Sustainable Travel… Is it possible to be both environmentally responsible and a world traveler? Would it be better if we all just stayed home to reduce the carbon emissions from air travel? No, actually. Tourism is one of the most significant motivators towards preserving the natural and cultural treasures of the world. The challenge comes in finding a way to travel while also protecting the world’s environment and cultures for future generations. This balance is sustainable and responsible travel.
I love travel and I love nature, so I’ve always tried to travel ‘green’. But a few years ago I learned what responsible travel really is. While staying at an eco-resort, I looked for gifts to bring home. The shop’s manager kept suggesting baskets made by the local people, but I chose bracelets (easier to pack). I remember her displeasure but didn’t really understand until we were leaving the country and saw these same bracelets in every shop in the airport. Those bracelets were imported just for the tourists. My purchase hadn’t supported the local community at all. How was this wildlife reserve to be sustained if the community didn’t profit from tourism?
Leave nothing but footprints – Chief Seattle
Travel will always have an impact on a destination. Whether the impact is benefit or harm depends on how we travel. Tourism can damage a fragile ecosystem, exploit local communities, and lead to cultural dilution, OR it can bring prosperity to an area ensuring natural and cultural treasures will be protected.
Model systems of sustainable tourism have shown great promise in many countries around the world. In these countries, the tourist industry has committed to high standards of environmental development, education, and coordination with the local communities. And the results have been remarkable. Since Costa Rica began its sustainable development programs, unemployment has fallen below 10%, and the quality of life in the country has risen to among the best in the world.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
What is sustainable tourism in simple words?
Sustainability occurs when three factors – Social justice, Environmental protection, and Economic viability – are in balance. These factors are often called the three pillars of sustainability.
For our purposes, sustainable tourism can be defined as travel that is a positive experience for both the tourist and the local community. Sustainable tourism protects the environment and the cultural heritage, addresses climate change, minimizes plastics and waste, AND expands economic development in the area communities.
Is Sustainable travel the same as Eco Tourism?
The term eco-tourism was coined in the 1970s and is loosely defined as responsible travel in natural areas. Thus, eco travel is a type of sustainable travel, focused on nature. Promoting responsible eco travel in natural areas, e.g., safaris in Africa, or trekking in National Parks, is the most effective way to ensure that these natural areas, and the wildlife living there, will survive.
Not all lodging, tours, or experiences, labeled “eco” are in fact sustainable. Check credentials and practices before booking.
Getting the Tourist to Travel Sustainably
Study after study show that the vast majority of people want to be more responsible in their travel. They are aware of the damage over-tourism can do, and the carbon costs of travel. They want to make travel greener, but ultimately are challenged to do it.
In a Booking.com survey the biggest obstacle to traveling green was perceived cost. 42% of the respondents indicated that added expenses was keeping them from traveling sustainably.
Second to this was a lack of knowledge of sustainable tourism practices. Nearly a third of respondents want to travel greener but don’t know how.
Let’s take advantage of people’s willingness to travel well, and share ideas on how easy, and inexpensive, it can be! Learning to travel responsibly is half the battle. Once we’ve made changes to our journeys, we need to share the experience with others. Help them to see that it’s easy and rewarding to travel in an environmentally friendly way.
Easy Guide to Sustainable Tourism Practices
Do Your Little Bit of Good – Rev. Desmond Tutu
It can be overwhelming to look at the challenges of our world and try to figure out how we can address them. We can’t ‘fix’ things ourselves, but if we work on our own ‘little bit of good’, together we will make an impact. This wisdom from Rev. Tutu is as relevant to traveling as to everything else.
Start where you are. Make a small change in your travel style today, and, when you’re ready or can afford it, make a bigger change later. Every bit of responsible tourism helps.
Here are our sustainable travel tips, beginning with the easy, inexpensive, and often FREE (🐸) things you can do:
- carry a reusable water bottle.
- avoid plastic bags by bringing your own shopping sack from home. 🐸
- remove packaging from products (& recycle) before leaving home. (Some locations don’t have resources for recycling.) 🐸
- fill reusable containers with your preferred shampoo/conditioner from home. 🐸
- say no to straws 🐸
Bigger Steps: purchase (or assemble) a packable cutlery set. buy some reusable straws, eliminate items that contain microplastics from your travel AND home cleansing routine.
