Since the UN declared 2017 the “Year of Sustainable Tourism”, sustainable travel has become a bit of a buzzword, especially in the travel community. But what is sustainable tourism and how to travel sustainably? Can tourism be sustainable?
In a nutshell, sustainable travel means traveling in a way that minimizes harm to the communities, the environment, and the animals that live in them. First we’ll look the concept of sustainable tourism, then we’ll go over some sustainable travel tips.
Grab some coffee (sustainable, ethically sourced, fair trade, shade grown – of course) and let’s get started!
What is Sustainable Tourism?: Sustainable Tourism Definitions
There are a few terms you’ll come across when talking about sustainability in the tourism industry. You’ll also see “travel” and “tourism” used interchangeably, as in “sustainable tourism” or “sustainable travel.”
Sustainable Travel: The sustainable travel definition as stated by the World Tourism Organization is: “”tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” Basically, being aware of and minimizing impacts of tourism on the environment (including animals) and local communities. Sustainable travel is often the umbrella term used to encompass all types of travel in this vein.
Responsible Travel: Another umbrella term, the responsible tourism definition places the emphasis a bit more on the individual and their actions. The traveler is “responsible” for being responsible, if you will. Generally when this term is used, people are talking about the impact on locals and their communities. Responsible tourism as a term was defined in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Read more here.
Ethical Travel: This term emphasizes the moral obligation to treating communities, animals, and the environment with respect.
Impact Travel: goes beyond minimizing harm but focuses on making sure that your money helps the communities and/or environments in which you’re traveling. Examples of impact travel might be taking a tour run by an indigenous group. Another way to think of impact travel is socially responsible tourism. Read more about impact travel on Visit.org’s website.
Ecotravel: Ecotourism vs sustainable tourism is a bit more defined, as ecotourism specifically focuses on enjoying environments, going to beautiful places, and perhaps staying in nature, such as in an ecolodge. Ecotravel seems to overlap a lot with the luxury market, though of course camping is the ultimate ecotravel and it often free (if you have a tent).
If your eyes glazed over reading those, or if you found them repetitive, you’re not alone. As with all definitions, these concepts of sustainable tourism are academic terms. The way that they’re put into practice and used is more important. So first, let’s look at some of the benefits of sustainable tourism.
Benefits of Sustainable Tourism
Basically, why sustainable tourism?
At a minimum, the aims of sustainable tourism are to minimize negative impacts of tourism on a place. But of course, as responsible travelers, we want to make sure our presence benefits local communities as well. Tourism is a huge part of many countries’ economies. By mindfully choosing local accommodations, activities, and goods, we can have a net positive impact with our visit. By contributing to local businesses, we ensure that our money is put back into the community. A local business owner will spend their money in the community they are a part of, as opposed to a chain or franchise that only cares about their bottom line.
Tourists can also voice the need for better infrastructure, which in turn increases standard of living for locals. Although it is unfortunate that sometimes governments only listen when tourists speak up, better systems like sewage and public transportation systems are often improved with an increase in tourism (also because tourism brings in the funds to be able to do so).
Read more about benefits of sustainable tourism in this article on EarthChangers.com
Now that we have explored a bit more about of the sustainable tourism meaning, let’s talk about how to be a sustainable tourist!
Sustainable Tourism Tips: Before You Go + Planning Your Trip
1. Choosing Where: Avoid Spots Suffering from Overtourism
Many travelers want to go wherever they want, whenever they want.
If this strikes a chord with you, consider your privilege as someone who has the means, time, and passport strength to travel outside of your country. Popular travel blogger Oneika The Traveler said it best: stop acting like everyone can travel.
So if you’re fortunate enough to be able to travel, why would you go somewhere that would be harmed by your presence, such as places struggling with overtourism? There are so many places in the world that can BENEFIT from your visit.
Places suffering from overtourism include Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Bali, places in the Philippines and Thailand, and more. Read more about overtourism in this great National Geographic article.
Consider why you want go to a particular destination. Do you want to visit Barcelona because you want to visit a seaside city in Spain with beautiful architecture? What about visiting a slightly less touristy city, such as Valencia?
might will probably have more fun in a less touristy spot anyway. Take it from us and read about our experience in Florence. Spoiler alert: we didn’t like it.
As more people travel, more people flock to these same places. By going to a lesser known place, you can have a positive impact on an economy that might rely on tourism but not enough. Spread the wealth! Literally. For inspiration, check out these alternatives to overtouristed destinations.
