How can we travel more sustainably?

How can we travel more sustainably?

We chat with Nina Karnikowski about sustainable travel and explore her Go Lightly toolkit for the aspiring eco-traveller.

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Nina, hi! Tell us about your career to date and what inspired Go Lightly?

Until a few months before the pandemic, I had been travel writing for eight years, crisscrossing the globe writing stories about everything from photography trips in Mongolia, to cruises in Antarctica, to rail journeys in India. The last overseas assignment I took was to the Canadian Arctic in August 2019, and it changed everything. On that journey I visited a town called Churchill, the ‘polar bear capital of the world’, where I learnt about the impact our consumptive human behaviours (including flying on planes) were having on the bears and our planet as a whole.

The melting of the Arctic ice due to global warming means the bear’s seal-hunting season is shorter, which ultimately leads to a declining population. I realised on that trip, that the polar bears have no way of protecting themselves from this, only our actions will have an effect. I returned home with the understanding that I couldn’t continue to travel with the speed and frequency I had been. I emailed my editors to tell them I needed some time off and set to work discovering how I, and all of us, could continue travelling in a way that was less impactful on the people and places we love. Go Lightly was the result of those investigations.

Portrait of Nina Karnikowski, sustainable traveller, resting her arm on a bench and smiling at the camera.

Photography by Peter Windrim

Give us your elevator pitch for Go Lightly. Why is this a conversation that matters right now?

Go Lightly is essentially a toolkit for the aspiring eco-traveller. Structured hundreds of green travel tools – from avoiding single-use plastics to giving back to communities, from embracing slow travel to protecting wildlife – and including low-impact adventure guides and interviews with the world’s leading eco-adventurers, it’s full of ideas for how to say yes to travel that conserves, educates and inspires more than it destroys.

‘Lightening’ the way we travel is so urgent now because as we all know, we’re at a crucial tipping point, and complacency now will mean a guaranteed future of scarcity, volatility and conflict. And since the travel industry is responsible for an estimated eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions, as well as degraded wilderness areas, over-touristed towns, the erosion of local cultures and more, cleaning up our travel act is one of the most impactful things we can do in terms of our environmental footprint.

What are three things we can all do to travel more sustainably?

The most impactful thing we can do is to travel less and closer to home, since that means less long-haul flights, which equals less carbon emissions. The good news is, this usually goes hand in hand with travelling more slowly. This leaves us more satisfied because we’re sinking more deeply into the destinations, and allows us to make a bigger economic impact on the communities we visit.

When we’re in a destination, we can also make sure that as many of our hard-earned travel dollars as possible, are going back into the local community. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, just five percent of the money spent by tourists actually stays in the communities they visit, with the rest leaking out of host countries and into the pockets of multinational corporations. One of the best ways to plug these leaks is to support small, locally-owned businesses, putting money directly into the hands of locals. Prioritising, for instance, small locally-owned eateries and hotels or home-stays, native guides and tour operators, and hand-crafted goods that support indigenous artisans.

The third most impactful thing we can do to travel more ‘lightly’ is to think of ourselves as citizens, rather than consumers, when we travel. Being as considerate of our behaviour, our use of resources, our impact on the natural environment, and the way we’re giving back to local communities, as we would be in our home country.

Landscape view of the Whitsunday Islands on a cloudy day. Blue waters surrounded by lush green mountains.

For all the creatives in our community who have a book release in the works or on their future goals list, what’s one tip you’d give them?

Make sure your pitch is as tight and clear as possible before you send it off, and that it answers all the most important points. Why is this book different to, or better than, anything else on the market? Why am I the best person to write it? Who am I writing it for, and how does it serve them? And why does the world absolutely need this book right now?

You published Go Lightly last year (April 2021) in a post-COVID world and with travel being seriously restricted worldwide. How did this impact your launch and what would you recommend to other creatives and brands still experiencing COVID curve-balls?

