We recently had a chat with globetrotters Ben and Katie of Two Wandering Soles. They’ve been traveling for 4 years spreading awareness of responsible and sustainable travel. In October 2017, the Year of Sustainable Tourism, Katie was chosen as the winner of the Responsible Traveler Competition hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). These two explorers have been an inspiration to us and their blog will make you want to book a one-way ticket to anywhere.
Check out their interview:
1. Tell us about yourself. How long have you been globetrotting? How many countries have you visited?
We left our comfortable lives at home in the beginning of 2014 and have been on the road ever since. However, “on the road” has meant different things at different stages of this journey. It has meant everything from spending a year teaching English in South Korea, to backpacking around the world for a year, to exploring the west coast of the United States by campervan, to living in Thailand while working full-time on our blog, to traveling through Central America, which we’re currently doing.
Both of our first times overseas were to Italy in 2009 when we studied abroad, and since then we’ve traveled to 44 countries together, as well as many US states. For us it’s less about the number of places we’ve been to and more about the quality of experiences we have. Sometimes there is a lot of focus on “checking places off” your list, but honestly the best memories we’ve made were because of traveling slow and really getting to know a country, its culture and people.
2. We hear the terms “Sustainable Travel” and “Ecotourism” thrown around a lot lately. But what do they really mean? Can you define sustainable travel for us?
This is a great question, and truthfully it can be defined in many different ways depending on whom you’re talking to.
This is our own definition of “sustainable travel”:
Traveling in a way that brings more good into the world than bad.
This can be interpreted in many different ways, and I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s something that can evolve with us and with the world’s need and can vary from community to community.
In some places in the world, traveling sustainably means making sure your money goes back into the local community instead of to big chains. In other places it means being careful about animal exploitation. And in other places still, it can be better applied to taking public transportation and supporting sustainably-run restaurants and hotels. Or maybe it’s a combination of all the above.
Each destination you visit is dealing with different issues, and as a traveler, we should try to educate ourselves about the destinations and try our best to do what we can to lessen our impact and perhaps to support local causes along the way.
3. When and how did sustainable travel become important to you?
To be honest, traveling this way has always been a priority for us, but we didn’t really think about it. One of the first times it really clicked that traveling sustainably requires you to do a little extra work was shortly after we quit our jobs in 2014 and we were backpacking in South America. We made some friends along the way who had gone to the Amazon and they told us how poorly their lodge was treating the environment and wildlife. The tour they went on was cheap and popular with backpackers. We were on a tight budget, but instead of booking the same thing, we did a ton of research to find an eco-lodge that was run by the indigenous community and cared deeply for the environment. When we realized that we were willing to pay twice as much for a company that was doing good things, we knew there was no going back. When we start supporting good companies, others will take notice and their business practices will shift.
We have learned a lot over the years and have certainly found ways to travel better. And eventually we noticed that there is a gap in this information online. There’s a lot out there on budget travel and luxury vacations, but not as much when it comes to sustainability. Our passion is in showing others how to travel in a way that’s better for the world, and it is so encouraging seeing others who are just as passionate.
4. Why is it important that we pay attention to our impacts when we travel?
As travelers, we are visitors in a place someone else calls home. We always try to be conscious of that because we wouldn’t want someone littering on our street or supporting corruption in our neighborhood or disrespecting our traditions. And on top of that, tourism is linked to some pretty terrible things.
Don’t get me wrong, we are huge advocates of all the ways travel helps you grow and connect with people from around the world, but there are the ugly parts too. Like sex slavery, the destruction of natural treasures, pollution, animal cruelty and the exploitation of a group of people, to name a few.
If we aren’t conscious about our actions as travelers, we may unknowingly support some of these things. We are far from perfect, but by keeping our eyes open we’re able to lessen our negative impacts and hopefully do more good.
