Picture of kids playing with toy camera

Great travel lets you get up close to people.

Photograph by Christian Aslund/Getty Images

By Costas Christ

From the December 2012/January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Some people look for the pool. Others head for the concierge desk. Me? The very first thing I do when I arrive at a hotel is stand in the lobby and take a visual 360. Can I tell what country I’m in (or even what continent I’m on) from the decor, the staff uniforms, the architecture? If not, I head for the door. I want lodging that embraces a sense of place, not conquers it. The way I travel reflects my values. The reduce-reuse-recycle part of sustainable travel is well-known. But the two other pillars—protection of natural and cultural heritage and support for the well-being of local people—are just as important. I don’t mean to imply that my way is the only way, or the best way. But I do hope it encourages you to consider what effect your travels have on the planet and its people.

Once, in Dakar, I stepped onto a tour bus to see that pulsating West African city. And see it I did. I just didn’t experience it. Missing was the possibility of unscripted interaction: stopping to listen to a group of street drummers, exchanging pleasantries with tie-dye-clad women amid towers of exotic fruit at a weekend market, sitting among locals at a café serving ceebu jën, Senegal’s national dish. So I steer clear of tour buses. Don’t get me wrong—there is safety and camaraderie on a tour bus. But if I can explore by foot or bicycle, I always do; it’s more meaningful for me, better for the environment, and I can also choose where to spend my dollars to benefit more people away from the tourist hubs.

If you ever see me in a chain hotel, it’s because I’m attending a conference or need to be close to the airport. Otherwise, I opt for locally owned inns and guesthouses. Mom-and-pop establishments provide a unique window on the culture and help keep independent businesses from going extinct. I once stayed in a Portuguese pension that turned out to be owned by three generations of cork farmers. They shared stories of harvesting cork bark from trees by hand (an age-old tradition) and making corks for wine bottles.

I want my guide to be a local. It is not a question of whether a native guide can offer the same information as, say, a Harvard historian delivering a lecture on postcolonial Africa. The latter can share reams of fascinating facts, but it is the homegrown squire who can deliver a lifetime of personal insights on the destination. Plus, hiring locals provides jobs where they are often needed the most. My Kenyan guide took me to meet her 98-year-old grandmother, who prepared sweet milky tea and told me about the first white settlers to arrive in the Mua Hills, where she was born. It was living history—and a priceless encounter with a human being.

I have written before about the negative impacts of the cruise industry (case in point: A few years ago, developers cut a quarter-mile-wide hole in one of Jamaica’s barrier reefs to make room for ever larger megaliners). So you might be surprised to learn that I do cruise. The dividing line for me is big ship vs. small ship. I am firmly in the latter boat (my rule: 200 passengers or fewer). A smaller ship burns less fuel, can resupply locally (fresher food for guests and more economic benefits for the destination), and allows more intimate contact with people and nature (while on a cruise in Borneo last February I spotted a wild orangutan in the jungle).

There is no question that traveling, especially by air, generates harmful carbon dioxide. So I usually purchase carbon offsets (programs that calculate the amount of carbon emitted and offset the emissions by supporting a forest conservation, renewable energy, or similar planet-friendly project). Offsets are handy tools, but they don’t replace making my trip as environmentally friendly as possible. I buy carbon offsets only after also taking all possible measures to reduce my negative footprint (like booking an off-the-grid eco-lodge). One reputable offset organization I like is Sustainable Travel International (carbonoffsets.org).

I’m a seafood lover. To avoid accidentally dining on threatened fish stocks, I pull up the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app on my smartphone. And I say no to shrimp: Most of it comes from aquaculture ponds bulldozed out of mangroves and dosed with chemicals. If I’m in a place where I can’t see the ocean, I scour the menu for local food products—the less food travels to get to your plate, the more nutritious it is and the less fossil fuels are involved. In Ulaanbaatar, I dined on yak cheese and dumplings.

Though I prefer to travel independently, sometimes a tour operator is the better choice—in Papua New Guinea, for instance. Two decades ago, I could count the number of eco-friendly tour companies on one hand. Now they can fill a book—a good thing. But some operators walk the talk better than others. So before I sign on, I check out a company’s sustainability cred and ask questions: How do you support the protection of nature, help safeguard cultural traditions, engage in leave-no-trace camping, give priority to hiring local people? If the answers are vague, I move on. I want my hard-earned vacation dollars going to operators as passionate about Earth as I am. What about you?

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about the changing world of travel. E-mail him through travel_talk@ngs.org.

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