Luckily, being a book about sustainable travel, Go Lightly isn’t about specific destinations and the overarching message is very much about bringing the same wide-eyed curiosity we did to say Morocco, Nepal or Kyrgyzstan, to places close to home. So in many ways, it was the perfect time for the book to emerge into the world, since it’s full of inspiration for local journeys like road trips, hiking and camping trips, boat journeys and more. To my mind, COVID has very much been a reminder of the ways we need to start course-correcting if we’re going to avoid total planetary collapse; of how we need to start focusing on localising everything from the food we grow and consume and the clothes and products we buy, to the way we travel and the way we conduct our businesses. With that in mind, my advice would be for all creatives and brands to think more locally, which not only means far more robust communities and resilient systems, but also greater sustainability and regenerative possibilities on every level.

Women in an outdoor tub on a timber deck, overlooking the green mountain trees. Sustainable travel with Nina Karnikowski.

How do you believe both travel, tourism and travel journalism will change in the future?

I think we’ll all be doing less travel, given how much more difficult the virus has made it and will continue to make it, and given the tough financial situations many of us now find ourselves in. That’s obviously a great thing in terms of sustainability. In terms of travel journalism, the industry has been brought to its knees, and I can’t imagine there will be the kinds of budgets there once were to send journalists around the globe for a very long time, if ever. So I think it will also become more localised – instead of parachuting foreign writers into countries for a few days to write stories about those places, I think we’ll see local writers being empowered to write those stories, which has environmental benefits as well as social ones, since it’s part of the decolonisation process. Travel writing has, until now, been very much an extension of the colonial discourse. Colonialist structures are embedded within the genre, as are objectifications of people and place, so I’m excited to be part of decolonising the travel writing industry.

Who are three voices you are listening to or following right now?

Sophy Roberts – she’s a British travel writer who uses her storytelling to advocate for deeper journeys, usually with a conservation or regenerative angle to them. In her IGTV series The Art of Travel, she speaks to explorers and environmentalists like Levison Wood about the deeper meaning of our travels, and how we might begin to heal the way we see the world.

I listen to Ayana Young’s For The Wild podcast almost religiously, which covers environmental protection, intersectional storytelling, and shifts storytelling away from the narratives of human supremacy, endless growth and consumerism.

I follow Earthrise Studio on Instagram closely, which communicates the climate crisis and new world-building in an inspiring, creative and uplifting way.

Two large tents against a rocky mountain. Ethical travel at a campsite in Hoanib Valley, Namibia.

What are three trips you are hoping to take soon?

A trip to Australia’s Red Centre, travelling in a (hopefully electric) van across the desert with my husband. Meeting with and learning from indigenous communities along the way, visiting sacred sites like Uluru and Kata Tjuta and learning about their significance, connecting to Country, and falling even deeper in love with this wild land I call home.

I’d love to travel to remote Raja Ampat in West Papua in Indonesia soon to visit Misool Eco Resort, which I write about in Go Lightly. One of the world’s most highly regarded eco resorts, Misool was built on the site of an abandoned shark-finning camp, it provides sustainable employment opportunities for the local community and funds their conservation initiatives, including the Misool Marine Reserve which employs 15 local rangers. A reminder of what a powerful regenerative force tourism can be when it’s done right. 

Given the heartbreaking situation unfolding in India right now, this is a long way off, but I dream of returning there. My husband and I lived there for a year in 2013 and have returned numerous times since, and we’d love to spend a few months working with an Indian-run organisation I wrote a story about when we lived there, that provides free education and food to children in the slums.

And finally, what can we expect next from you and how can we follow along?

I’m teaching more these days, something I’ve really fallen in love with, so I’ll be running more writing and creativity workshops, both in person and online. You can find out where and when on my website, and on Instagram @travelswithnina. I’m also writing another book, this one a memoir about the transformative powers of travel, so stay tuned for that.

A book is centred in a flatlay with the title Go Lightly written in orange text. The sub-heading says "How to travel without hurting the planet." The book is authored by Nina Karnikowski.


Having worked as a travel writer for the past decade, Nina Karnikowski is now on her greatest adventure yet: making her and her readers’ travels more conscious, and less harmful for the planet. The author of Go Lightly, How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet and Make a Living Living, Be Successful Doing What You Love, Nina is dedicated to helping people find less impactful ways of travelling and living. She also runs regular writing workshops focused on connecting more deeply to self and the earth.

Explore more, here:; @travelswithnina.

Images courtesy of Nina Karnikowski

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