Imagine a white sandy beach, a turquoise sea, palm trees waving gently in the sweet breeze.
A blue sky above. A hotel with beautiful cabins on the beach. Hammocks strung under the palm trees. No cars around. Just nature, and a few houses in the small island community. Got the picture?
(Minor detail: I live in such a place, so everything I write here is based on years of firsthand experience).
Now imagine you’re going here on vacation. It’s time to start packing. What will you bring, knowing that it is a remote little island in a developing country?
We tend to pack for a trip as if we will not survive if we don’t bring it. Our to-bring-list is based on our comfort zone: everything we need for every possible (imaginary) situation, but please not too heavy and bulky, and of course disposable so that we don’t have to lug it back. So let’s see what needs to come.
Of course, a bathing suit, flip-flops, sunblock. But what kind of sunblock shall we bring? The cheapest, the strongest, or the eco-friendliest? Did you know that sunscreen is contributing to the destruction of coral reefs? When we go snorkelling or diving over those gorgeous reefs wearing the wrong sunblock, we actually help killing that beautiful and essential ecosystem. There are a few sunblocks that aren’t harmful or, instead of sunblock, we can wear UV-protecting swimwear.
After-sun lotion? Nah. A tropical destination very likely will have aloe plants everywhere, which is absolutely the best treatment for sunburn. And the local coconut oil is the perfect moisturiser after a day of beach-fun and sun. A few drops of tea tree oil, eucalyptus and citronella will make it into a wonderful bug-repellent at the same time. This way we bring three plastic bottles or spray cans less to our destination.
Yes! It’s a good idea to pack a few essential oils.
What else needs to come? Some clothes, a sunhat, our toiletries. The drugstore had all these handy little bottles of our favourite body and hair products. So easy, because we don’t have to bring those big heavy bottles and we can leave the (near-)empties behind when we go home…
Remote destinations often have one major handicap: very limited or zero options for sustainable trash disposal, other than shipping it back over long distances, which comes with an expensive price-tag (the cheap way is burning it or dumping it in the ocean, not our preferred “green” choices).
Every little thing that we gladly leave behind to make our bag lighter on our return and because it doesn’t serve us anymore, doesn’t serve the local community—it actually creates a problem for them. A better option is to get a few reusable travel-size containers, fill them with our favourite product, and take them home afterwards for multiple reuse on all our future trips.
We all like to travel light, or at least try. That to-go-cup, refillable water bottle, to-go-straw and reusable take-out container that we lug around daily might not find a spot in our suitcase. “It’s only for a couple of weeks”, we think, “I’m eco-conscious 50 weeks out of 52, that’s good enough”. But our two weeks and all the other tourists’ two weeks add up to a year-round less than stellar eco-situation at our dream destination.
Please don’t ask me how many sacks I have filled with styrofoam and straws that I picked up on the beach over the past few years. I lost count a long time ago. Sometimes, after it has washed up on the beach, the wind will blow all those little pieces into my yard, and I will have a “white Christmas” in the tropics. Yay.
We have to say “No” to any disposable container wherever we go, even on vacation!
Back to our packing-list. It doesn’t even occur to us to bring that lightweight shopping bag that fits so easily in a little pouch. We’re going on vacation, staying in a hotel—we’re not going shopping, right?
Part of the charm of a vacation abroad for many people is to explore the local stores in the village. They all walk out with a plastic bag filled with goodies, to snack on when they are going on a day-trip. So, yes! That reusable shopping bag needs to come too! Or a nice cloth beach bag, if we want to be a tad fancy.
Then we start thinking of our stomach, and pack a whole bunch of our favourite snacks in our suitcase, each individually wrapped, of course.
How about just bringing enough for the flight, and being adventurous enough to try all the freshly made local snacks straight from the basket that local kids are selling? Not only will we sustain the local economy, but we will also leave behind less trash. If we want to buy several snacks for later, that take-out container comes in handy, so we can say “No, thank you” to the offer of a plastic bag.
What else to bring? A book, a camera, our phone, maybe a tablet, and a couple of video-games for the kids. Maybe a torch, in case there is a black-out. All our gadgets, that we are so attached to. That we plug in any time of the day when they need to be charged.
But at our remote destination electricity might be scarce or generated in a less than eco-friendly way, for example with big diesel-generators. So, first of all, let’s think twice how many of these electronics we really need on our vacation. Can we take on the challenge to bring only one phone between all of our travelling companions, for emergencies, and leave the rest at home (or at least switched off?) Can we convince our kids that two weeks without video games is not going to kill them?
And then, for the gadgets that we cannot do without, nowadays there are foldable solar-panels and other solar chargers available that can charge them off-the-grid. Since our vacation is in the tropics, it shouldn’t be a problem to charge everything on solar.
To make sure that we only bring what we really need and cannot get at our destination it might be a good idea to contact our hotel or other local source beforehand. If we can get a nice to-go-cup, straw, water-bottle and reusable container at our destination, we won’t have to pack them. They might even turn out be a nice souvenir to take home.
We can check with them if they have indeed aloe and coconut oil available, before we pack, and maybe some other natural and locally made products too, and ask about their power source and reliability. (Wouldn’t it be great if they have their own solar panels already in place?)
Next time we are planning a trip, let’s be mindful about what we bring.
Going on holiday we cannot afford to take a vacation from being eco-conscious.
Because Every day is Earth Day!
PS. If you have more suggestions for things to bring on vacation that will benefit the environment at our destination, please share them in the comments!
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