André Mershad says his fondest memories of Tanzania were sailing across the glittering blue sea around Zanzibar and learning about native medicinal plants from locals. These special moments persuaded him to keep traveling for the next three years of high school, taking him to seven different countries with Rustic Pathways. Along the way his interest in sustainable travel and the environment was solidified, and he learned how to put thoughts into action.
“The cornfields in Vietnam still inspire me to garden at home, and one of my dreams is to provide more people with local and sustainable foods,” Mershad said. “Rustic inspired me to care deeply— about animals, plants, the environment, rich cultures that exist globally, and most importantly about myself.”
Mershad went on to pursue a Bachelors of Science in Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California with hopes of dedicating his career to environmental education and sustainable agriculture.
Many other alumni have followed the same path as their Rustic journeys gave them a passion for sustainable travel and living. The programs have helped because they are designed to promote the three pillars of sustainability – environmental protection, social equity and economic viability.
These ideas are promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency and are important to consider when deciding where to travel and what steps to take on the journey.
1. Do What You Can to Protect the Environment
When people think of the word “sustainable” the first thing that usually comes to mind is the environment, and that’s with good reason. One of the key considerations for any traveler should be to reduce their environmental impact.
Rustic assists with this by encouraging students to limit their use of water and plastic while traveling and to be mindful of how the choices they make can affect the environment. For example, the students are taught to use reef-safe sunscreen when swimming in the ocean.
On a larger scale, eco-friendly measures are taken where Rustic students stay and eat. The Sun, Sand and Surf Café in Fiji is one of the leaders in this effort. The café is 100% plastic free, using metal straws and reusable cups and dishes. That has resulted in as many as 4,500 plastic cups being saved in one year.
In addition, the service-oriented programs with a conservation focus take it a step further. They assist in efforts ranging from protecting and rehabilitating animals to removing invasive species and planting trees. In 2018 alone, Rustic students planted 17,469 trees.
Rustic frequently partners with NGOs for these long-term projects, which can take years to develop and bear fruit.
2. Promote Strong Communities
Travelers can support the second pillar of sustainability related to social equity by assisting with community health and education. Numerous service projects focus on these areas, such as efforts to promote education for girls in the Sacred Valley of Peru and provide fresh water in the mountain regions of the Dominican Republic.
Rustic alumnus Zach Gross who traveled to both of these countries found it eye-opening to see how much appreciation villagers had for basics like water, which others take for granted.
“Living in America, I had become accustomed to trivial complaints and never ending discontent with one’s station in life,” Gross said. “However, despite the fact that these villagers lived in circumstances unimaginable to the ordinary American, they were far more satisfied with their lives.”
It’s cases like this that travel partners, like Rustic, bridge the gaps between students and local villagers, so both benefit. These service projects help redefine “needs” so students can understand how they can meet their own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
3. Support Local Economies
This aspect is an important one for travelers concerned about sustainability. Oftentimes hotel chains and resorts benefit from travelers’ dollars rather than local communities. All-inclusive resorts in particular can take away opportunities for local dining facilities and shops to take in travel dollars.
Immersive travel experiences are different. They directly benefit local communities by employing local vendors and keeping dollars in local venues.
Travel partners like Rustic Pathways employ local community members to run its programs. There also is a concerted effort to help local communities economically through service projects. In Fiji, for example, Rustic students have helped build chicken coops and piggeries for the community, along with assisting in the sale of handmade bags sewn by local Fijian women.
After traveling, it’s also hoped that students will make their local communities better. This certainly happened to Holly Henkel who traveled with Rustic to Costa Rica and Thailand.
“During my nine day Costa Rica trip, we spent many hours picking up trash along the beach,” Henkel said. “It was eye opening to see the effect of humans on the environment right before me. Now, I make conscious decisions to decrease my plastic use and waste. This is something I never would have considered so seriously had it not been for that trip.”
To read more about Rustic’s sustainability policies, please visit our travel policies. For more information on Rustic Pathways’ global contributions, please visit our impact page and peruse our program offerings.