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8 Simple Ways to Sustainable Travel

Globalization has made the world super accessible. While this comes with tons of benefits, there’s also a downside. More people than ever are traveling the world, and this mass tourism threatens the preservation of our planet’s nature, culture, and history. 

This is why it’s so important to work toward sustainable travel.

According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism 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.”

It enables us to travel in a way that reduces our impact, so that beautiful destinations around the world remain protected. 

Best Ways to Travel Sustainably 

It can be overwhelming to get started with sustainable travel. Rather than making lots of big changes at once, approach it with baby steps. 

A great place to start is by simply acknowledging the impact of your travels. Take the time to think about how your globetrotting affects natural environments, wildlife, local communities, culture, and economies.

From there, you can begin making small changes to your travel habits. 

Backpacker Traveling

Get Started With These Sustainable Travel Tips:

Avoid crowded destinations 

When there’s too many tourists in a place it can become overcrowded.

This is known as overtourism. It causes many negative effects, like overwhelming local communities, displacing local people, damaging the environment, and endangering protected species.

You can avoid contributing to overtourism by traveling to places that are lesser known and less popular. For example, rather than visiting one of Thailand’s very popular, but crowded islands, opt for the quieter Koh Lanta Noi.

Not everyone is willing to skip the popular destinations, though. In that case, there are two things you can do to reduce your overtourism impact.

First, consider traveling to that busy destination in the off-season or shoulder season. Second, try to factor second city tourism into your travel plans.

This means visiting a second, less popular place after the bucket list destination.

For example, if you decided to indeed visit one of Thailand’s busy islands, offset that visit by going next to one of it’s quieter islands. 

Mass Tourism Graffiti

See Related: Best Minimalist Travel Backpacks

Travel overland whenever possible

Unfortunately, flights are the least sustainable way to get around the world because they add planet-warming gasses to the atmosphere.

For example, taking just one return flight can generate more CO2 than residents of some countries produce in an entire year.

Air travel is so destructive, that there’s even a “No Fly” movement in Sweden that aims to put pressure on the government to create better overland infrastructure for travel. 

It isn’t realistic for everyone to quit flying altogether. So for many sustainable travelers, the goal is to reduce the number of flights taken in a year.

One way to start is by replacing short-haul flights with overland travel. Rather than taking that one-hour flight from Toronto to Montreal, take the four-hour train ride, instead!

You can also reduce your impact by booking direct flights rather than connecting flights. Because most emissions are released during takeoff and landing, a direct flight results in less carbon impact.

See Related: Best Southwestern Vacation Destinations

Embrace slow travel

Slow travel is all about spending quality time in a place, rather than rushing through. It’s often tempting to plan busy travel days, with an itinerary planned from morning to night.

Slow travel rejects this approach and instead encourages us to spend time resting in a place.

For example, rather than seeing three museums in a day, slow travel suggests that you spend several hours in just one, and then maybe hunker down in a coffee shop for the rest of the day, just people watching. 

Slow travel is intentional and immersive — and because it means spending long periods in a destination, it enables tourists to invest more of their dollars in that region, which benefits the local community and economy.

And, traveling slowly has environmental benefits – it results in less overland and air travel, which means less CO2 emissions. 

See Related: How to Save Money for Travel

Pack zero waste, reusable products

Zero waste and reusable products help to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills.

For example, zero waste toothpaste comes with no packaging, or packaging that is recyclable.

That way, the classic toothpaste tube doesn’t end up going into the trash. Sustainable products like these are becoming much more accessible in our daily lives, which means we should make them a part of our travel lives, too. 

Sustainable Toothbrush and Toothpaste

Sustainable products that are useful while traveling include canvas bags, so you can reject plastic bags when shopping, and reusable cutlery and food storage containers for when you decide to have some street food.

Zero waste toiletries are also great to pack for travel. Bring a package free shampoo bar, toothpaste tablets, and a bamboo toothbrush.

And, consider buying a water filtration system like Lifestraw. It enables you to take water from any source, and filter it so it’s safe to drink.

This is a great way to cut down on bottled water while traveling!  

