With the near-constant scramble to achieve zero emissions and carbon neutrality, with off-set credits, slow skiing, geotourism, certifications, and the looooong list other eco-trends embraced by so many companies in the travel industry, it sometimes feels the allure of travel itself is getting scrubbed off by all the green washing. This ain’t no anti-environmental screed. I do “believe in” global warming, and applaud any and all pursuits to circumvent the damaging impact of long-haul flights, 4x4 safari excursions, and all the rest. But to me the umbrella concept of eco-travel should speak to the larger concept of sustainable tourism as much as it does to the environment. It should incorporate both earth-friendly practices as well as a localist centralism that both stimulates the local economy where you’re visiting (good for your conscious), and provides interaction with the people who live there (good for your travel experience).
Witness Intrepid Travel. The Aussie-based company was founded on the concept of responsible tourism, with small-group tours that are anchored around locally-owned hotels, restaurants, and tour guides. Unlike more traditional, follow-the-yellow-umbrella experiences, the goal with Intrepid is to find that seldom-explored path, even while visiting the more mainstream tourist spots like the temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. In many respects, this is achieved in small gestures—staying in hotels that have water jugs in the lobby for low-cost water refills, discouraging payment to street children so as to not stimulate that soft economy, visiting restaurants that teach the hospitality industry to the homeless, taking bicycle taxis rather than motorcycles—that add up to central understanding of both the place you’ve visited, and the impacts of less-responsible tourism on developing countries.
Long-haul trips with Intrepid run the gamut, from an 11-day family trip to Nepal to a 12-day active tour of Turkey, with packages all over the world. But even if you’re a DIY traveler, Intrepid also serves as an essentialist’s directory for local half- and full-day tours in locales throughout the globe, called Urban Adventures. I was in Bangkok a while back, and signed up for several: an evening tour of the city markets, complete with an incredible meal in Chinatown; a boat tour through the city’s canals; and a half-day bike ride through Bangkok’s alleys, side streets, and temples. Each tour was run by locals with an impressive command of English and a love for their native city that was downright contagious. I got to see things, and hear stories, that no travel guide, brochure, or (yes) website could have provided. Cycling through Bangkok’s District 8—zipping past yipping dogs and drying laundry and locals cooking food with bemused expressions on their face, only to find myself standing at the golden feet of the world’s largest reclining Buddha—remains one of the coolest experiences I’ve had thus far. And there’s no way I would’ve rented a bike and dove into Bangkok’s traffic-choked streets without my guide, or Intrepid.
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