Patricia Serrano grew up in a small, pristine beach town in Thailand. She didn't know then that it would inspire her future career.
"As I got older, I saw so many different developments coming in, so many different tourists coming in, and when I revisited later in my teenage years, I had seen that this little beach town had turned into...like, a red-light district, basically," she said.
Seeing the negative impact tourism can have on a place, Serrano aimed to embark only on sustainable travel adventures.
We're not talking about backpacking or staying in an eco-lodge in the jungle made of recycled trees.
"Right now, the mentality when you go on vacation is 'I'm going to have a fun seven days. I'm going to go spend my money; I'm going to go eat; I'm fixing to have a fun break.' But the thing is, when you leave, there's still people who live there; there are people who actually reside in that place that are affected by the choices you make. If you go to a place and not order the local food, eventually, they'll start opening restaurants that cater to you," said Serrano.
So if you're one of those people who goes to Applebee's in New York City--Serrano seeks to change your mindset.
"When you go to Jamaica, for example, you as a traveler ask for the local food that is part of their culture--rather than burgers and pizzas that you can get at home--so a lot of the choices that you make as a traveler abroad actually colors and shapes the decisions that are made by the local people," she explained.
You might already be living in a sustainable way in your home city and not even know it!
"If you live in Manhattan, and you do a staycation in Brooklyn with a locally owned boutique hotel or even just an Airbnb--you're a sustainable traveler. Then you go and you support the local bars that are owned by people from that neighborhood, and you go on small walking tours--not these big bus tours that just drive by everything, and you just look at everything, and take pictures of everything--you're not connecting immersively with that community if you're on a bus tour just looking at things," she said.
If you're intimidated by the prospect of exploring beyond your hotel's borders--here's a few tips:
Listen. Ask local people what the best way of handling things are; Read a lot of books--not just guide books--but novels; you learn a lot about a country reading their novels, watching movies, meeting people from there; also learning about their cuisine before you get there, so it's not the mentality of 'let me go just relax in a place that has better weather.'"
Another country is someone else's home, so you shouldn't expect it to be like yours. That's also not an excuse to hit up McDonald's--even though in other countries the menu does vary. But Serrano is sympathetic to those travelers too.
"The thing is I understand why people do it because they miss home and there's all this 'strange' food...and they want their comfort food. The thing is--you can always go home! Once you're home, you can have all that food all of the time," she stressed. "So I would just encourage people--when they're traveling--to try different local food. Maybe they don't know. Here's one thing I noticed in Thailand people would order the same sort of stuff--so like Pad Thai, Pad See Ew--easy to pronounce things but maybe ask about other things; try other foods so that during your vacation you're like 'Oh I'm sick of Pad Thai, I'm sick of Pad See Ew" and one way to do that is to ask about different regions because like any city or any country, it's always broken up into regions and neighborhoods...think about where you're traveling in that."
Serrano's love for sustainable travel really blossomed during a Spring Break trip to the Bahamas.
"These drinks like 'Bahama Mama' and all of this stuff--this isn't really their cultural drinks; these are made for the students who are coming from the states on these spring breaks, so I took a local bus--and it's really easy in the Bahamas because people speak English--so I took a local bus to a local market...and I learned that the conch--the very big shell that you can see sometimes people blow out of it...making a huge foghorn sound, so I learned about this shell isn't just food, but also they use it for communication and also there's so much of the shell on the island, so they actually make it as part of the architecture in their homes."
This is the kind of travel that I live for--when I went to Puerto Rico and Hawaii, I couldn't wait to visit a local rum distillery, learning that on Oahu it's made from sugar cane as opposed to Bacardi's molasses. In every foreign city I go to, I sign up for a walking food tour. Not only do I not need dinner on those days, I get to learn from locals, where they get their cheese and chocolate in Paris and where they get their gyros in Athens.
Now, Serrano is a travel agent encouraging people to travel more sustainably because your choices as a tourist can influence a country's development.
"It's very easy to just buy a little package that says 'Spring Break $699, seven days,' you get all of this stuff. But there's no actual package, spring break package that's like 'we're going to go explore and learn the history of the conch shell in the Bahamas, and I'm hoping that if more people develop that interest that the Bahamas, or the country will realize that they should just keep their culture, instead of creating these new things to cater to tourists, they should be proud of the culture that they have."
Her blog, Fresh Traveler, has lots of ideas for off-the-beaten path adventures you can take.
Next week, on JetSet we'll be back with Serrano talking more about the impact sustainable travel can have on an economy and how tourist destinations--like her hometown and even Atlantic City--could've been developed in a way that attracts travelers with the shop-local mindset.
Got travel stories, tips, or want to hear about something specific, related to travel? Email Amy Cherry at firstname.lastname@example.org.