2. Choosing Where: Stay Closer to Home
Again, many people might not like to hear this one, but if you’re truly thinking of how to travel sustainably, staying closer to home is a great option.
Can you go somewhere within train or driving distance?
By traveling overland, not only will you be using less emissions to get there, but it’ll likely be cheaper and definitely less of a hassle!
However, we completely understand wanting to travel further afield. We are full time travelers after all! And though we travel overland and minimize our flights as much as possible, we still do occasionally take them. So, we get it if you don’t want to always take this option.
If you’re planning to travel abroad, read on for international sustainable tourism tips.
3. Choosing How: Sustainable Transportation
Choosing how you get somewhere is tied into where you go. And it’s no secret that sustainable air travel is somewhat of an oxymoron. If you stay closer to home as we suggested in the last tip, then you might be able to avoid flying entirely. However, that’s not always possible (stay tuned for our upcoming article on why we aren’t taking a flying ban anytime soon).
One major thing you can do is to take only one round trip flight and travel overland while on your trip. It might be tempting to hop on cheap budget flights. However, you’ll get a much richer experience traveling in a smaller region, using trains and buses to get to your next destination, than jumping on a plane to a new country every three days.
When flying, choose the most eco-friendly flight possible. Skyscanner now has an “eco” marker for flights that use less emissions than others. Click to search flights on Skyscanner and look for the little green leaf.
Usually newer airplanes and budget airlines are more efficient, as newer planes are designed to be more fuel efficient. Budget airlines pack more people into the plane and since people have to pay for luggage, people generally pack less or use only a carry-on.
If possible, take direct flights with no stopovers, as takeoff and landing are more fuel intensive. You can also consider offsetting your flights. This means contributing to a program that is dedicated to offsetting the impact of the emissions caused by taking that flight.
Note that offsetting your flight doesn’t mean that you can fly multiple times a month and just offset them all. The best thing for the environment is reduce your flights, and then offset the ones that you do take. We could write a whole post on offsetting (there’s a lot of info out there and not all programs are good) but for now we’ll direct you to these handy articles:
Make sure to bring your own reusable containers to cut down on single use plastic cutlery and glasses while in flight. Fill up your water bottle before you get on the plane and refuse water in plastic cups or bottles.
Read more: Eco-Friendly Travel Gear
Finally, remember that emissions from aircraft comprise only 15% of transportation emissions. If you’re interested in living sustainably, it’d be more eco-conscious to give up your car than to never fly again. Read more global emissions statistics in this article.
4. Choosing Where: Stay Longer
We are huge proponents of slow travel. There are many benefits of slow travel, but just from a sustainable perspective, you cut down on transportation emissions by staying in one place, your hotel stay becomes more sustainable (less washing of sheets, etc), and you immerse yourself more in the culture.
Read More: What is Slow Travel and Why Do It?
5. Choosing When: Travel in Shoulder or Off Seasons
Most places have seasons that are busier than others. European cities will be jam packed in the summer while year-round warm destinations like the Caribbean have their busy seasons during the northern hemisphere’s winter.
Off-season is exactly what it sounds like: off the normal travel season. Shoulder seasons are the buffer zones between off season and high season. Usually this is fall or spring, months like March-April and October-November. During shoulder seasons, there may be slightly more tourists but not as many as during high season. I visited Dubrovnik at the end of March and I was one of two people staying at my hostel. Two months later in May, the small city was mobbed.
Another benefit of traveling off-season is that prices will usually be lower for accommodations and flights.
6. Choose Ethical and Sustainable Accommodation
This one is a biggie. Did you know that some of the biggest culprits in terms of the environmental impact of the tourism industry are hotels?
All those little toiletry bottles that get thrown away, half-used.
Frigid hotel rooms with the air conditioning blasting.
Towels laundered every damn day.
Copious amounts of food waste.
Do your research when booking a place to stay. Avoid international chains where most of the profits get siphoned out of the country in what is known as economic leakage in tourism. Instead, stay in locally owned, smaller boutique hotels, hostels, or guest houses.
It’s important to be aware of greenwashing though. Many hotels are catching on that travelers are becoming more conscious with their travel decisions. As a result, many that might advertise being a “green hotel” are far from it.
Some great websites to find sustainable hotels and other accommodation include:
Book Different: This website uses their “staygreencheck” method to check all the accommodations they list for sustainability in management, fair wages, environmentally friendly practices, respect for local culture, and more. You can search for a specific location, browse types of vacations (beach, city, retreat, family), or check out their top recommendations.
