Travel ethics: The biggest mistake people make as tourists.

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As someone who loves to travel and sees it as a great honour and privilege, I am disgusted, frustrated and perplexed to see others treat places they visit with little or no respect.

A case in point is where I was lucky enough to once live close to the beach in Bondi. I would often note how tourists who had travelled at great expense to experience the impressive coastline would take in the splendour then leave trash and filth behind as a legacy.

Campervans would routinely park outside my apartment block only to eventually drive off leaving piles of rubbish behind – mattresses, bottles, condoms and even human faeces. No, I’m not kidding.

"It’s a matter of respecting not only the places we visit but the unique cultures that make them so special." (Image: Unsplash)

Every day I would walk the rugged coastline with my dog and join groups looking on in awe at the passing of whales just off the pristine cliffs. I would then watch them turf their plastic drink bottles into the water and stamp out their cigarettes on the ground. Many, I would also see buying Chinese made t-shirts adorned with Australian motifs before heading to the local McDonald's for a meal.

I wondered why they had bothered travelling in the first place and if they treated their own home environments similarly. I am recalling these frustrations to an attractive blonde woman shaking her head in solidarity beside me on a luxurious coach making its way through the Italian countryside turning a peachy pink in the fading light.

To say this woman understands my pain is an understatement. Her name is Céline Cousteau and she is the granddaughter legendary explorer, conservationist, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. And like her famous relative, she is devoting her life to environmental and humanitarian causes the world over.

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With 15 documentaries to her credit amongst innumerable other projects, Céline describes herself as an explorer, spokesperson, consultant, public speaker, jewellery designer wife and mother. I would describe her as a hero.

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I am lucky enough to be travelling through Italy with Céline in her role as a sustainability ambassador for Trafalgar guided holidays as part of the TreadRight Foundation a dynamic and vital organisation dedicated to sustainable travel. Its premise – it’s not good enough to tread light as travellers, but to tread right.

“It’s so frustrating I agree,” Céline says of the devastating environmental impact travellers leave in their wake.

Céline Cousteau is devoting her life to environmental and humanitarian causes the world over. (Image: Supplied)

“I believe it’s about education. I don’t believe any one person thinks their litter or actions could harm the environment or wildlife. They need to see that it can. I see plastic killing ocean animals every day. What’s more I see travellers disengaged to their surrounds and the unique environments they find themselves in.

"Travel is such a privilege and education – or at least it should be. It’s a matter of respecting not only the places we visit but the unique cultures that make them so special. This is why, when Trafalgar asked me to be an ambassador for a TreadRight I jumped at the chance. They are actively doing something about conserving environments, cultures and arts, of giving back to the places they take people to visit so they will viable for generations to come.”

The TreadRight foundation is a not-for-profit started by the giant The Travel Corporation which has 30 award winning travel brands including Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Contiki, AAT Kings, Uniworld and Adventureworld, covering 70 countries catering to 2 million travellers a year.

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To date, the TreadRight Foundation has helped support some 40 sustainable tourism projects worldwide involved in everything from reducing demand for illegal wildlife products and empowering impoverished children to sustaining the future of local artisans.

One such artist is weaver Marta Brozzetti, who Celine and I visit in her native Umbria. She is of the last to hand-weave the area’s unique designs dating back to medieval times, using antique wooden looms, maintaining a family tradition first established by her great grandmother in the early 20th century.

Her small operation took a beating during the economic downturn across Europe about a decade ago, not helped by the Italian government which taxes her products at an enormous 68 per cent (because the designs are woven on looms they are considered factory produced – should they be considered “art” she would only pay 10 per cent).

"TreadRight is about protecting the vitality of the places and people that travellers visit," Céline says, admiring Marta’s incredible weaving which can take hundreds of manual hours to produce. “What Marta is doing is unique to this area’s history. Without funding, traditions such as hers are lost, which is a tragedy.”

"Travel is such a privilege and education, or at least it should be.We need to tread right." (Image: Unsplash)

Marta concurs. "TreadRight has saved my business," she says. “I mean this from the bottom of my heart. I want to keep this tradition alive – it is my life work – but I also need to eat and before the Foundation helped me, it was looking to be one or the other. Frankly, I was broke. Now, my niece is hoping to take over from me one day and keep the weaving alive – not just for me but for Umbria and its unique culture.”

"It's about understanding that in order for tourism to thrive, local destinations need to thrive,” Céline adds.

"Travel and tourism is a massive industry that has huge potential for creating real change and can have a positive effect rather than a negative one. People travel because they want to experience different cultures but without supporting local artisans such a as Marta, these cultures may not be able to survive. It is all about doing the right thing – to travel thoughtfully and respectfully and to give back to the places you visit."

How to tread right when you travel:

  • Look closely at the companies you are using to travel with. Do they give back to the places they visit? Do they use local guides and experts? Do the hotels, airlines and tour operators have environmental footprint minimisation processes in place.
  • Share transport wherever and whenever you can. Instead of hiring a car think public transport or organise a group to travel with you and share costs and reduce emissions. Guided tours are an ideal alternative.
  • Buy locally-made handcrafts, products and souvenirs. Check where items have been made before purchasing. Cheap imported copies often sit beside the real things.
  • Don’t just think you have been to a place because you have ticked off certain the sites to see. Meet the locals, eat in their restaurants and buy their produce.
  • Where possible, volunteer with a local, non-profit organisation or to visit a school.
  • Take your own water bottles and say no to plastic bags, drinking straws and other single-use plastic products.
  • Donate unwanted clothes. Most travellers over pack and purchase clothing along the way. By lightening your unwanted goods, you can change a life of someone with little.
  • Donate foreign coins. Most airlines have charity envelopes which take all currencies. Otherwise, leave them for staff at the hotels such as cleaners and porters.
  • Refrain from giving money to begging children and support community projects instead.
  • Take photos instead of protected cultural artefacts as mementos of your trip.
  • Don't haggle over goods. Yes, it’s cultural to bargain but if it’s a matter of a dollar or so, it won’t mean much to you but it could mean a meal for the vendor.
  • Respect wildlife and their natural habitats.
  • Purchase products that aren’t made using endangered plants or animals.
  • In protected areas, access only the places open to visitors.
  • Reduce your water and energy consumption whenever possible.

To find out more about the TreadRight Foundation, visit their website and Facebook page.

How do you tread right when you're travelling overseas? 

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