A How-To Guide for Sustainable Educational Travel

With the distant corners of our world becoming increasingly accessible, many of us have explored the globe in ways one never could have imagined decades ago. Younger generations are seeing a shift in priorities, choosing to place a higher value on experiences over things. We at WildChina Education are fortunate to not only be a part of this dramatic growth in the travel industry but, more importantly, also be able to help share the world with young travelers.

However, in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Overtourism at the hands of social media has resulted in delicate ecosystems being trashed and cultural traditions being warped and manufactured. And the travel boom, while a boon to the tourism industry, is wreaking havoc on the very things people cross oceans and nations to see.

Experiential Learning + Sustainable Tourism = A Brighter, Cleaner Future

Thankfully, sustainable travel has become an increasingly important matter, led largely by the younger generations we are grateful to serve. The World Tourism Organization has defined sustainable tourism as the “management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.” As stewards of young learners, we have made it a priority to ensure that our trips are as environmentally and socially responsible as possible and base our practices on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Tourism Organization’s goals for world travel companies.

As any teacher knows, there is no better way to learn than getting out and about in the living classroom, whether that is exploring the great outdoors or serving in the community. So, it goes without saying that the best time for students to learn about sustainable travel is while embarking on a school trip. It is our hope that after returning from a WildChina adventure, learners will be able to transfer the skills they learned in our classroom-without-walls to how they live their everyday lives.

Students hiking the Great Wall

Students hiking the Great Wall

Here’s How We (and You!) Can Help:

Here at WildChina Education, we live by a few simple principles that help guide us toward sustainable tourism practices, and they are just the beginning steps in helping to do our part to achieve the SDGs. While all of them are helpful tips to follow while traveling (we incorporate all of these as much as possible when we’re out on trip), many can be applied at home too with a few easy tweaks.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

–   We may not be able to drink water from the tap in China (or in many other parts of the world), but that doesn’t mean we need to crack open a fresh bottle of water every day. Instead, we encourage our travelers – and all of you at home – to bring their own reusable water bottles and refill them with water from the shared tank to reduce waste.

–   While camping and having self-cooked meals, it can be tempting to use disposable plates and utensils. Who wants to be doing dishes when they could be sitting in front of the campfire swapping ghost stories? Mother Nature, that’s who. That’s why we opt for reusable plates and cutlery for all our trips.

Leave No Trace

–   As fun as camping or any other outdoor activity can be, it can leave a lot of waste behind if you aren’t careful (especially when you’re sleeping under the stars with 100 or more of your closest friends, like we often find ourselves). So, before leaving any campsite or other outdoor space, be sure to pick up any trash and leave no trace behind. We like to turn it into a game: the person who finds the most trash wins a soda (or some other equally fun prize)! Just be sure to have a stash of disposable (and ideally biodegradable) gloves on-hand to keep any germs away.

Panda Base

Happy days at the panda base

Cultivate Budding Tree Huggers

–   While getting out and exploring nature is quite a bit better than just reading about it in a book, we think it’s incredibly important to take it a step further and actively educate students on proper behavior when visiting natural areas. Help learners to understand how they should best interact with wildlife and encourage respect.

–   Contrary to what students may think about science textbooks written back in the 1990s, nature should be fun! We like to incorporate educational games that let students get their hands dirty and spark a curiosity and appreciation for the outdoors.

–   We are strong believers in supporting local farmers and often arrange visits to area farms. Not only does this provide learners with a more nuanced perspective on agriculture and nature, but it also helps them to develop an appreciation for where their food comes from.

–   We enjoy meat as much as the next omnivore, but we also know how important it is for our planet to incorporate more of a plant-based diet into our lives. Consider making one (or more) of your travel days into a vegetarian day. Every little bit helps.

–   Nothing beats getting a hands-on education, especially when it comes to learning about animals. Where wildlife conservation in China is concerned, our absolute favorite is becoming a panda keeper for a day at one of the various panda bases.

–   Big or small, wild or domesticated, we absolutely love animals. And with a national animal as iconic as the giant panda, you can probably imagine that animal encounters feature prominently into our trips. So, we make it our priority to make sure all these interactions follow the 5 freedoms of animal welfare: good feeding, good housing, good health, appropriate behavior, and protection from fear and distress. Be on the lookout for any practices that violate these freedoms, and be sure to choose activities that make both you and the animals happy.

Sustainable travel practices: Learning from a local beekeeper

Learning from a local beekeeper

Think Globally, Act Locally

–   Local communities are the lifeblood of our world. Help generate economic benefits for the communities you visit by patronizing locally-owned shops and restaurants, employing local guides, and, if necessary, involving local people in the decisions that affect their lives (this one’s rather crucial). Plus, community members are an invaluable resource! There is no one better to share aspects of their culture than the people who know it best.

–   Although they may not be as cost-effective as mass-produced items that have been shipped from a factory somewhere, locally-produced goods are always a win. Not only do they save on the environmental footprint caused by transporting and making them in bulk, but they help support local artisans and farmers. And as a bonus, they make perfect souvenirs and gifts. It’s a simple as choosing locally sourced coffee when traveling through Yunnan.

–   While you’re there, giving back to the community is a great way to make sure your support is having a positive impact. Although voluntourism can seem like a good idea, it can often cause more harm than good. Make sure that any volunteering activities you engage in are ethical and truly help the local community. (Again, think about just talking to them first.)

Sleep Under the Stars

–   Getting back to nature with only the bare essentials is one of our absolute favorites when it comes to educational travel. Not only does it encourage learners to step outside their comfort zones, but it also saves electricity and reduces the waste associated with a night in a hotel.

Camping in Sichuan

Camping in Sichuan

Consider How You Get Where You’re Going

–   As any traveler knows, it’s not just the destination – it’s the journey. The same can be said when it comes to what mode of transportation you choose. So, although the world has become ever more accessible, it is increasingly important to rethink how we travel. One of the easiest ways to offset your carbon footprint is to utilize a more energy-efficient mode of transportation and limit the use of vehicle travel as much as possible. Share bikes, anyone? How about a high-speed train?

–   Despite the growing trend of flight shaming, air travel is often unavoidable. Luckily, more and more airlines are offering their travelers the option to contribute to carbon offset programs, often partnering with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Carbonfund.org, and Conservation International. Consider choosing an airline that helps you offset all or part of your flight.

Choose Sustainable Partners

–   So much of travel is about the people you meet along the way, and your tour operator definitely falls into that category. As the destination guru that helps you craft your perfect program and guides you from Point A to Point B (like us!), be sure you have someone on your side that is committed to sustainability as much as you are. Do your due diligence, and if the company matches your values of eco-friendly practices, the ethical treatment of animals, and the protection of cultural heritage, then they seem like a pretty good partner to choose.

–   You already know we love a good camping trip, but every now and again we like resting our head in the comfort of a hotel. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find a hotel that makes green practices a priority. Do a bit of digging before you commit to try and find out things like if they get their products locally and have towel re-use programs. And location, location, location – the closer it is to the sites you want to see, the less you need to travel and the easier it is to walk.

Cycling past karst mountains

Cycling past karst mountains

Pulling off a sustainable trip takes a lot of planning and forethought, but we think it is more than worth the effort. We believe that by exposing learners to these responsible travel practices, and by being intentional about explaining why they are important, students will go home inspired to incorporate them into their own lives (or at the very least, make more sustainably conscious decisions). If you’re inspired and would like to plan a sustainable and educational adventure with us, get in touch with us here.
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