At Jumbari Family Safaris, we strongly believe in passing on our knowledge to younger generations and educating them on the importance of preserving our environment – they are, after all, the future guardians of our incredible planet. We caught up with the renowned family travel blogger Emma Walmsley of Small Footprints, Big Adventures to find our why she thinks sustainable travel with kids is so important.
By Emma Walmsley
Traveling as a family is a wonderful opportunity to share adventures as you explore new places together, and it’s usually great for relationships between family members, too. My family and I are Australian and we’ve been lucky to take several extended trips together. Next on our list is to visit Africa, which was planned for 2020 but now of course is on hold. We’re very much looking forward to traveling again once COVID-19 is under control, but for now are just dreaming from home about the adventures we plan to take one day.
Even though any travel experience is beneficial for us, I argue that our travels can do more than only benefit ourselves. And further, I think it’s vital that we think more broadly about what our travels can do, to demonstrate to our kids the impact that our decisions have on the places we visit.
This is why I believe sustainable travel with kids is so important:
Tourism can have a positive, negative or neutral effect on the local people whose home we’re visiting. Traditional tourism has had a negative effect on many places in the world, by swamping the region and straining its resources, taking jobs away from locals, ignoring local customs and expectations, and injecting tourist-money into large corporations rather than supporting smaller businesses.
In contrast, sustainable travel focuses on supporting local people as a priority. We support small businesses who are locally owned, and larger businesses who have excellent policies in place to employ local staff and pay them well. We’re also conscious of overtourism and choose not to travel to very popular attractions in their peak seasons, or at all! And we take the time to learn about local customs and be respectful at all times to the culture and expectations of the region.
These decisions do not make our travels more difficult or less enjoyable in any way. They’ve enhanced my family’s experiences, and all conscious travelers I know report similar findings: this focus helps us connect to local people and form real relationships as we travel. Making new friends is one of the most memorable parts of traveling, and it can be done much more easily when we’re respectful and seeking local cafes and tour guides.
Traveling in this way is also excellent role modeling for our kids. They learn that people can live differently to them in many ways and while it might feel strange to them, it’s not ‘wrong’ because it’s different. What a powerful lesson in acceptance to learn at a young age! They also learn that respect comes in many forms, and have much more opportunity to make new friends. In our experience, kids of any background love to play together, even when they don’t share a language.
Traditional tourism has often also been detrimental to animals, who’ve been exploited all around the world for tourist’s conveniences. It’s become quite normal for travelers to see animals in confined (and often squalid) conditions, and many expect that animals will perform for them or allow petting or riding, without thinking about what has occurred to train those animals.
In other situations, tourist’s expectations have led to operators getting far too close to the wild animals, or feeding them to bring them closer – which alters their behaviours and makes them dependent on humans.
We love animals and wanted to see some in their natural habitats on our trip to Southeast Asia a few years ago. So we carefully selected ethical experiences, and they were wonderful! To see elephants, we trekked in the mountains of Northern Thailand to observe a herd living in the forest. It was much more difficult and time consuming as a tourist than visiting an elephant camp, but was also a much richer experience in many ways. It supported a whole community as well as the elephants to live natural lives, and it taught us all about how elephants actually live, rather than how they can be taught to perform or give us a ride. It really was magical.
Emma and Allegra volunteering at a turtle conservation project in Malaysia
We also volunteered for a week at a turtle conservation project in Malaysia, which allowed us to see baby sea turtles hatching and scurrying to the water, while supporting a wonderful program that’s protecting two species to continue returning to Tioman Island. And on a responsible tour of Langkawi’s mangrove forests, we saw some native animals from afar, and learnt about how their eagle populations were impacted by tourism due to tour guides feeding them chicken scraps to entice them fly around the boats for tourists. This led the eagles to stop hunting, deficiencies in their dietary needs, and consequently, less eagles hatching. With understanding of better tourism practices, their population was on the increase again.
I really felt good about my family seeing animals in these ways, because they learned that wild animals do not exist solely for our enjoyment. They still got to see amazing creatures, but by respecting the animal’s habitats and natures, they learned what the animals are really like and where they really live. These are important lessons for everyone’s safety and for the conservation of all animal species.
Finally, traveling sustainably has less impact on the planet than regular travel. Almost travel creates carbon emissions; unless you’re walking or cycling to get to your destination, or using renewable energy to power your vehicle! Offsetting your travel emissions is a great way to cancel out that environmental cost, and choosing direct flights and overland travel wherever possible reduces the amount of emissions created in the first place.
Another great way to reduce harm to the planet is to choose responsible accommodation and tour providers. Conscious companies do many things to reduce their impact, like using green energy, managing their waste properly, having excellent water policies, refilling and using reusable items, and using local produce. They’re also mindful of the surrounding natural environment and may use local building materials, educate guests to minimise any harm they might inadvertently do, and support conservation efforts to ensure their region is healthy and protected.
Responsible companies are aware of their impact on animals and people as well as the environment, and thus choose to employ local staff and support the local community more broadly, and always put the welfare of people and animals above tourist’s expectations.
All of these positive initiatives greatly reduce the impact of tourism, and result in the industry being a powerful positive influence for the region. All that’s left for us to do is support their great work and enjoy wonderful travel experiences!
And by choosing to travel sustainably as a family, our kids become aware of these issues (to their comprehension level) and see that it’s not always difficult to do something about it. Most children know about climate change and environmental topics, yet often feel helpless or don’t understand how they can make a difference. This type of travel opens their eyes to what is actually being done to help, and naturally leads to great conversations about why our choices are important and the different challenges in different places.
These are very positive situations for children to be in, and will encourage them to travel mindfully and make other informed decisions in the future, too. My kids have loved all of our experiences together; they’ve made friends in many different places and learned so much, while having a great time. (They’ve also seen my husband and I practice what we preach with this travel focus, and I think that’s very important!)
You’ll never regret choosing to travel more sustainably. It’s enriching and deeply satisfying, but the one thing I must warn you about is: it’s also addictive!