I remember being in Chile’s Atacama Desert with friends on a clear, cold, and moonless night. Instead of standing and looking up at the distant stars, we lay on our backs, Earth behind us, and looked straight ahead. With that shift in perspective, we realized instantly that space is not remote at all; in fact, we float within it, tied by gravity to our living marble in the immense universe. The place made the moment possible.
Whether you make a living in travel or simply enjoy traveling, each of us has been in a place that has made us feel this way. In fact, this is what many of us travel for—these moments of transcendence, when everything makes sense, when life suddenly has meaning, and when we know we are exactly where we need to be. Places have given us so much.
And I’m not even including the scientifically proven benefits of travel, including lowered blood pressure, increased focus, and strengthened disease-fighting abilities.
But the places we love are in trouble.
Beaches littered with plastic. Forests denuded of old-growth trees. Wildlife disappearing from habitat loss or poaching. Cities losing their unique character. Languages and cultures endangered. Fragile spots overrun with tourists. There’s noise pollution in parks. Light pollution in towns. The biggest of places, the place we call home—Planet Earth—is in crisis. A new UN report—recently published—says that human-induced climate change is causing widespread damage and affecting the lives of billions around the world.
So how do we give back to the places that have given us so much? As my friend and mentor Anna Pollock, founder of Conscious Travel, puts it, “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We don’t need prescriptive solutions that may work in one place but not in another. We all know how to be a good guest in someone’s home.” Indeed, we do. Commonsense, empathy, and kindness are the best guides to travel behavior. Still, it may help to share some ideas to see if they may work for you.
Slow it down.
I stay longer in places, which means that I fly less often. In recent years I’ve scheduled month (or longer) stays in Quito, Mexico City, Vermont, and most recently the San Francisco Bay area. Extending one’s travels is not only good for the planet, but it also honestly makes for a better travel experience. There’s no better way to get into the cadence of a culture than to not be in a rush. Slowing down allows you to stumble onto neglected nooks and talk at leisure to people you meet along the way. It’s a richer and more satisfying way to explore new places and connect with residents. Not only do I reduce my carbon emissions by flying less, but I also leave more money with the local economy, from cafes to laundromats.
A weeklong vacation can cost thousands of dollars. Every cent of what you spend supports a company (and the people behind it). Are they worthy of your support? I think about this a lot when I travel. I can plunk my money down on a company that sees the destination as a commodity and me as a number, or I can look for a company with a conscience, perhaps a B-corporation or a local company that partners with local communities. More money then circulates in the local economy, expanding opportunities for residents, all with funds I was going to spend anyway. Find the “good people” and spend your money with them. They exist, whether they are in-country tour operators such as Impulse Travel in Colombia (with its focus on community tourism), a network of homestays such as Community Homestay Network in Nepal (which empowers women entrepreneurs), specialized tour companies such as Natural Habitat Adventures (which partners with the World Wildlife Fund), or large tour operators such as Intrepid Travel (a certified B-Corp).
Contribute time or money.
Like anything important to me, I set aside time and money to give back to places, people, and the planet. I’m a signatory to 1% for the Planet, which commits me publicly to donating at least one percent of my income to certified environmental nonprofits. One of those certified organizations is the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund (Wanderful’s nonprofit partner for September). I so believe in its mission to fund community projects that protect cultural and natural resources in the places we travel that I am a volunteer board member. It is some of the most meaningful work I do. Whether you want to join me in supporting ATCF, or find another worthy organization, you will be helping to ensure that the places we love will be there for future generations to be transformed as well.