Learning more about ethical and sustainable travel brings on bouts of guilt about past indiscretions, however unintentional. Riding in a timber seat on an elephant’s back in Thailand years ago springs to mind first.
It was part of a hosted trip and back then I didn’t realise how wrong it was – we were led to believe it was so much better for the elephant than logging. But I remember feeling awkward and mentally uncomfortable as the elephant lumbered somewhat despondently through the forest and decided I wouldn’t ride an elephant in that way again. Not long after on another trip to Thailand I did ride atop a rescued elephant at a sanctuary, sans saddle, as we took it to the river for a bath. This elephant appeared content, the mahout seemed kind and it was a joyous experience for me as the elephant wallowed happily in the water. But with more knowledge I now realise this was still unethical.
The second episode of guilt that still cuts deep happened in Papua New Guinea about 15 years ago. I was shocked by the level of rubbish lining the roadside – plastic bags of rubbish and disposable nappies mostly. When I asked an ex-pat why, he explained that traditionally most things the locals discarded decomposed or were eaten by wild pigs. No one had explained that plastics were different.
The next day I travelled though New Ireland province, having hitched a ride with locals on the back of a truck, the most common method of public transport along the route. In my backpack I had some delicious lady finger bananas in a plastic bag so they didn’t stain my clothes. After sharing them with those around me I put the skins back in the plastic bag to dispose of later. One of the locals motioned for me to give him the bag. I was reluctant, but in pidgin he seemed to indicate he was going to take care of the rubbish for me. He did. By hurling it over his shoulder onto the roadside as we bounced along. It was a heartbreaking moment, realisng the impact a lack of education about plastic would have on this and other island countries. But I was also angry I’d inadvertently contributed to the problem.
But recently I heard something that has prompted me to get over the angst for past indiscretions. “Reflect on old choices, but don’t crucify yourself over them,” says Sandra Vardanega, Worldwise Manager for Flight Centre Travel Group. “If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have made those choices.” How right she is.
She was speaking at Travel Weekly‘s Travel DAZE Sustainability conference in Sydney presented by G Adventures. It was just one of many inspiring takeaways from a day of sobering facts and inspiring stories. Here are some more quotes that resonated with me.
“The reality is we can’t leave it (climate change) to anyone else, otherwise our grand kids will be f****d.” Darrell Wade, Intrepid Travel Co-founder and Group Chairman.
“Lack of awareness is key.” Ben Pearson, Head of Campaigns at World Animal Protection
“The only tourism future is a sustainable tourism future.” Chris Roberts, Tourism Industry Aeotearoa
“There are trade-offs. Tourism gives and takes.” Jennifer Bartlett, Tourism Development Advisor
“If you remove (an unethical) product you can no longer influence change.” Sandra Vardanega, Worldwise Manager for Flight Centre Travel Group
“Convenience is the biggest weight around our necks.” Costa Georgiadis, Television Presenter of Gardening Australia
“A little bit is better than nothing.” Tim Jones, Managing Director National Geographic and VP Trevel Expedition APAC & ME
“Ask yourself, ‘What can you do?’ Together we can do more.” Marcatan Gaughan, Founder cleantravel.org
And tying it back to my ignorant past actions, Bob Brown, former Leader of the Australian Greens, says “Don’t get depressed. Get active!”
I’m pleased to report the elephant park mentioned at the beginning of this post has progressed and no longer offers elephant rides at all. And there are some inspiring initiatives happening in sustainable travel which I’ll share in another post.
Happy World Tourism Day!
Disclosure: I attended the Travel DAZE as a media guest of Travel Weekly.