- take shorter showers 🐸
- turn off water when brushing teeth, or shaving 🐸
- reuse bath towels 🐸
- turn off lights when you leave a room. 🐸
- raise or lower thermostat when possible. 🐸
- every pound of luggage adds to your airlines fuel expenditure. National Geographic breaks down the cost of everything you carry on a flight here: The Hidden Costs of Flying
- Bigger Step: as items in your wardrobe and gear wear out, replace them with travel-friendly options. Clothing that is light weight and odor resistant will reduce the weight of your luggage and the necessity or doing laundry
Research potential activities
- A side product of mass tourism is the proliferation of tourist attractions – factory tours that are really selling opportunities, unethical wildlife interactions, etc. These activities are not representative of the area’s authentic culture and are often damaging to the environment.
- respect the culture and traditions- look for authentic opportunities to interact with locals. Dress respectfully – we’re guests in their home.
- avoid unethical wildlife experiences- enjoy the area or observe wildlife at a respectful distance. Wildlife lovers, look for ethical experiences to enjoy, such as visiting the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, where orphaned elephants are raised before being reintroduced to the wild.
- Support local businesses at your destination to ensure tourism funds remain in the local community, rather than leak to outside economies.
- consult and hire local guides – check online for recommendations. We found a guide for a bird watching tour in Portugal by consulting a Lisbon birding club online.
- buy from regional artisans rather than hitting the tourist kiosks where the majority of items are imported.
- Eat local food
- Be aware of the food resources in the area you’re visiting and eat as the locals do. Importing food to suit a western diet is expensive and unsustainable. Visiting Argentina? have a steak! Visiting Bermuda? skip the steak and have seafood instead.
For a step-by-step guide to planning a responsible trip (and our case study); read How to Put Together a Sustainable Travel Plan
Choosing your destination
- avoid over-tourism spots, and areas where human rights are threatened. over-tourism puts a huge strain on the resources of an area, raises prices for locals, and, sadly is often destroying that which brings travelers to the area.
- travel in the off-season if you are heading someplace suffering from over-tourism. Added bonus- this ensures income for local communities during what may be their lean times.
- travel is an opportunity to ‘vote’ with your wallet. If you have reservations about a country’s policies or human rights issues, don’t go.
Choosing your lodging
- skip the all-inclusive resorts. Staying (and paying) for the all-inclusive aspect of these resorts discourages the traveler from patronizing local restaurants and shops. There is also a significant amount of food waste at these resorts.
- when possible, stay at a locally owned hotel, rather than an international chain, to bring economic benefits to the area. (Avoid tourism leakage)
- investigate whether your lodging choice employs local people.
- many hotels and lodges are committed to green practices, and some have received certification acknowledging this. Check their website, and user reviews, before booking. Beware of greenwashing, where a business spends more on marketing their green practices than actually putting them into action.
- book through a website like bookdifferent.com which monitors hotels for sustainable practices
Beware of greenwashing, where a business spends more on marketing their ‘green’ practices than actually putting them into action.
Choosing your transportation
- use MAPS as a mnemonic for sustainable transportation.
- M- minimize – can you reduce the distance? can you combine trips to save repeat journeys?
- A – active – can you reach your destination, or explore at your destination on foot or bicycle? 🐸
- P- public – can you take public transportation to, or around, your destination? Trains are the most sustainable form of long distance travel.
- S- share a ride. Not usually possible on a trip, so I’d change S to sustainable vehicle. Check to see if an electric or hybrid car is available if you’re renting a vehicle away from home.
Cruising – Do or Don’t?
- Cruises are a Sustainable Travel challenge. They are destination, transportation, and lodging all in one, and can create enormous negative environmental impacts to the areas they traverse. But many people love to cruise, and others have accessibility challenges that make cruising the best option for them.
- Research cruise lines carefully before booking. Some small ship lines have invested in more efficient engineering and have adopted environmentally friendly practices to lessen the negative impact of their cruises.