EcoBnb: We prefer EcoBnb to Book Different simply because we find it easier to navigate and use the search function. You can filter by a ton of different categories depending on your wants and needs, such as accommodation type, amenities, sustainable practices employed, or type of trip.
Book It Green: This one is mainly Europe focused. Like EcoBnb, you can search by various factors, both specific and more general. They also plant a tree for every night booked through the website!
Kynder: Kynder’s mission is all about showcasing the “best in kind, eco-conscious hospitality.” The site is still growing so not every country is represented, but you can browse by region for sustainable travel inspiration! You can also find other eco-minded establishments such as eateries, coffee shops, and even wineries.
Budget travel is usually more sustainable because of the sharing of facilities and resources. Hostels are great budget-friendly sustainable options, as is couchsurfing. Click to Join CouchsurfingHome swapping and house sitting are also great budget-friendly, sustainable ways to travel. In a home swap, someone stays in your home while you stay in theirs. With house sitting, you take care of someone’s home (and usually pets) in return for staying in their home while they go on vacation. In both instances, you’re not contributing to unsustainable accommodations and using a place that would otherwise be empty!
7. Be Conscious If Using Airbnb
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room – everyone’s favorite booking site: Airbnb.
We often see Airbnb listed as a sustainable accommodation option because they are run by locals, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Using Airbnb without giving a thought to the communities you’re impacting is NOT sustainable tourism.
What was once a good idea has become a nightmare for countless residents. Renters have either been kicked out of their homes so their rooms or apartments could be turned into more lucrative Airbnbs (we have a friend that this happened to), or who can’t afford to find a place in their own city due to exorbitant rents.
We saw this happening while we were living in Madrid, Spain. The situation is much worse elsewhere in places like Barcelona and Venice, where small city centers and tourists wanting to stay right in the historic center makes living there impossible for actual residents.
For a deep dive into this topic, listen to our podcast episode: The Airbnb Effect (there’s also a text version if you prefer to read).
For this reason, we do not recommend booking Airbnbs in frequently touristed places with small downtowns and a rent problem, such as most European cities. Learn more about Airbnb in the place you intend to visit by googling “Airbnb + [city]” or even “Airbnb laws + [city]”. If it’s a problem, you can bet there’ll be news articles about it.
While we know some people do, we don’t call for an all out ban on Airbnb. The situation isn’t as simple as “don’t use Airbnb.” Places like the U.S. unfortunately do not have the widespread hostel or bed and breakfast culture that Europe or the United Kingdom do. In small towns or rural areas, your only options might be a terrible roadside chain motel or a local Airbnb. Staying with a local on Airbnb can also be a great way to contribute to the local economy in rural locations and small towns.
The problem comes when people start buying up blocks of apartments to put on Airbnb, thereby taking those places off the rental market. In places where Airbnb is highly regulated, it can be a great place to stay. In Portland for example, people can only own one Airbnb property, it must be on a property they live on, and Airbnb guests must pay a guest tax like they would if they were staying in a normal hotel. A government official comes out to each listing before it is approved.
The reality is that the majority of people using Airbnb are reluctant to forego using the site completely. Until more cities are able to pass Airbnb regulation, we’d rather educate and encourage ethical Airbnb use. When in doubt, either don’t use the site or stay in a private room.
Made it through this section? As a reward – and if you promise to use Airbnb ethically – we’ll give you $40 off your first stay.
8. Say No to Cruise Ships
If you’re looking for ways to make tourism sustainable, right at the top is avoiding cruise ships. Cruise ships are absolutely terrible for the environment. Not only that, but they don’t benefit local communities where they dock. No one benefits from cruise ship tourism, except those who want to book an all-inclusive vacation without a second thought about who it harms.
Cruise ships are notorious for terribly polluting the oceans. In case you hadn’t heard, our oceans are in serious trouble. They need our help by reducing/eliminating our plastic use, fish consumption, and by not undertaking activities that are harmful to marine life.
Cruising is one of those things.
Read more about cruise ship pollution of the ocean in Marine Insight’s article.
Additionally, ports need to be dredged in order to be made deeper to accommodate large ships, disrupting ecosystems and disturbing coral reefs.
Finally, cruise ship tourism doesn’t benefit locals. We’ve spoken to local business, hostel, and restaurant owners in popular cruise ship ports in the Caribbean and Croatia who attest to this. Cruisers have already paid a set price for their accommodation and food on the ship, so they rarely spend much in the towns that they visit. They might buy some souvenirs while walking around, but that’s it.