Shop and support local

When visiting a destination, it’s important to support the local community there. One of the best ways to do that is with your dollar.

Rather than giving your tourism dollars to large corporate companies, focus on giving them to small, local businesses. Instead of a chain hotel, stay in a smaller, family-owned one.

Rather than grabbing a coffee from Starbucks, head to a small cafe.

By doing this, you help ensure that the local residents in the place you are visiting are directly benefiting from tourism. This helps keep tourism sustainable for a community long term.

A few ways to support local communities include buying directly from markets and artisan shops, staying in small hotels, eating in non-chain restaurants, selecting locally owned and operated tour companies, and hiring local guides.

One thing to watch out for is souvenirs.

Many of the souvenirs, particularly in popular destinations, are imported from elsewhere.

To support local people more directly, do your souvenir shopping in artisan shops. If ever you aren’t sure about how local a business truly is, do a bit of quick research online. Look at the reviews, and check out that business’s website.

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Walk, cycle, and take public transport

When you’re exploring a new place, opt for a mode of transportation that is more green than a cab or your own vehicle.

This might mean renting a bicycle or scooter, walking, or taking public transport.

By avoiding going by car, you’re able to reduce your carbon footprint. And there’s other benefits to walking, cycling, and public transport, too! 

People in a Train Platform

These alternative methods for getting around will help to save on your travel budget, and also create an opportunity to spend more time outside and active.

Taking public transport can also be a fun experience because it can provide a new perspective of a place.

When riding the subway or taking the bus, you’re exposed to local life. 

See Related: Most Beautiful Destinations in the World

Treat wildlife and animals with respect

Getting up close and personal with wildlife is often a highlight for tourists when they go abroad. This is why activities like visiting an elephant sanctuary, swimming with dolphins, and going on a safari are so popular.

But because animal encounters are such a sought-after experience, there’s plenty of space for animals to end up exploited for the sake of tourism.

For example, in Thailand, there are elephant sanctuaries that rent elephants, and use the term “sanctuary” to make it seem as though they are an elephant rescue. 

It can be hard to figure out which animal encounters are non-exploitative. The best way to do diligence is to do research in advance.

For example, if there’s an elephant sanctuary you are interested in visiting, look at the reviews for that sanctuary online.

Be sure to read the bad reviews, because if tourists have seen something exploitative, they will likely say so in their bad review. 

Another way to engage in responsible wildlife tourism is to opt only for animal encounters that don’t involve any contact with the animal.

This is because animals, especially wild ones, aren’t naturally interested in having contact with humans. Any time a wild animal has contact with you, it’s because that animal has been specifically trained to do that.

If you want to visit animals as responsibly as possible, choose the experiences that are observation only.

For example, safaris that have you to watch animals from afar are a much safer option, because they enable you to see animals in their natural habitat. 


Do your research and listen

For most travelers, travel is about leisure. It’s a way to take a break from our busy lives and unwind. But this doesn’t mean travel can’t be a learning opportunity, too.

When we travel we encounter new places, people, cultures, and traditions, and these experiences can help us to broaden our mindsets and understanding of the world.

Before traveling, take the time to do some research. Look beyond the typical “top 10” articles, and dig into the culture and norms of the place you are headed.

By learning about local food, history, culture, and traditions, you can help make sense of what you encounter on your trip.

During your trip, continue the learning by talking with locals and listening to what they have to say.

One great way to do this is by talking with your tour guides. Ask them questions!

See Related: 13 Reasons Why Traveling is Important

Sustainable Tourism is Evolving

Many of the tips above are simple ones to get started with. Begin with introducing maybe one or two new practices, and then slowly adopt more!

The important thing is to find a way to approach sustainable tourism that works for you, and continue to be open to learning and to change.

Sustainable tourism will continue to evolve, and so to be a sustainable traveler, you’ll want to be open to evolving yourself.

Related Resources

Erin writes the travel blog Pina Travels, where she shares destination guides, tips, and guides on how to travel responsibly. She’s also the host of Alpaca My Bags, a responsible travel podcast.