Travel with Conscience: 7 Eco-Friendly Travel Trends for Ethically Minded Wanderers
A vision of sustainable travel trends for 2021 (and beyond)
Many of us globe-trotting individuals had to cancel travel plans during 2020. The pandemic left us all feeling out of sorts and completely discombobulated. Now I know that in 2020 not being able to travel was honestly a privileged issue to have. Some people lost loved ones. Some people were homeless and broke as hell (me, for one). We all have had a shifting perspective, and canceling travel plans does sit at the “Least Concern” end of the “Crap Storm of Things That Went Wrong in 2020” spectrum.
However, vacations are wonderful things to look forward to for a multitude of reasons, and having to cancel them is never fun. For some of us, traveling is how we connect with our fellow humans and connect with the world around us. Travel is even the livelihood of several of you reading- a highly likely occurrence, considering the travel industry makes up 11% of the global economy.
So with that being said, 2021 is upon us. Now is the time that most of us are sitting back and wondering when we can travel again. Not only when we can travel, but also how we can travel in an ethical and sustainably-minded way. It is important to note that eco-travel and sustainability are two separate ideas, but I’ve included trends in each category.
So to that end, I’ve made a #Vision list of eco-friendly and/or sustainable travel trends for the ethically minded travelers among us. These are trends to keep an eye on during your 2021 travel planning and beyond. Hopefully, these make an impact on you and inspire you to travel in a climate-forward, culture-forward, and economically-forward way.
What good is a trend list if you don’t know how to implement it though? Great question! This is a list that includes suggestions on how to take advantage of each one of these trends, for that exact reason.
Slow Travel and Living Like a Local
Perhaps the biggest travel trend in 2021 (and 2020, honestly) is slow travel. Ideal for digital nomads, business travelers, those on sabbatical, and people who just want to slow the heck down for a change.
With most destinations still requiring a 14-day quarantine (or at least a negative COVID-19 test), the idea of slow travel suddenly sounds a lot better. Travel to a destination, quarantine on a beach (or in the mountains, or in a villa, etc.) for 14 days. Then spend the next several weeks or months getting to know the area like a local. With the quarantine out of the way and masks in hand, the world is far more open to your wanderlust-induced explorations.
Now, not everyone can afford to travel this way. However, there actually are a lot of options that allow individuals, couples, and families to travel slowly. Working from home was a big push in 2020. It isn’t much of a stretch to take “working from home” sometimes to “working from anywhere” often. Get creative and combine business with leisure in this way.
One Option on How to Make it Work: If digital nomadism isn’t your thing, you can still slow travel on your annual two-week vacation. 2021 is all about settling in and seeing a place in depth. For your next vacation, become a TrustedHouseSitter. Housesit someone’s pets and abode anywhere in the world that tickles your fancy. During your two weeks, visit the local farmer's markets. Get to know the city in-depth via bicycle. Learn a few phrases in the local language. Stay in one place for your entire trip, and take a train on day trips close to your temporary home base. Take your time, live like a local, and enjoy.
“Rewilding,” Voluntourism, and Bio Positive Wildlife Travel
Sustainable travel is out, my friends. Don’t freak out yet, though. The new gospel is regenerative travel. If the 2020 pandemic and all that has come with it taught us anything, it taught the travel industry that something has got to change. It is no longer simply enough to not destroy the place you vacation. Instead, the trend is to preserve, improve, and lift up the areas where we go on holiday.
You can blame this trend, in part, on sustainable popular thought leaders like Greta Thunberg, influencing a new generation of travelers. This is a good thing! Greta, for instance, recently took a trip to New York via sailboat to avoid adding carbon into an already overloaded atmosphere. Is everyone going to hop on this sailboat extravaganza? Probably not, but it is a key indicator of where travel is headed: into the realm of regeneration.
Regeneration means a lot of things. The concept of “rewilding” is not necessarily tourism-specific. It is a global movement focused on restoring natural ecosystems. In the world of travel, the rewilding movement is focused on supporting these places financially and otherwise, to encourage the practice. Closely linked to this concept are bio positive wildlife practices, where tourists who want to experience wildlife do so in a sustainable, eco-friendly way.
That means going above and beyond when booking wildlife-themed adventures so as not to end up giving money to places like the scandalous Chang Mai Tiger Temple. Which was forced to shut down due to animal abuse. After letting tourists snap selfies with tigers, it turns out they had dead cubs hidden in their freezers. Big yikes. Try an organization like Natural World Safaris instead, which seeks to bridge travel and conservation by supporting grassroots conservation efforts in the wildlife sphere.