In St. Croix, an island in the US Virgin Islands, we spoke to a restaurant owner whose restaurant was located just a couple of blocks from the cruise ship port. He said he never saw cruise travelers in his restaurant, and his restaurant mostly relies on the business of locals. His food was absolutely amazing and it’s a real shame that cruisers are missing out on local cuisine in favor of all you can eat buffets on the ship.
For more detrimental effects of cruise tourism, read these articles:
9. Pack for Sustainable Travel
One of the most sustainable ways to pack is by packing light. Even better if you can go carry-on. The more people fly carry on, the less fuel the plane needs to use to carry that weight. If you pack light, you’ll be way more likely to use public transportation as opposed to grabbing a cab from the airport too!
Also make sure to pack zero waste travel items like reusable bags, bottles, containers, straws, and more to reduce your waste on the go. To learn more about what we recommend for packing, check out our eco-friendly packing list.
Sustainable Travel Tips: While You’re There
10. Learn A Bit of the Language
Sustainable tourism practices involves acknowledging the local culture and history of the place in which you are traveling. You’re a visitor in someone else’s home, and in order to be respectful, you need to learn a bit about the place. Customs might be different and you could inadvertently offend locals with certain gestures, questions, or ways of speaking.
There’s no greater way to acknowledge and respect a culture’s existence than by learning some of the local language. Learning some basic words in the language can help you go from “rude tourist” to “considerate visitor”. Even learning the simple phrase, “Do you speak English?” goes miles, instead of simply walking around speaking to everyone in English like they should know it. Learn key phrases like “hello, goodbye, thank you, please, yes, and no.”
For the people who might balk at the idea of learning a bit of history while they’re traveling, we ask the question, “Why are you traveling if not to learn about the places you visit?”
If you’re interested in traveling responsibly, learning a bit of background on the place you visit is a must. Not only will this give you a greater appreciation of the culture you’re visiting, but you’ll have richer conversations with locals. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the world and learn more about how to navigate their space respectfully by being aware of their history.
11. Learn the Culture and History
You can do learn more about a place’s culture and history before you go or while you’re there (or both, of course).
Some ideas for learning about a place include:
- Going on a locally run walking tour – though be careful that the tour guide is being paid a living wage, and if you go on a “free” tour, make sure to tip well.
- Taking a class focused on an element of local culture, such as a cooking or textile-making class. You can find responsible walking tours, classes, and activities on Visit.Org.
- Watching a film/documentary or reading a book about your destination (if you’re going to Spain, we’ve got suggestions: 25 Books To Read About Spain Before Your Trip)
- Visiting a local museum
12. Avoid Voluntourism
While it’s nice that you want to help people on your trip, consider the impact of your visit. Voluntourism more often than not does more harm than good. Volunteers often have little to no training, and locals have to train them to do the job. This takes away from actually doing the work, just so that the volunteer can feel like they’re “helping’.
The voluntourism demand has gotten so bad in some places that organizations literally take kids away from their homes and put them in “orphanages” so white people can volunteer there. More often than not, this feeds a white savior complex that reinforces racial inequality rather than addressing it. For more education on this topic, check out the work of No White Saviors.
Instead of volunteering, your money would be better spent directly donating to a reputable organization. If you want to get involved, you’re better off volunteering in your home city. Read more on how to help in this article featuring the Top Ten Tips for Supporting Vulnerable Children While Traveling.
13. Buy Local
Avoid the tacky tourist souvenir shops selling magnets mass produced in a factory in China. Instead, buy local keepsakes that are more meaningful. Additionally, shopping locally empowers the community by putting money directly back into their local economy. You can find local souvenirs at neighborhood markets, pop up art festivals, roadside stands, or independent shops.
I always collect locally made earrings from each place we visit. Every time I wear a pair, I’m reminded of the trip. They’re great conversation starters as well!
14. Leave No Trace
No matter if you’re hiking in the wilderness or walking down a city street, leaving no trace of your visit is one of the most important green tourism practices. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t litter, deface ANYTHING (buildings, rocks, trees, etc), remove objects from their natural environment, or do anything that indicates you were there.
It may be cheesy and overused, but the saying is true: take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.
15. Reduce Your Waste and Recycle
This goes back to our point above about packing sustainably. If you ensure that you’re prepared with reusable items, you’ll create that much less waste while traveling. Little things like taking photos of pamphlets, business cards, or tourist maps will also reduce your waste and you’ll be less likely to lose them!
