As COVID restrictions ease around the world, many of us cannot wait to get back to travel. But as excitement to explore the world takes over, it’s important to keep sustainability at the forefront of our minds. Lockdowns may have been taxing for us, but they proved to be a much-needed break for our planet: pollution in densely populated urban areas decreased, and birds could be heard singing as the sound of traffic died down. This contrast provides opportunity for a re-think in terms of how we want to move forward with our lives – and heal our relationship with the Earth – as restrictions lift.
If you’re among those who is counting down the days until it’s time to pack your bags, you might want to check out Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet, the new book by Nina Karnikowski. A beautifully illustrated, detailed guide to conscious travel, Go Lightly is essential reading for journeying through a post-COVID world.
Nina, an Australian travel writer and sustainability advocate, has previously penned the inspirational Make a Living Living, a guide to breaking out of society’s norms and earn a living doing what you love. Now, she is harnessing the expertise acquired in her eight years of travelling the world for a living into the perfect manual for the sustainable traveller.
After a long career of travel writing, Nina’s eyes were opened to the ways that globetrotting affects the planet. “The tipping point was on an assignment to the Canadian Arctic in late 2019,” she recalls. “I visited a town called Churchill, the ‘polar bear capital of the world’, where I learnt about the impact our consumptive human behaviours (including flying on planes) were having on the bears and our planet. The melting of the Arctic ice due to global warming means the bears’ seal hunting season is shorter, which ultimately leads to a declining population. I realised on this trip that the bears have no way of protecting themselves from this – only our actions will make an impact.”
Nina was prompted to take some time off from travel writing, to figure out how she could approach her job in a more planet-friendly way. Quitting travel altogether was not an option, for reasons that were not purely indulgent of her passion, but rooted more in a wider view of the good that is also inherent in the industry: “While the travel industry is responsible for an estimated eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions, as well as degraded wilderness areas, over-touristed towns, the erosion of local cultures and more, it also accounts for one in ten jobs, teaches us tolerance and broadens our world views.”
This led to the idea for Go Lightly, but just two months after Nina submitted her manuscript, the pandemic broke out, with nationwide lockdowns all over the world. Nina sees the pandemic as a necessary wake-up call: “During the first wave of lockdowns, global emissions dropped to the lowest level in a decade as we stopped flying, driving and consuming. People in northern India could see the Himalayas more clearly than they could for three decades due to the big drops in air pollution. Those sorts of statistics and stories woke so many of us up, and we’ve realised the pandemic can be a portal into a cleaner, greener travel world. We’ve all stopped rushing around so much and realised that there won’t be a world worth seeing in years to come, if we don’t start seeing it in the right way now.”
As a travel industry professional, does Nina believe that the answer to the environmental aspect of globetrotting lies in travelling less or travelling more consciously? “I think it’s both, and I think they’re interwoven. Taking less, slower adventures leaves us more satisfied – we’re sinking deeper into the destinations so we don’t feel the need to rush around the globe so much. Travelling that way means less flights, which equals less carbon emissions, and a more meaningful relationship to the people and places we visit. Travelling less and at a slower pace also means we can make a bigger economic impact on the communities we visit, and gives us more time to figure out the best way to give back to them. As the legendary conservationist and filmmaker Céline Cousteau says in Go Lightly, “ask yourself: how is my travel going to benefit somebody other than me?”
Here are Nina’s top three tips for conscious travellers:
Put nature at the centre of your adventures. Take hiking and biking trips, camping adventures and road trips, wildlife adventures and boat journeys. Being surrounded by a flourishing natural environment inspires us to feel awe for our planet. Research tells us that it’s precisely this feeling of awe that tends to make us feel kinder and more generous, and encourages us to forgo our personal interests for those of others and the world. Exactly what’s needed at this crucial moment in time.
Go local as much as possible. Stay in locally owned hotels, eat in locally owned restaurants, employ local indigenous guides and buy locally made handicrafts, ensuring your travel dollars are going directly into the pockets of locals. There’s the term ‘leakage’ in tourism, that describes the process through which the money we spend as travellers leaks out of the countries we’re visiting and into the hands of multinational corporations. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, just five percent of money spent by tourists actually stays in the local community. We need to change that.
Find a way to give back to the destination you’re in. Whether that be by shedding light on a particular issue and talking about it or fundraising for it via your social media; getting involved in a conservation or rewilding program while you’re away, (there are plenty of companies that specialise in that); supporting local businesses or tour companies; or maybe doing some work on something like a permaculture farm while you’re away. ‘Going lightly’, and living lightly more generally, is all about reciprocity.
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Cover image by Lucija Ros.