Other forms of regenerative travel include volunteering during your travels. There can be issues with voluntourism, of course. Going to a country to pose with impoverished children just to make you look good on social media is obviously a horrible thing to do. However, there are many amazing options for giving back while on holiday. This includes operations like Hope Floats, an organization that matches cruise ship travelers with volunteer projects while at port.
One Travel Itinerary Option: The world of voluntourism abounds, but why not try your hand at volunteering in paradise? Flights to Hawaii are quite cheap at the moment. Once there, spend a day with Malama Hawaii (which means to care for Hawaii in Native Hawaiian).
Volunteer projects include making Hawaiian quilts for Kupuna (elders), self-directed beach cleanups, and tree planting. There are quite a few airlines and hotels around the islands that partner with Malama in order to make your voluntourism project smooth. Win-win-win!
Farm to Fork, Pro-Nature Menu
To say that 2020 impacted the restaurant industry would probably be the understatement of the frickin’ year. Many restaurateurs, bartenders, line cooks, and bussers suddenly found themselves out of a job. Chefs and owners had to think quickly and pivot multiple times in order to stay afloat. In 2020, the restaurant industry realized just how sustainable it wasn’t — in more ways than one.
Necessity breeds innovation, though. This catastrophe brought the rise of some innovative and amazing dining experiences. Think drag queen drive-throughs (“Drag-Thrus”) where hungry patrons in Portland can order takeout and watch a show from their cars. How about the rise of “Ghost-Kitchens” and “Virtual Restaurants” that exist only for delivery services — aka the epitome of eating ala pandemic.
However, these trends weren’t the only things in the world of food to come out of the COVID-19 extravaganza. More and more people learned how to bake bread at home, can their own produce, and create their own unique ferments. Luckily for all of us and the sake of the planet, restaurants are quickly following suit.
Fermented foods, locally canned goods, in-season produce, and farm-to-table style dining are, without a doubt, good for the planet. The fewer miles your food travels to get to you, the better off we all are. Moreover, to the delight of vegans everywhere, plant-based food is beginning to take over. Even if this doesn’t mean vegan-exclusive food, it does mean a spotlight on fresh produce and veggie-heavy meals. Ethical and environmentally focused travelers are craving foods they know won’t contribute to deforestation (thanks, palm oil).
Luckily the prevalence of vertical gardens, local food menus, and sustainability-minded chefs are on the rise. So even abroad we don’t have to look too hard for ethically sourced meals.
Travel, to many people, includes unique dining experiences at its very core. To this end, hotels and restaurants around the world are stepping up and creating intimate, localized experiences for their guests. Places like Impact House, a sustainability-focused hostel in Lisbon, offers food “made with love” with a farm-to-table plant-based slant. 2021 is the year of unique, delicious, and local dishes in lush locales.
How to Experience This Delicious Trend While On Vacay: To the delight of many, Costa Rica has opened its borders to United States citizens provided they have health insurance. Take advantage of this tropical paradise and plan a trip to Finca Rosa Blanca. The delightful coffee farm and inn promises vibrant, authentic Costa Rican cultural exchange in addition to delicious farm-to-table offerings. This Inn is a sustainability lover’s paradise that doesn’t sacrifice quality or greenwash their guests — earning an unprecedented perfect score with the Costa Rican Certification for Sustainable Tourism.
Pura Vida, indeed.
Off-Season and Off-Grid Travel
Right now, we’re all seeking (desperately, fantastically) to find some far-flung corner of the earth where a mention of COVID-19 has locals shrugging in confusion and muttering, “Never heard of her.” Full disclosure: that isn’t going to happen.
That doesn’t mean that going off-grid can’t happen. Look. A (probably large) subset of travelers is clearly going to still look for travel that keeps them away from other people. There are two ways to do this: traveling off-grid and traveling during the off-season. Both have the potential for sustainable and ethical travel.
Traveling in the off-season can help reduce the economic disparities that often occur in developing countries between the high and low tourism seasons. Countries like Tunisia, for instance, rely heavily on tourism but often sees an influx of visitors only a few months out of the year. This means they can alternately suffer from over-tourism and overcrowding during one season and a lack of economic income during the next.
Alternately, traveling off-grid has its own set of sustainable issues it addresses. Being off-grid means a community or place does not rely on the municipal water or electric grid. Alternatively, “off-grid” could simply suggest a lack of reliance on community products and services. An off-grid accommodation could include solar power electricity, geothermal heating, or natural hot springs. Typically and some-what obviously, an “off-grid” locale features a natural setting in some way, shape, or form.
Suggestions for Getting Away: These options have two main things in common: getting away from humans or society somehow and boosting the overall sustainability of the tourism industry.