Find local recycling points and if you’re feeling super ambitious, composting opportunities. The latter aren’t always easy to find, though it can be worth it if you’re staying somewhere for a long time. Since we often stay in places for months, we look for ways to compost our organic waste. Luckily, more and more cities are including municipal composting!
16. Don’t Exploit Animals: Question All Animal Experiences
When it comes to the interactions between animals and people, animals usually get the shorter end of the stick. People abuse, exploit, manipulate, and otherwise harm animals for the sake of profit and their own enjoyment. Sustainable travelers like to focus on the environment but we can’t forget that animals are a crucial part of that environment.
Now I know you might be thinking, “Abusing animals for enjoyment, that sounds horrible! Of course I’d never participate in that!”
Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious when animals are being mistreated or abused, especially when owners are trying to mask the true situation or aren’t aware that what they are doing harms the animals.
For example, I’ll wager a bet that the majority of people reading this article aren’t vegetarian or vegan yet likely call themselves animal lovers. What goes on behind closed doors in factory farms is nothing short of extreme animal abuse – all for the sake of the enjoyment of a meal. We don’t say this to pass blame or judgement, but to illustrate a point – most of us have unknowingly engaged in actions that harm animals. We need to dig deeper and look critically at every interaction we have with animals and whether our actions are harming them.
Some common examples of unethical animal activities in tourism include:
- riding elephants
- drinking civet coffee
- swimming with the Bahama pigs
- taking tiger selfies
- the list goes on…
Basically anything where animals are in a captive environment and there is guaranteed interaction for money, it’s probably not ethical. Question every animal experience, including safaris. To learn more, read sustainable travel blogger Lessons Learn Abroad’s post on his experience on an African safari.
Instead, visit a sanctuary or wildlife preserve where animals are left to be in their natural habitat without human interference. Always ask questions about sanctuaries, as unfortunately some sanctuaries that claim to be ethical are in fact, not. Also avoid purchasing souvenirs made from animals, especially those that are endangered. Remembering these key sustainable tourism practices will ensure you don’t harm animals on your vacation.
17. Choose Plant-Based Options
Many sustainable travelers are on board with not harming animals for activities. Yet it when it comes to what’s on their plate, they look the other way. But you can’t talk about how to travel sustainably without talking about what you eat for three meals every day.
We’ve ranted on this topic for an entire article: We Need to Talk About Sustainable Travel
News flash: eating animals and their products harms them.
It also harms us and the environment. Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to global emissions. It also takes up a tremendous amount of resources, from land to water.
There’s so much at play here that we simply don’t have the space to go into. If you’re curious, we recommend watching the documentary Cowspiracy to see the detrimental effect of animal agriculture on the environment. You can also read our article: One Easy Way to Reduce Your Environmental Impact Now.
For travel inspiration, check out the Most Vegan-Friendly Cities in Europe!
18. Eat Local and Seasonal
In addition to eating plant-based while traveling and at home, eating local and seasonal is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Local produce doesn’t have to fly to get to you. Seasonal produce doesn’t eat up resources in a greenhouse.
In many places, there’s a booming farm-to-table movement – explore it!
This means avoiding chain restaurants like the plague. It beats us why a traveler would want to eat at a TGI Fridays in Madrid, but we’ve seen it happen.
19. Take Public Transportation
Again, transportation can be a huge contributor to the carbon footprint of your trip.
Choose local transportation over taxis and ride sharing services like Uber/Lyft. (Though taking a ride share is still better than renting your own car and likely cheaper too).
Even better, explore cities via bike or foot! We love renting bikes around the world and many cities now have city bike share programs that are easy for visitors to use.
When You Get Home
20. How to Promote Sustainable Tourism
Traveling sustainably isn’t over once you get home.
Now is not the time to forget all you’ve learned on your trip as you go back to your normal habits. Take what you’ve learned while traveling and apply it to your everyday life.
- Make sustainable habit shifts at home
- Continue the conversation with your friends and family
- Buy eco-friendly presents for others (here are some sustainable gift ideas)
- Plan your next sustainable adventure!
Finally, remember to be kind to yourself and others. None of this comes easily because we are working within a system that is set up to be unsustainable. Do the best you can, and if you falter, it’s okay. Do better next time and re-read this article as much as you need!
Do you have any other sustainable tourism tips or resources for us to add to this article? Let us know in the comments!