The first time I set foot on the African continent was for a gorilla trek with Canadian travel company G Adventures. The tour started in Uganda’s central city of Kampala, then we headed west to Fort Portal and then south, via a route flanked by Queen Elizabeth National Park’s stretch of savannah on one side and the Congolese border on the other, to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. En route we got to share a meal with a local family in their home, visit a chimpanzee reserve and—the highlight—make our way into the dense and mountainous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to come face to face with gorillas, incredible animals with whom we share 98.4% of our DNA. This was the bucket-list, trip-of-a-lifetime kind of travel I’d always wanted to do. The experience lived up to all my expectations—and also brought with it some on-the-ground realizations about how to behave—and not behave—as a Western traveller venturing outside of the Western world.
Packed with suitcases, day bags, camera equipment and a cooler filled with water, our pristine yellow Toyota Land Cruiser didn’t go unnoticed by the local kids, who lined up along the roads to wave. In a country still shaking off the effects of British colonialism, it felt like we were riding through Uganda in the physical incarnation of privilege. It’s that very privilege—the privilege that allows us to hop on a plane in Canada, our Western accoutrements in tow, and get off basically anywhere else in the world—that demands an engagement in responsible travel. Environmental, animal-welfare and social responsibility should be top of mind always. It is literally the least we can do.
The topic of responsible travel is having a bit of a moment right now, shining a spotlight on misguided voluntourism, the ways certain kinds of charity work are entangled with colonial attitudes (see Instagram’s No White Saviors) and travel’s inescapable carbon footprint (check out the Washington Post’s offset explainer here). And while some of these issues are so big that a solution seems unimaginable, there are actually a lot of small ways that travellers can make sure their good time isn’t contributing to someone else’s bad one.
Westerners have *stuff*, so use it
Even the most eco-conscious people can “forget” about making sustainable choices when they travel, but the environment would really appreciate it if we didn’t. By now, most Western travellers own a travel mug, a reusable water bottle and one (or 100) of those bags that fold up like origami and weigh next to nothing. Pack them—especially when you’re travelling outside the Western world to places where recycling and waste-disposal services may not be as easy to access as they are at home and where you’re likely to go through more single-use items than usual.
“Simply put, we must start bringing a travel mug, water bottle, reusable bag, reusable straw and silverware with us,” says Court Whelan, director of sustainability and an expedition leader for Natural Habitat Adventures, the world’s first company to create a zero-waste tour. “People catch on to new trends very easily. Fifteen to 20 years ago, very few people toted a cell phone around—now nearly everyone at every age has one. We’re wildly adaptable creatures, and if something is presented as normal, people will adapt their practices to fit it into their lifestyle.”
Refusing single-use items when you travel, says Whelan, is one of the most important ways to reduce your environmental impact abroad. “The next time you order a glass of water at a restaurant, say ‘No straw, please.’ There is just so much we’re presented with on a daily basis that we don’t need.”