Does sustainable travel only apply to some places?
Or all places?
Often when talking about responsible tourism, the discussion centers around ethical travel to developing nations. Ensuring that your tourism dollars are being spent in a way that benefits underprivileged areas is indeed super important!
However, Europe is often left out of the responsible travel discussion. Especially with overtourism affecting so many European cities, we need to be more mindful than ever of sustainable tourism in Europe.
1. Avoid Airbnb and International Hotel Chains
Airbnb has become every millennial’s favorite way to travel and “live like a local.” Unfortunately, the fact is that staying in Airbnbs in European capitals is not part of sustainable travel in Europe. There are many Airbnb issues – enough for the topic of another article. Read more about Airbnb issues here.
We witnessed first hand the Airbnb effect while living in Madrid, Spain. Whole neighborhoods in Madrid have been converted to Airbnb hoods, with investors buying up entire buildings and throwing the (often elderly) residents out on the street. But it’s not just entire apartments that are the problem: a good friend of ours was thrown out of his apartment when his roommate decided to put his room up on Airbnb.
Fellow blogger Madrid No Frills has been documenting these evictions and the efforts of the community to stop them: Madrid’s Anti Eviction Warriors.
The reality is that normal, working class people can’t afford to live in popular Airbnb markets, because it’s simply more lucrative for a landlord to put the place up on Airbnb. It’s changed the fabric of neighborhoods and cities.
Internationally run hotel chains, such as Best Western, Hyatt, Hilton, and others are not much better. Often, the money earned from these hotels leaves the community to line the pockets of those up top.
So where to stay?
Personally, we always recommend house sitting as a sustainable form of accommodation. In Europe, there are a plethora of house sits available as Europeans tend to travel frequently. In exchange for taking care of a pet, you could stay in an apartment free of charge. We have house sat all over the UK and Spain, along with Italy and Germany.
However, we understand that most people will not want the responsibilities of caring for someone else’s pet on their vacation. If you still want to avoid paying for accommodation, check out Couchsurfing.
Otherwise, we recommend staying in locally owned bnbs, pensions, hostels, or small hotels. Use the following website to find sustainable accommodation in Europe:
2. Travel Overland for Sustainable Travel in Europe
Yes, we know it can be hard to avoid 20 euro flights to another country.
Thanks to budget airlines like Ryanair, Easy Jet, and Wizz Air, travelers in Europe have gotten used to paying next to nothing to hop to another country for the weekend. Flying has a huge impact on the environment, so much so that the flyskam (flight shame) movement has gotten real traction in Europe.
Sadly, trains (and sometimes even buses) are usually more expensive. However, by traveling overland, you’ll not only drastically reduce the carbon footprint of your trip, you’ll have a more rewarding experience. Use the Rome2Rio app or website to plan overland travel via buses and trains. It’ll even link you to the website to buy tickets!
Many of our memorable travel moments have occurred while using public transportation. By traveling with locals and absorbing the landscape, you will get a better connection to the place, rather than just literally dropping in out of the sky via plane.
Read more: What is Slow Travel and Why Do It?
3. Avoid Mega Cruises
The rise of cruises has become a very attractive option for travelers and understandably so. When tasked with planning a vacation, it can be way more convenient to pay an upfront fee, and have everything taken care of. Your room and board is already arranged for the whole trip, and you only need be concerned with the variety of visits planned out for you along the way. Easy!
But while taking a cruise may be an easy option, it also has a huge impact on local communities and the environment.
A recent undercover study found that a cruise ship emits as much CO2 in one day as one million cars.
Cruise ships overload small cities like Venice and Dubrovnik to the point that these cities have put up barricades to limit the amount of people entering the historic center. These cruisers overwhelm the city but rarely leave much of an economic impact. After all, their food and accommodation is already covered by the ship.
During our 1.5 months on the island, we spoke to local business owners in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, which gets one cruise ship a week. One of the restaurant owners, whose restaurant is located just a few blocks from the cruise ship port, said he rarely gets any cruise trippers in his restaurant. Which is a tremendous shame because his food was phenomenal – he even won the Taste of St. Croix, the local and premiere food competition! He, along with other business owners, attested that St. Croix could benefit from more tourism – just not of the cruise ship variety.
Read more: Sustainable Travel in the Caribbean
If you want the all-inclusive nature of a cruise, perhaps look into a locally run resort. River cruises, such as those along the Danube in central Europe, are also a good option, as the boats are a fraction of the size of mega cruises.
