Stepping Lightly: Searching for Sustainable Travel

As in other aspects of my life, I considered how I could step more lightly on the earth before I started this trip.

I started with my tour company. National Geographic is a leader in thinking about the future of the Earth, so it was an easy choice to pick them them for the Israel Jordan trip. (To be honest, it didn’t hurt that the comfort level was higher than many other tours!) The company they partner with, G adventures, also promotes sustainability, and they have a foundation, Planeterra.com, that supports local enterprises in the areas they visit.

Ready to be sustainable!

On an individual basis, I was ready to make choices that were more sustainable. I packed my coffee travel mug, a water bottle, a set of bamboo reusable cutlery and a travel washcloth. I packed light.

So what was the reality on the trip?

Defining sustainable travel varies, but it usually is defined as having a positive impact on the environment, the culture and the economy of the destination you’re visiting.

Mostly we stayed in traditional hotels, with the exception of one night in a Bedouin desert camp and several days on a kibbutz. But eco-accommodation is not easy to find in the locations we visited, and there did seem to be an attempt to use locally-owned facilities.

Tent at Wadi Rum

We certainly ate in local restaurants, several times in homes. The ingredients were fresh and from the neighbourhood. Sustainable and delicious.

Our guides always directed us to locally made crafts and pointed out when souvenirs were made in, say, China. Our purchases supported the local economy and we used local suppliers for activities. Most memorable was our trip to Aida refugee camp in the West Bank, where our cooking class was hosted by Noor, a foundation started by local women to support children with disabilities. ( http://www.noorweg.com)

Cooking class in Aida refugee camp

It wasn’t all green goodness, however.

In an area where you are cautioned to NOT drink the tap water, plastic bottles are ubiquitous. At times I could make some reduction by filling my reusable bottle several times from a larger plastic container, instead of using small plastic bottles. I tried to use my travel mug, but aside from filling it up occasionally at a breakfast buffet, it seemed futile, as I watched baristas make my coffee in a paper cup, pour it into my travel mug, and then throw away the cup. Our couple of early morning, on the road breakfasts came in a big bag with many layers of packaging and disposable cutlery included, and it was thrown away whether I had used it or not.

There may have been recycling in residential areas, but asides from one bin in one hotel lobby, I didn’t see any sign of it. After a while we stopped asking as there was never anything other than blank stares. In Jordan there is an initiative underway to ban single use plastic but the discarded bags and bottles are everywhere both there and in Egypt. Israel was only slightly better.

The only recycling bins I saw in a month of travel

We travelled by bus, mostly, but they seemed more fuel efficient and possibly less polluting than, say, the 2.5 million cars on the road in Cairo.

The elephant in the room, of course, is how I got to the Middle East. Air travel has a huge carbon footprint. But train and ship travel is slow and inconvenient, enjoyable as the “main event” but inefficient as a way to get to a destination. The best compromise that seems to be available is carbon offsets.

I’ll try to step lightly where I can, as I continue with my travels.

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