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Sustainable Travel: a globetrotter’s guide to being a responsible tourist

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.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

What is Sustainable Tourism?

‘Official’ definitions of Sustainable Travel:
  • The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable travel as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,”
  • The World Tourism Organization defines it as the “management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.”

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.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

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 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:

Photo by Anna Oliinyk on Unsplash

Baby Steps

Eliminate/reduce plastics

Save water

Conserve electricity

Pack light

Research potential activities

Support LOCAL

For help finding eco-sustainable travel products consult our gift guides, Eco-Friendly Gifts for Travelers and Stocking Stuffers for Travelers.

Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE on Unsplash

Big Steps

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

Choosing your lodging

Beware of greenwashing, where a business spends more on marketing their ‘green’ practices than actually putting them into action.

Choosing your transportation

Always remember that we are guests in someone’s home country. Respect them and treat their homes as you would that of a friend.

Cruising – Do or Don’t?

🐸 – free (or almost free!)

Offset some of your travel carbon footprint by living a sustainable lifestyle at home.

Sustainable Tourism Examples

Authentic tourism example: tour of Kamaka Ukelele facility led by owner Fred Kamaka, Sr.

Several countries have made strong commitments to developing responsible tourism. Here are just a few that illustrate areas of success:

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

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.

Overcrowding in Venice | Photo by Levi van Leeuwen on Unsplash


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.

Tourism leakage

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.

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.

Please share your eco travel suggestions in the comments. But also share with your friends and family. Spread the word on how easy and rewarding it can be to travel sustainably.

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