4. Learn the history
Last March, I traveled overland in the Balkans and ended my trip in Dubrovnik. There, I had the opportunity to have an extended conversation with a Dubrovnik local about sustainable tourism in Europe.
He shared that Croatia had come out of the post-war recession thanks in large part to tourism, and that Croatians are grateful for that. However, he also expressed his dismay of the many people that visit Dubrovnik simply to get some Instagram photos in a major filming location from Game of Thrones. He clearly has great pride in Croatia and was saddened that few tourists learn Croatian culture and history.
Learn about the local culture and history by visiting a local museum, take a walking tour or cooking class, or read a book about or set in the country before your trip!
5. Buy local
Avoid buying from the tacky souvenir shops where everything is made in China. There are so many artisan markets, shops, and stalls throughout Europe where you’ll be able to purchase authentic souvenirs that actually benefit locals.
A good place to start is usually neighborhood markets, farmer’s markets, or independent shops like local bookstores. You’ll have a richer experience and know you’re supporting the local economy as well.
6. Don’t Exploit Animals for Sustainable Tourism in Europe
No matter how picturesque you think it might be to ride a horse-drawn carriage down Parisian cobblestone streets, your enjoyment comes at the price of these animals’ wellbeing.
Don’t contribute to animal cruelty events, such as bullfighting. Living in Spain, we learned firsthand that most younger Spaniards are appalled that their country is known for such a horrific event. What’s keeping those bullfights going? Governmental money and tourism. Avoid!
Better yet – don’t contribute to harming the environment and the unnecessary suffering of animals by eating them.
Read More: We Need to Talk About Sustainable Travel
7. Visit Lesser-Known Destinations
Many European cities are suffering from overtourism, a phenomenon where a city gets more tourism than it can handle. Often these are small cities where there is nowhere for the crowds to go. This harms locals, overloads the infrastructure, and detracts from your experience.
Those who can travel have the privilege to do so, and we have a responsibility to make sure our choices do not harm others.
Think about why you want to go to a particular place. Is there a less overcrowded city or place that you could visit instead?
If you’d like to visit a Spanish city, instead of overtouristed Barcelona, consider a lesser known but equally incredible city like Bilbao. Instead of Venice whose infrastructure is suffering greatly under the weight of tourism, consider another Italian city or Giethoorn, a city in the Netherlands known as “The Venice of the North.”
There are so many lesser-known places to visit, why limit yourself to the same places that everyone else is going? You’ll have a better trip AND you’ll know that you’re not negatively impacting the lives of locals.
Read more: No Destinations: Forget the List and Go
If you must visit a city that is suffering from overtourism, choose an off-season time to go, stay outside of the historic center, and most definitely don’t use Airbnb! (see above).
8. Visit in the Off-Season
Not everyone can choose when to take a vacation. But if you have some leeway, avoid going in the height of tourist season in the summer.
I visited Dubrovnik at the end of March, before cruise ship season, and not only was I one of two people in my hostel, but the city was practically empty down any side street and the weather was beautiful.
I saw photos from June with roped lines going into the city. Not fun for you nor locals who have to wiggle their way through tourist hordes just to do their grocery shopping.
9. Pack a Sustainable Travel Kit
Carry key reusable items so you don’t need to buy plastic water bottles or use plastic cutlery. We have a little day pack that we always carry with us to ensure that we don’t produce unnecessary waste.
Key items include: reusable water bottle, reusable coffee cup, cutlery, a cloth napkin, and reusable containers for takeaway and bakery items.
Read more: Eco-Friendly Packing List
10. Eat (More) Plant-Based
The animal agriculture industry is not only cruel on a massive level, but is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases. The animal agriculture industry not only pollutes the atmosphere but local environments as well. These days, if we could lessen our impact on the environment and animals, why wouldn’t we?
Luckily, many countries in Europe are quite easy places to eat a plant-based diet. Try out one of these vegan hot spots on your next vacation!
Read more: Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Cities in Europe
Even if you make a habit of reducing your animal consumption, you’re lessening your impact more than you think. And you don’t have to miss out on traditional dishes – we have found that nearly everywhere in Europe has plant-based dishes in their cuisine. And if not, you can bet that in capital cities, you can find vegan versions of classic dishes.
Sustainable travel isn’t about the easiest or most convenient option. If we have the privilege of intercontinental travel, we can at least try our best to have a positive impact on the communities that we visit.
Does anyone have an off the beaten path destinations that work as alternatives to the popular ones? What are some ways you practice sustainable travel in Europe?