Anna Luna Rossi
Conscious Travel: what is it and how to become a conscious traveler?
Updated: Apr 14
As travelers seeking meaningful experiences, and in today's context of arising climate concerns and broadened sustainability discussions, we have been looking into "better ways to travel" that don't imply a negative impact on the planet or local communities. We've become more conscious of the significance of traveling and its different impacts. We're understanding more and more how traveling abroad touches on subjects as diverse as human rights, justice, and environmental health. The way we travel is greatly influencing the future of our planet, but also the world's heritage. As an answer to these concerns, the term Conscious Travel has been trending nowadays: but what does it really mean, and what are the key principles for traveling consciously?
What does "Conscious Travel" really mean?
Conscious travel is way more than just a trend, and is often not well-understood in all its implications. It can be seen as a term comprising eco-friendly travel, ethical tourism and sustainable travel. The key word here is “consciousness”: conscious travel invites you to reflect on the reason why you decide to travel, to approach the traveling experience with more honesty, intention and empathy. It tells you to be aware of your impact as a traveler on both the environment and local communities.
The Conscious Travel Foundation provides the following definition of conscious travel: "Where empathy meets exploration. It encourages people to look at their travel in a more holistic way. It requires us to have a clear reason for travel, to examine and understand its impact, and to actively choose to explore the world in a meaningful, intentional way."
Simply put, conscious travel is made of three main components: preserving the environment, respecting the heritage of local communities, and being mindful along your journey.
Traveling abroad, and especially in countries that are experiencing higher climate change rates and more visible environmental threats, is raising our awareness of the importance of preserving the natural world. Local communities are teaching us how nature has a central role in their everyday lives. Whether it concerns the ocean, the rainforest or endangered animal species, any traveler has witnessed at least once the way our world is being impacted by human threats. It is impossible to close our eyes on today's environmental issues.
The environment is not the only thing in need of being preserved and on which we have an impact when we travel. Local communities' cultural heritage and traditions are also at risk of disappearing, and part of the reason why resides in the way the travel industry has been focusing too much on luxury experiences and the westernization of abroad destinations. Too often, cultural representation through travel activities we take part in is transformed to fit Western expectations (as an example, think of traditional villages built as tourist attractions). Traveling consciously means taking a genuine interest in a country's cultural elements: showing respect for traditions and having the will to understand a culture in a more profound way, through real immersion in this culture.
Conscious travel is also a reminder to be mindful when you explore a new place, to practice mindfulness in little moments: about the places you discover, the experiences you go through, and how you interact with the people you meet. It encourages you to keep an open and curious mindset, to spend more time learning and observing rather than simply capturing the moment through pictures.
How do we, as travelers, have a share of responsibility for these concerns? For two main reasons: because traveling implies having a carbon footprint (i.e: our actions generate a certain quantity of greenhouse gas emissions) and going to another country implies being in contact with another culture. Let's dive a little more into these reasons.
Why choose to travel consciously?
In today's world led by social medias, traveling has often become a way to be seen. We sometimes forgot the real reason behind why we decide to travel: our purpose, what motivates us, what initiates this passion for traveling in the first place. Nowadays, a huge part of traveling is about catching the insta-worthy pictures and making memories worth sharing, or simply saying “I’ve been there” and "I've seen this". This also brings us to lose consciousness of the impact we have on both local communities & the environment. Traveling consciously is meant to make us create more meaningful experiences while lowering our potential negative impact on the world.
“Traveling in a holistic way”: This means going beyond the simple “traveling because I can” point of view. It’s seeing the travel experience as an interconnection between you, the world, and other people. It can manifest through having a conscious mindset, being mindful of your actions, and seeking connections, learnings and authentic experiences.
Conscious travel and our environmental impact
When we travel, we undeniably have a negative impact on the planet starting from the moment when we take a plane. The meaning of traveling consciously is also finding ways to compensate for this impact. It can be through using alternative modes of transport when you have the possibility, or bringing reusable items with you to avoid single-use plastics: choosing eco-friendly alternatives is a way to reduce our carbon footprint.
Always stay respectful of the land you’re on by avoiding practices harmful to the environment (such as: activities involving animals held captive for human interests or threatening animals in their natural habitat, any practice that can directly or indirectly destroy the ecosystem). More often than not, places deemed as animal sanctuaries are using this name to attract more tourism rather than really making meaningful changes for the planet: it's important to do your research on these places before visiting them.
Being mindful of your impacts along your journey is essential: it implies understanding how negative environmental impacts can occur, and being conscious of your actions and habits as a traveler.
Conscious travel and our relationship with local communities
Conscious travel also takes root in cultural heritage and cultural travel. The first thing we need to understand is how despite a lot of countries relying on tourism for their economy, we are not "saviors" of these local communities: their cultures are centuries old and are nurtured through everyday practices that are theirs and with which we don't need to interfere.
However, the second thing to understand is how traveling to a specific destination should imply showing respect and interest for this destination's culture. Conscious Travel wants you to reflect on the way you approach a culture when you travel: if you go somewhere without showing any interest to learn about the culture, then the traveling experience is not as ethical as it could be. The "why" resides in the fact that it's crucial to keep in mind you're finding yourself in a new and unknown place, where you're not in the position of "power" you're used to. And this echoes the subject of colonialism: being conscious that a lot of countries were former colonies and how destructive colonialism has been makes you re-envision your position as a traveler. We need to go beyond the simple "travel is helping us understand other cultures better" because it does not automatically, we have to genuinely educate ourselves through authentic local experiences.
Being aware of local cultural behaviors, showing respect, and being open to learning from local communities (and trust me, this is such a valuable travel experience) are core values of the conscious traveler. Showing cultural appreciation for the country you're visiting also implies supporting local businesses, trying local cuisine, opting for a local travel guide, and finding ways to give back as much as you can.
Accommodations and activities as a conscious traveler
Contrary to a popular belief, being a conscious traveler doesn't mean completely avoiding luxury travel experiences if this is what you're more drawn to. It means choosing experiences mindfully to ensure they will not be harmful to local communities and biodiversity. This involves changing our ways of consuming when traveling: choosing accommodations that are eco-friendly, small guesthouses, ecolodges and homestays run by locals benefit to the community in a way multinational hotels and resorts do not. The same goes for buying from local artists or artisans rather than from stores where souvenirs are mass-produced and usually non-ethical (think plastic, or sometimes animal derivative products).
Tips for traveling consciously
If you're looking for practical ways you can apply the principles of conscious travel to your way of traveling, here are a few tips summing up what we talked about in this article:
Minimalism is key: pack consciously, only what’s essential, and don’t leave anything behind you.
Choose eco-friendly alternatives: for accommodations and transport as much as you can. Even if it takes longer to go from one place to another, if you have the option to not take a plane, it is a way to lower your carbon footprint.
Do everything local: this implies buying local, and also eating local. While our digestive systems may not be fit for every kind of local food, there are always options you can try and new dishes to discover!
Slow down: take the time to truly appreciate the place where you find yourself and what surrounds you. Choose time and appreciation over being adamant about crossing things off your bucket list no matter what.
Appreciate & support the country’s culture and traditions: by taking time to learn, being respectful of cultural behaviors, seeking authenticity in your experiences.
Always be open to learning new things: whether it's learning about a tradition meaningful to the country's culture, a few words of another language, or another way of doing things...
Seek meaningful connections and experiences (rather than “picture-worthy” ones): even if it implies getting out of your comfort zone, take time to meet locals, exchange with them, to connect with other travelers along your way, to look for experiences off the beaten track. Some of the most valuable travel experiences are most of the time found once you step out of your routine and what you've always known.