Local knowledge for eco-conscious tourism choices

Dili harbour. Photo: Getty Images
Dili harbour. Photo: Getty Images
The latest travel book from Lonely Planet, Sustainable Escapes, discovers the world's best eco-conscious travel experiences and places to stay. This is an edited extract.

There’s no denying that planning a sustainable trip can take a bit of legwork, particularly for travel to remote destinations and developing countries. So why not recruit an operator to do it for you?

‘‘By travelling with a tour operator that’s genuinely committed to operating responsibly, the fundamentals of supporting local communities and limiting your environmental footprint will have already been built in to your trip,’’ says James Thornton, CEO of small-group tour company Intrepid Travel, known for its pioneering responsible tourism strategies.

If you prefer to travel independently, chances are you will still use operators for short excursions along the way. Here’s how to ensure those you travel with will help to minimise your footprint on your destination.


‘‘Travelling responsibly is about demonstrating respect for the people, culture and environment you’re visiting,’’ says Thornton. Responsible (and in effect, sustainable) travel also helps to fund environmental and cultural conservation and gives locals a reason to conserve.

‘‘When you take a responsible holiday you are ensuring that the money you spend benefits the local community,’’ says Justin Francis, CEO of UK-based travel company Responsible Travel, which sells tours from 400 specialist operators around the world. ‘‘This might mean staying in a family-owned lodge instead of a multinational chain, discovering local eateries that celebrate local cuisine as part of their culture, or going kayaking with a local guide.’’


While travelling to countries that your own government forbids (typically for safety reasons), is not generally considered responsible, due in part to the strain it can put on local services, industry experts claim responsible and sustainable travel is possible in places with poor ethical records.

‘‘Travelling responsibly is less about the destination, but more about what you do when you get there,’’ says Francis. ‘‘It’s possible to travel in an extremely damaging way in countries with even the greatest commitments to human rights and the environment.’’

Kelly Galaski, Director of Global Programmes for the Planeterra Foundation, the not-for-profit partner of small-group tour company G Adventures, agrees.

‘‘By experiencing different places and cultures in the most responsible way possible, travellers can become advocates for bettering our world when they return to their home countries,’’ she says. ‘‘Responsible travel operators are crucial in connecting travellers to business owners that are creating opportunities for many at the grassroots level.’’


In recent years, many operators have overhauled their offerings to ensure they are more responsible and sustainable. Checking the operator’s website for a responsible or sustainable tourism policy is the easiest way to assess its credentials.

These policies typically reflect the World Tourism Organisation’s definition of sustainable tourism, and may incorporate additional measures based on the company’s own research, or that of non-governmental organisations and academic bodies. Since removing elephants rides from its tours, for example, Intrepid Travel has taken measures to secure the safety of vulnerable children in communities it visits.

‘‘We want to create the best possible experiences for our travellers while ensuring the places we visit are impacted positively,’’ says Thornton. ‘‘That’s why instead of including visits to schools or orphanages which pose risks to children, we’ll eat and shop at social enterprise restaurants and stores whose earnings fund programmes to help keep families together.’’

Sustainable tourism certification is also increasing, as are sustainable tour aggregators like Responsible Travel, which vets the tours it sells against its own strict criteria.

At a glance

Key ingredients of a responsible tour

• Low-impact wildlife experiences such as viewing wildlife in the wild, and visits to legitimate wildlife sanctuaries

• Cultural visits that benefit local communities first, and visitors second

• Community tourism that keeps children safe and families together (read: no orphanage visits or experiences that support child labour)

• Accommodation in homestays and boutique properties

• Dining experiences based around seasonal local produce, local cultural traditions, and local-owned establishments

• Local guides who are appropriately trained, outfitted and paid for the services they provide

• Waste-minimising initiatives such as offering clients reusable alternatives to common single-use plastics like carry bags and water bottles

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Help rebuild Timor-Leste by visiting

It’s one of Australia’s closest neighbours, but despite having a culture as rich as the biodiverse coral reefs that fringe it, Timor-Leste still ranks among the world’s least-visited countries more than 20 years on from its fight for independence.

High prices (by Southeast Asian standards) and a lack of tourism infrastructure beyond Dili are the main culprits, but if you can get past that, this now-peaceful nation offers one of the most fascinating travel experiences on the planet.

While it’s not a large country, Timor-Leste’s diabolical roads and unreliable public transport add additional levels of difficulty to exploring beyond Dili.

Run by passionate locals, Eco-Discovery Timor-Leste (www.ecodiscoveryeasttimor.com) offers the perfect solution: tailor-made tours of the country led by local guides who speak English, Portuguese and Tetum (the official languages), as well as Indonesian and a number of other local dialects, offering travellers an opportunity to connect more deeply with locals you meet along the way.

From jungle hideouts used by Fretilin resistance fighters during the Indonesian occupation to incredible cultural relics that have miraculously survived to this day, Eco-Discovery can take you there in a culturally and environmentally responsible manner, supporting community-based projects and businesses on the way. And with every dollar you spend staying in the country, you’ll play a role in helping to rebuild it.

If you go

• Kick off your visit to the country with a Dili History Tour (jdntimorleste.weebly.com). Run by Timorese students, tours cover the story of Timor-Leste’s independence, travelling around to various historical sites in the capital by mini-van.

• Eco-Discovery’s tailor-made tours cost about $US100 ($NZ159) per day all-inclusive per person.

Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet's Sustainable Escapes © 2020, www.lonelyplanet.com


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