There’s nothing quite like traveling. To experience new lands and cultures, to have your eyes opened to different ways of living. One of the reasons I love traveling so much, is because I feel truly present when I’m in a foreign place. I’m soaking up so much around me, that I have no time to be lost in my head.
I’ve been reflecting on how traveling throughout my twenties has been such a huge source of growth and inspiration in my life, in fact it’s how I was able to meet my fiancé. We met in a city both of us were strangers in, then decided to travel through Asia for three months on one of the wildest rides of our lives. Magical things come from leaving our comfort zones behind, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of leaving these places worse than when we arrived.
Ah yes, the topic no one spends enough time talking about. That during our picture perfect vacations, we are partaking in detrimental acts that are ruining these destinations. Bottled waters, take away boxes from dinner, straws, plastic bags, the pollution we are putting into our oceans and atmosphere via boat and cars.. the list goes on and on. But does it have to? How can we make tourism more sustainable? How can we honor, respect and be of service to the countries and cultures we are visiting?
Tourism has become a huge industry around the world, with its pros and cons of course. Tourism brings in huge benefits like increased jobs and economic stability, especially for small islands and provinces.
At the same time, by introducing more and more plastic waste and pollution all around the world, we are taking a huge toll on our natural resources. We can see an example of this with the island of Boracay.
In April of 2018, the beautiful island of Borocay, a top destination in the Philippines, was placed off limits to tourists for up to six months for “rehabilitation”. The islands ecosystem was suffering from the lack of waste management and poorly enforced environmental regulations. Although tourism was economically supporting the island, it was also (not so) slowly ruining the natural beauty that brought in so many visitors. During our trip to the island of Palawan this past August, we got to see first hand how plastic waste and pollution was affecting yet another piece of paradise in the Philippines.
El Nido is a special little beach town on the northern coast of Palawan, comprising of 45 islands that are known for their rugged limestone cliffs and insanely gorgeous islets. Unfortunately, you can clearly see the toll plastic is already taking here, with water bottles washed up on their shores. During our stay here we were blessed to explore the nearby islands, and to work with an amazing local business that has been working hard to preserve the natural beauty and resources in El Nido.
Judy and Tani Distal opened Art Cafe’s doors in 2000, first as a coffee shop, and now it has grown into a restaurant and hub for activities on the island, including boat tours, treks and much more. What we LOVE about this establishment, is that they value ethical, sustainable business practices and what’s best for the local community over financial gain.
Not only is their food amazing, but their produce is grown on their very own organic farm that has been running since 1996! In fact, they send kitchen waste back to their farm where it is composted and then made into fertilizer. Art Cafe also switched to bamboo straws in 2016, which Tani used to make himself. They now purchase their bamboo straws from locals, providing decent wages to farmers who grow bamboo and now make their own straws.
Art Cafe is also known for their boat tours around the islands. We were lucky enough to take their Tour A with kayaks. There are 4 tours that you can take from any boat tour company in El Nido. Tour A, B, C or D. We explored the pristine Small and Big Lagoons by kayak, and had so much fun. The local crew on the boat were amazing, we were joking and laughing all day long. We stopped at Simisu island and the crew cooked us a beautiful lunch while we relaxed on the white sand beach. Another great thing about choosing Art Cafes boat tours, is that they sponsored and installed mooring buoys so that local boats can tie their boats to a buoy, instead of dropping their anchor onto the fragile coral below.
You can stop in at Art Cafe to fill up your reusable water bottle with clean, purified water. In fact, they don’t serve plastic water bottles at all. They organize beach clean ups almost every month, and are dedicated to making positive changes for their community. We had the chance to speak with some of their employees, who are more like family and absolutely adore Judy and Tani. If you are visiting El Nido, we highly recommend supporting this local business. They have a gorgeous view of the ocean from their deck, where you can sit and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner knowing that you are supporting a great cause.
But what steps can we take as tourists, to leave as small of a footprint as possible, in these beautiful destinations? First things first: pack a reusable water bottle! Even if you are traveling to a country that doesn’t have clean drinking water, you WILL be able to find establishments or hotels that offer clean, purified water to fill up your bottle. Plastic water bottles is one of the biggest problems plaguing our Earth, and packing a reusable bottle is a great way to help.
We can also stop using take away boxes and cups. Pack a reusable container for your leftovers while traveling, bring your reusable bottle for coffee, teas, etc. Pack a few reusable shopping bags. Invest in a reusable straw for your travels, and REFUSE plastic straws when offered. It only takes a little bit of time, effort and space in your suitcase to greatly reduce plastic waste.
Support local businesses! Support businesses that hire locals! Support businesses that are working to preserve their local culture. When we started working with businesses throughout Southeast Asia, we learned quickly that many of these establishments are owned by expats. A lot of these expat owned businesses, do not support their local communities.
Don’t be afraid to call up the businesses you’re supporting (hotels, restaurants, tour companies) with your hard earned money, to see what it is THEY are supporting. If a business is expat owned, I think its more than fair to call and ask, how are you supporting the community that you are profiting from? Are you employing local citizens and paying them fair wages? What sustainability practices does your business have in place? Do you use plastic products? It takes very little time to do this research and to make the calls.
The unfortunate truth, is that there are many expat owned businesses taking advantage of third world citizens and land strictly for financial gain, and something easy you can do to help change this narrative is to ask questions, and support locally owned and operated, environmentally conscious businesses.
We have to think beyond ourselves, beyond our vacations, beyond saving a buck. We have to think long term. What choices can you make while traveling that will make a positive ripple effect for OUR future? You may be leaving to fly back to your home, but we are on this Earth together, and the choices you make affect us as a whole.
We want to thank Judy and Tani Distal at Art Cafe for inspiring this piece of writing. We admire the work you do, you are true inspirations to us and to the world. We look forward to our next visit to Art Cafe and the beautiful town of El Nido.