Would you prefer a safari in the off-season, away from crowds? What about a famous landmark normally packed full of people, covered in snow and all to yourself? Would you prefer to instead sleep in an eco-friendly Earthship in a beautiful, remote desert? How about a truly off-grid, rustic cabin in one of America’s best cross-country skiing locations?
Which option you choose is up to you, but any of them will lead to a sustainable, adventurous trip.
Flight-shame is a real thing, and it is internalized. Known by the Swedes as flygskam, flight-shame is the feeling that you get when you realize your flight was unnecessary — and unnecessarily bad for the planet.
To start, this is not something you do to other people. For some working-class humans or those on a budget, flying might be the only option. This is not a movement where one belittles others. Instead, it is an invitation to observe your own privilege: did you really need to book that flight when a train would have worked better? The idea here goes even deeper. Could you have taken a public bus, instead of renting a car? What about a bike, or on foot to that local area? Flygskam encompasses the idea of avoiding frivolous carbon emissions just for the sake of our own comfort.
Often, and especially in places like Europe and Japan, taking the high-speed train is often cheaper and even more convenient. It is also far more environmentally friendly. Millennials and Gen-Z travelers are getting on board for this trend in droves, many touting it as a luxurious and adventurous way to travel. The only problem for most people is that the train, bus, or bike options exalted by anti-fliers tend to be far more time-consuming than flight.
It is important to consider the trade-offs and this brand new, incredibly old way of thinking: the journey is just as important as the destination.
Taking the Slow Route and Avoiding the Plane: In America, we might not have the high-speed trains of Japan or Europe. We do, however, have Amtrak, and it serves far more of the country than you might otherwise think. At the time of this writing, a one-way trip from Santa Fe, NM to LA was cheaper on Amtrak by around $20 per person. The ride takes longer, but why not splurge on a sleeper car and make the trip part of the experience? All sleeper cars on Amtrak trains come with complimentary meal service and your own concierge. Talk about classy.
Carbon Neutral Hotels and Green Living Spaces
Long gone are the days when a hotel chain asking you to “Please hang up your towels” is considered eco-friendly. These days, it’s considered the absolute bare minimum, and travelers are making it clear that they need more. Hotels, hostels, and other vacation rentals have to work far harder for the stamp of approval from conscientious travelers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, however.
Green living spaces, net-zero hostels, and carbon-neutral hotels are no longer a thing of the past. Those looking to rest their head in 2021 at a green accommodation have plenty of options to choose from. This includes luxury boutique hotels, run-of-the-mill hotel chains, and even budget hostels.
To find accommodations going green, don’t rely simply on eco certifications. Although there are plenty of options, and they are worth staying at, they do not encompass all there is in the world of sustainable travel stays.
Indeed, often these certifications are just too pricy for small hotels. Instead, take a look at how they discuss themselves. Do they mention the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals? Perhaps they are a Certified B Corps or a member of 1% for the Planet. Dig a bit deeper into your nightly stays to find places genuinely trying to give back and do good without greenwashing the public.
How to Dream Green Around the Globe: Next time you’re booking a stay somewhere in Europe on the ever-popular Airbnb, why not just skip on over to their best and most ethical competition? The aptly-named Fairbnb uses 50% of its platform fee to fund community projects of your choice in the communities you visit. Airbnb has gotten some flak over the years about exacerbating inequality in cities. So if you want a locals perspective at a quaint vacation rental, look no further.
Sustainable Travel Trends: The Choice is Yours
Ethically minded globetrotters are leaning towards these seven travel trends in 2021 for a variety of reasons. Living like a local and traveling slowly is a great way to escape COVID restrictions while deep diving into world cultures. Voluntourism and “rewilding” efforts focus on giving back to the destinations that host us.
Eating locally and consciously in a global setting builds up smaller economies and ensures that our food carbon footprint remains low (yet tasty). Traveling to get away from it all can boost local economies during economically difficult times — or even allow the healing powers of nature to calm us while ensuring our actions don’t destroy the environment we seek to observe.
Anti-flight travel embraces slow travel in a resurgence of past luxuries. Embracing trains and buses over airfare encourages travel where the means is as much a part of the experience as the destination. Accommodations stepping up their game leads to ethical and sustainable places to sleep all over the globe.
2020 was a hailstorm of woe upon most of the world. The travel sector, a behemoth industry comprising 1 out of every 10 jobs in the world, was certainly no exception. It’s no surprise that many travelers are eagerly looking forward to 2021 and wondering what the future holds.
Where will travel take you in 2021? Are you taking this opportunity to ensure that your travel is healing, regenerative, and ethical? Luckily these travel trends point towards a sustainable, ethical future for an industry that was — until recently — dealing with some serious issues.
To save the planet and travel ethically, make sure you’re on board with this year’s trends.