve come so far to visit, encourage local economies, and leave behind a positive image of our own culture. After all, one person’s exotic destination is another person’s home. From the water we drink, to the energy we use, we steadily deplete local supplies. And the high prices we are willing to pay as tourists can make things more expensive for permanent residents.

I must admit, I wasn’t much of a conscious traveler myself, until a recent trip to Ladakh opened my eyes. I stayed at LedEg, an eco-friendly hostel run by a local NGO. The hostel attracts a lot of environmentally conscious folk from across the world, and in my interactions with them I realized how different one’s vacation can be, if one is mindful. I also learned the difference it makes to the local population. Here are the quick tips for ethical travel I picked up:

Avoid packaged drinking water unless it’s an emergency: Think of the amount of plastic waste generated by all of the water bottles you consume on vacation. You can bring that down to almost zero by carrying a sturdy, reusable bottle from home and refilling it at restaurants and hotels. If you’re still concerned about the source, use chlorine drops, an ultraviolet water purifier, or boil the water.

Try local foods: Whether it’s your three meals a day or munchies for the road, there are always local options available instead of a visit to the (often difficult to find) supermarket. This gives you a chance to venture away from familiar tastes and experience local flavours. As a bonus, you’ll also be supporting the local economy instead of feeding into the profits of the (sometimes foreign) corporations that own supermarket chains. In Leh, I happened upon a local brand of apple juice called Gulabdan, and it became my beverage of choice for the entire trip. Much better than getting a Coke.

Encourage local artisans: In most tourist spots of India, especially those frequented by foreigners, there has emerged a range of generic souvenirs — mass-produced brass items, plastic and glass jewelry, and synthetic scarves that often have no connection with the region, culturally or economically. Larger towns have government emporiums, like the UP government emporium in Lucknow, where one can buy authentic chikankari. But even more off-the-map places that don’t have government emporiums are home to tiny stores where you are likely to find beautiful works for reasonable prices. Look for these instead; you’ll get something unique, and you’ll also be helping local artisans flourish.

Respect local norms: When packing for vacations, your wardrobe is usually determined by the weather — shorts if it’s hot, woolens for the cold, windcheaters for the rain. But it’s prudent to do some research on the local culture as well as look at the weather forecast. A friend of mine was chastised in Egypt, despite being conservatively dressed, because her pants ended just above the ankle. Dressing in respect to local norms might not always be convenient, but it’ll help demonstrate your respect for the local people — who, after all, are showing you hospitality. Aside from basic courtesy, it’s also practical; there’s nothing worse than traipsing for hours to visit a local temple and then being denied entry because your shorts are too short.

Don’t tip excessively or pay more than something is worth: When we’re on vacation, we loosen our purse strings, and we often tip drivers, waiters and hotel staff generously. Although this may seem like a harmless way of being kind and perhaps getting work done more quickly, it can often do more harm than good, especially when travelling in a country where your currency holds more value than the local cash.  When tourists with deeper pockets than locals are willing to pay more than market price for fruits, vegetables, and other necessities, this makes things more expensive for locals. The local economy is thrown out of balance, and simple things become unaffordable for local residents. So even if it doesn’t pinch you to pay more, think of the locals and practice your haggling skills. And if you want to convey your generosity, you can do so through a gift of sweets or conservative cash tips.

You don’t have to draw up a long list of restrictive rules to be a responsible traveler. By simply investing some time to be tuned in to the local culture and the impact of your actions, you can make a huge difference. Want to learn more? I suggest watching a documentary called The Economics of Happiness. It changed the way I travel.

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