- Add days to the beginning and or end of your cruise to support, and enjoy, the country.
- Patronize local restaurants and artisan shops on shore days.
- Consider booking a shore tour directly through a local agency. We’ve done this many times when we’ve traveled with friends (shared the expense). Added bonus is you can organize the tour to your interests and avoid the tourist traps. See our posts on Dubrovnik and Rhodes.
🐸 – free (or almost free!)
Offset some of your travel carbon footprint by living a sustainable lifestyle at home.
Sustainable Tourism Examples
Several countries have made strong commitments to developing responsible tourism. Here are just a few that illustrate areas of success:
- The Republic of Palau requires that visitors sign a pledge promising to respect and protect the island’s environment and culture. This pledge, signed on arrival, is addressed to the children of Palau.
- Sweden ranks #1 for sustainability by Euromonitor. Its programs for renewable energy and water sources are very successful.
- Slovenia has won many sustainability awards and was rated the best place for green travel in 2019. Ljubljana won a sustainable tourism award as part of the selection for the 2019 European Capital of Smart Tourism. We visited Slovenia several years ago and were impressed by how completely litter free it is!
- Costa Rica’s certification of sustainability process is being adopted around the world. Additionally, Costa Rica leads much of the world in reforestation.
- The United Republic of Tanzania has dedicated 38% of its land to conservation.
Regenerative Travel – the future of travel?
Care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility – Wendell Berry
With all of us doing our part to travel in a responsible way, the tourism industry can begin to generate regenerative travel – travel that actually improves an area for nature and the local population. We have an opportunity to make our favorite places in the world even better for future generations.
Additional Information on Sustainable Travel – definitions, and challenges
Mass tourism is a somewhat negative term for affordable group travel. This includes inexpensive group tours, cruising, etc., anything that has opened the door of travel to most people. Before the onset of mass tourism, travel was a luxury of the wealthy. The grand tour was a fixture in ‘upper-class’ families, a coming-of-age adventure for (primarily) young men. But when companies like Thomas Cook began offering reasonably priced group tours, the world became accessible to ‘regular’ people. To my mind, this is a good thing, but it is not without its negative effects.
- on many mass tourism trips, the revenue stays with the operator. Travelers don’t stay at locally owned hotels, or frequent local restaurants. If you choose to cruise, or book a group tour, have a meal or two at a local restaurant. You’ll have a more authentic experience and give back to the host communities.
Over-tourism happens when a destination gets more tourists than it can accommodate sustainably. The experience is detrimental to the tourist and the destination. The tourist can’t enjoy the view of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice with a hundred selfie-sticks in the way. And the people of Venice can’t go about their regular life with so many people jamming their pathways, and local shops turned into tourist traps. In fact, over-tourism often leads to the locals being displaced from their communities due to rising costs of rent, essentials, and utilities.
- over-tourism often centers the traveler on the big attractions while missing the genuine city they’re visiting. For example, visitors to NYC crowd Times Square and miss the fascinating neighborhoods of the city. They come away feeling that NYC was just tall buildings and neon lights, rather than a living city.
Tourism leakage is when the money generated by tourism actually leaves the country, with little benefit to the local communities. The infrastructure of tourism – roads, airports, etc. – are maintained by the local economy which in some cases may only get 10-20% of the tourism revenue. For more information read What Is Economic Tourism Leakage? How to Prevent Its Negative Impact
Irresponsible tourism can happen anywhere but is on the rise with over-tourism. When travelers seeking the perfect Instagram shot climb on a historic fountain, or stray off the trail in a National Park, the fountain or the environment can be damaged. Likewise, when travelers leave trash or graffiti behind, the sought over destination is spoiled for the next visitor.
- Unintended irresponsible tourism happens when travelers take risks which can end up requiring their rescue. Check the weather before heading into the mountains, keep a respectful distance from wildlife, follow the guidance of rangers, etc.
It’s gratifying that many destinations, and businesses, have committed to sustainability, but it is essential that we, as tourists, do our part. By making simple changes in how we plan our trips, what we pack, and how we engage with the local communities, we can have a huge impact in protecting what we love.