As you hop aboard your plane to land at your study abroad destination you will be joining millions of other people in the world who travel every year for business or pleasure. You will become, yes, it’s hard to hear but true, a tourist. Of course, you won’t be like just any tourist, you will be a study abroad student—one of nearly 200,000 students from the U.S. studying, living, and traveling in another country.
As a study abroad student you will have the fortunate opportunity to have interactions with local people that will be more meaningful than a typical tourist interaction, but as you set off on your long-haul international flight and begin engaging in activities in your host country, it's important to consider your environmental impact.
No matter where you are going—to an urban or rural setting in a more or less developed country—you will have opportunities to confront the realities of people and cultures coming together around tourism and sustainabililty. As a responsible tourist you should, above all, be knowledgeable about your destination, seek awareness of the impact that your presence has on the local population and environment, and attempt to minimize negative impacts.
What Can You Do
There has been a movement in recent years to find ways to address the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of travel and tourism in the hopes that it will contribute to sustainable development. This movement has many variations and labels: ecotourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism, voluntourism, fair-trade tourism, pro-poor tourism, traveler’s philanthropy, etc. While each stresses particular themes, their core philosophy is the same: Support responsible travel that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.
The sustainable travel movement is strong and growing and multiple organizations around the world are seeking to educate people about what they can do to contribute. Many of the suggestions are simple and can be easily instituted.
Offset Carbon Emissions
For a small amount of your overall travel budget, consider donating to an organization involved in carbon offsetting. They will, in turn, contribute money to worthy organizations that are involved in projects that seek alternative energy sources, plant trees, etc. in order to reduce the amount of ozone-depleting carbon in the atmosphere (largely caused by air traffic). These organizations will determine how much you need to spend based on the amount of miles you have flown, what type of aircraft you are flying/vehicle you are driving, etc. Check with Sustainable Travel International or Environmental Defense Fund for a list of carbon off-setting organizations.
Also, take a look at the UI Office for Sustainability's report on carbon emissions generated by students studying abroad. The report concludes that the University of Iowa’s emissions footprint from air travel is smaller than other Doctorate Granting Universities that have reports filed with AASHE and that study abroad accounts for less than 2% of the University’s total emissions.
Take Part in Awareness-Raising Events
Students, travelers, and volunteers abroad have a unique opportunity to take part in a global movement as 350 messengers by participating in, planning, and documenting actions on October 24th, the Global Day of Climate Action. Check out www.350.org for more information. Then, get involved locally - get in touch with organizers to see how you can help. If nothing's planned yet in your area, think about getting in touch with a local organization to see if they might be interested in pulling something together. Wiser Earth and Idealist are two great networks to start with - and there is plenty of information about organizing in the Recommended Resources section of the 350.org website.
• Learn about current environmental issues in the places you are visiting. Different regions will have different situations based on their ecosystems. Learn about the effects of mass tourism on beaches, mountains, wetlands, deserts, etc. and then seek to counter those effects.
• Use accommodations that have a reputation for being sustainable (they recycle, use alternative forms of energy, are owned by or employ locals, contribute to local causes). Increasingly, there are regional and national certification systems that accommodations can obtain if they are sustainably operated, much like the organic labeling system. Check to see if there are any local certification labels that can help you to determine where to stay. Search the Internet to do this (country name + tourism certification) or inquire with the visitors bureau or local tourism offices.
• Use water sparingly. Many communities face water shortages and water usage costs money. Take quick showers.
• Save electricity. Turn off lights, air conditioners, and heaters when you are not in the room.
• Don’t litter! Even if you notice the locals doing so, try to find a container to dispose of your litter. Always recycle if possible.
• Don’t buy products made from endangered species or valuable, historical, or cultural artifacts. Ask about where a product comes from. Many of these products are illegal to export. Report incidences to local or national conservation organizations.
• Don’t disturb the wildlife. Maintain a proper distance at all times. Don’t use loud, motorized equipment among small communities of people or in areas where there is wildlife.
• Don’t pick up and take home natural resources such as shells, plants, animal bones, etc.
• If you go camping, make sure you have any necessary permits and follow local park rules. Pack out what you pack in. Stay on trails.
• Choose your recreational activities wisely. Low impact sports that don’t involve a lot of equipment or fossil fuels and that don’t disturb the environment or local communities are preferable.
• Use local and public transport whenever possible. Take a train or bus. Bike or walk. Try to fly less—airplanes produce massive amounts of ozone-depleting carbon dioxide.
Check out the following websites for more suggestions on how you can become more environmentally conscious - both here and abroad:
International Centre for Responsible Tourism
Tree Flights: Sponsor some trees to absorb your carbon emissions
Sustainable Travel International
UI Office for Sustainability
UI Facilities Management Energy and Enviornment
Eco Iowa City
Iowa Renewable Energy Association
Iowa Energy Center
AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education)
Safe and sustainable travels to you from Study Abroad!