5. What are some core principles you follow to minimize your impact on your travels?
There are many ways we try to travel sustainably, but here are a few of the main things we focus on:
-Reduce our waste: We limit the single-use plastic we use by packing items like reusable bags, straws and utensils. This way, we don’t need to use much single-use plastic. Instead of buying bottled water, we fill up our own bottles at the tap and sterilize it with a Steripen so we don’t have to constantly be buying bottled water.
-Support good organizations: We do a lot of research on tour companies we book through. We try our best to support those that are working with the local community and are taking steps to protect the environment.
-Support locals: We also try to be conscious of where our money is going during our travels. Is it going to a big hotel chain or large restaurants and stores, or to locally-run businesses that give back to their communities.
-Use caution with animal tourism: We are very cautious about animal tourism. We have found some wildlife sanctuaries around the world doing really amazing things, but just having the word “sanctuary” in their title doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good organization Any time there is wildlife involved, we do a lot of research because much of the time, the animals’ well being is a second priority to the tourist experience.
6. What is the biggest challenge(s) you’ve faced in your travels as it relates to sustainability? How have you dealt with it?
There are a lot of obstacles we run into on our travels or just in daily life when we are trying to live more consciously. We are not perfect, and we constantly make mistakes.
Sometimes even with hours of research, you may not know for sure if the company you book with truly pays their employees fair wages or protects the environment like they say they do. Unless you do a lot of digging in person, you do have to trust that most of what you’re being told is true.
7. Many people have the idea that traveling sustainably is expensive. Can sustainable travel be budget-friendly?
It’s a myth that sustainable travel is more expensive. Yes, there are times when you will need to pay more for a reputable company, but it really does even out.
By traveling sustainably, we have saved more money than we would have otherwise. Here’s an example: when traveling for three months in South America, we knew many people who were buying bottled water every day because the tap water is not the best to drink. We, on the other hand, sterilized the water straight out of the tap using a Steripen and we saved between $300-400 USD throughout our 3-month trip.
Many times, if you book hotels with a mom and pop B&B, their carbon footprint will be significantly less than a large hotel chain and sometimes cheaper per night.
You can download an audio guide and tour a city by foot and wander where you want, instead of being cooped up in a tour bus all day and only getting off at certain stops.
Of course, there are many expensive “eco-friendly” tours or hotels, that claim they are giving back to their communities or environment but show no evidence of doing so.
8. What is your top tip for someone who wants to be a conscious traveler?
It may sound like a simple answer, but our top tip is to thoroughly plan ahead of your travels. By planning ahead, you can discover what is culturally significant in the country you are traveling in and find out what the needs of the country really are.
You can plan to have the best multi-use and practical gear, you can find the best eco-friendly hotels and tours that are actually giving back to their communities, and you can route your travels in the most efficient way, so you use less car, bus or airplane fuel. The more prepared you are, like always having a reusable bag when you go to a store, and the more knowledge you have about impacts on the local culture and environment, the easier it is to make positive choices for the country you are traveling to.
9. Can you recommend any resources to help travelers make more informed decisions and potentially reduce their impact?
There are many great companies and organizations that are making it easier to travel sustainably. Here is a list of companies and orgs that we use:
TWS Responsible Travel Page – full of great advice on sustainable travel including an eco-friendly packing list, responsible tips for any traveler and a free e-book on Responsible Travel.
Visit.org – world-wide collection of organizations and tours that are vetted to sustainability and eco-friendly standards.
BookDifferent.com – hotel booking site where you can select hotels based on their carbon footprint per night as well as the common factors.
UN World Tourism Org Sustainable Development Goals – a list of 17 goals set by the UNWTO as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.”
10. Where will your travels take you next?
We are just coming off 6 months living and traveling in Thailand. After a short stop at home in Minnesota, we are traveling again, this time in Central America. We are starting in Mexico and traveling south for three months to Panama and then on to Colombia. After traveling, our plans are to relocate to Bali, Indonesia for a couple months.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to travel sustainably, you can head to their Responsible Travel page where they have articles on how you can explore while putting more good into the world.