9 Proven Ways To Work Towards Sustainable Travel

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Respecting wildlife, sustainable travel tips

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 “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 worldwide remain protected. 

What is Sustainable Travel?

Wooden airplane model emitting fresh green leaves
sulit.photos / Adobe Stock

As someone passionate about sustainable travel, I believe it is important for travelers to understand what it truly means. Sustainable travel is a broad term that encompasses various aspects, ranging from environmental protection to socio-economic benefits.

Given the diversity of destinations and contexts travelers might encounter, there is no universal definition of sustainable travel. At its core, sustainable travel involves engaging in tourism practices that consider the needs and desires of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

This includes taking steps to minimize our negative impact on the environment and supporting economic and social development within the communities we visit.

Often, sustainable travel is misunderstood as solely focusing on environmental conservation. While that is important, other considerations should be considered when traveling sustainably. Here are a few key concepts:

  • Environmental protection: Reducing waste, conserving resources, and minimizing carbon emissions and pollution are all essential aspects of environmental sustainability.
  • Social responsibility: Respecting and preserving the cultural heritage of the places we visit while contributing to the well-being of local communities is vital to sustainable travel.
  • Economic benefits: Supporting small and local businesses through our travel choices can contribute to the economic stability and success of the regions we explore.

As travelers, it is our responsibility to choose sustainable options whenever possible. This entails educating ourselves about the best practices and adopting responsible travel habits.

What are the three types of sustainable travel?

Sustainable travel is a method of traveling that seeks to minimize negative impacts on the environment, society, and economy. The three types of sustainable travel are eco-tourism, community tourism, and responsible tourism.

Eco-tourism involves visiting natural areas to conserve the environment and improve the well-being of local people. Community tourism focuses on the participation and benefits of local communities in tourism activities. Responsible tourism is about tourists making environmentally and socially responsible choices when traveling.

How can you contribute to sustainability while traveling?

Contributing to sustainability while traveling involves making conscious choices that minimize negative impacts and maximize positive contributions. This can include choosing eco-friendly accommodations, using public or non-motorized modes of transport, supporting local businesses, reducing waste, and respecting local cultures and environments.

In addition, sustainable practices also involve participating in volunteer programs or donating to local conservation efforts.

Best Ways to Travel Sustainably 

Backpacker Traveling

It can be overwhelming to get started with sustainable travel. Rather than making many significant changes immediately, approach it with baby steps. 

A great place to start is simply acknowledging your travels’ impact. Take the time to think about how your globetrotting affects natural environments, wildlife, local communities, culture, and economies. From there, you can begin making minor changes to your travel habits. 

Get Started With These Sustainable Travel Tips

Avoid crowded destinations 

Mass Tourism Graffiti

When there are 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 lesser-known and less favored places. For example, opt for the quieter Koh Lanta Noi rather than visiting one of Thailand’s trendy but crowded islands.

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 visit one of Thailand’s busy islands, offset that visit by going next to one of its quieter islands. 

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 pressure 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, which will significantly reduce the environmental impact of your journey.

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

See Related: Best Southwestern Vacation Destinations

Embrace slow travel

Slow travel is 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 encourages us to rest in a place.

For example, rather than seeing three museums in a day, slow travel suggests spending several hours in just one and then maybe hunkering 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. 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

Sustainable Toothbrush and Toothpaste

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 go into the trash. Sustainable products like these are becoming much more accessible daily, so we should make them a part of our travel lives. 

Sustainable products 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!  

See Related: Must-Know Vacation Tips

Shop and support the local economy

When visiting a destination, supporting the community and local economy is important. 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. Doing this, you help ensure that the residents in the place you visit directly benefit from tourism. This helps keep tourism sustainable for a local 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 souvenirs, particularly in popular destinations, are imported from elsewhere. To support the local economy more directly, do your souvenir shopping in artisan shops. If you aren’t unsure about how local a business is, do some quick research online. Look at the reviews, and check out that business’s website.

See Related: Outdoorsy Review

Walk, cycle, and take public transport

People in a Train Platform

When you’re exploring a new place, opt for a mode of transportation that is more green than a cab or your vehicle. This might mean renting a bicycle or scooter, walking, or taking public transport.

By avoiding going by car, you can reduce your carbon footprint. And there are other benefits to walking, cycling, and public transport, too! These alternative methods for getting around will help save on your travel budget and create an opportunity to spend more time outside and be active.

Taking public transport can also be a fun experience because it can provide a new perspective of a place. You’re exposed to local life when riding the subway or bus. 

See Related: Most Beautiful Destinations in the World

Treat wildlife and animals with respect

Bison in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

Getting up close and personal with wildlife is often a highlight for tourists 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 be exploited for tourism. For example, in Thailand, elephant sanctuaries rent elephants and use the term “sanctuary” to make it seem like they are elephant rescues. 

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. 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 reviews. Another way to engage in responsible wildlife tourism is to opt only for animal encounters without 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 it has been specifically trained to do that.

If you want to visit animals responsibly, choose observation experiences only. Safaris that have you watch animals from afar is 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 learning by talking with locals and listening to what they say. One great way to do this is by talking with your tour guides. Ask them questions!

Know it’s not always going to be perfect

One key thing I struggle with is constantly trying to travel sustainably in every way, shape, and form. This leads to a mental battle of trying to do everything sustainably, and sometimes you can’t avoid fossil fuels and the consumption of natural resources.

Don’t let that instill a guilty conscience in yourself. The most important part is instilling sound practices in everyday life, not just related to your travel experiences.

See Related Reasons Why Traveling is Important

Why Sustainable Travel is Important

As someone who values sustainable travel, I understand that it’s more than just an alluring concept; it is a necessity for the future of our planet. In this section, I’ll delve into the importance of sustainable travel and explore its environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural benefits.

Environmental Benefits

The primary motivation behind sustainable travel is undoubtedly its environmental benefits. By engaging in eco-friendly practices like conserving resources, reducing waste, and using public transportation, I know I am helping protect the environment and the fantastic destinations I visit.

Sustainable travel aims to reduce our negative impact on the environment and ecosystems we encounter, preserving these natural wonders for generations to come.

Another crucial aspect of sustainable travel is practicing environmental sustainability to mitigate climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions, which originate from travel-related activities like flights and hotel stays. By choosing eco-friendly accommodations and utilizing carbon offset programs, I feel assured that my travels are contributing less harm to the planet.

Socioeconomic Benefits

For me, sustainable travel is not just about the environment; it also encompasses the well-being of local communities. By supporting local businesses and engaging in fair-trade practices, I know that my travels contribute positively to the economic development of communities that may rely heavily on tourism as a source of income.

Moreover, sustainable travel means considering the working conditions and wages of those in the tourism and hospitality industries. This awareness helps promote fair labor standards, community development, and overall social welfare improvement in these destinations.

Cultural Preservation

One of the most critical aspects of sustainable travel revolves around supporting and preserving the natural and cultural heritage of places I visit. By engaging in responsible tourism practices such as respecting local customs, trying local cuisine, and learning about the history of these places, I feel that my presence as a traveler has become a little less intrusive and more educational.

Part of cultural preservation is prioritizing responsible interactions with heritage sites and engaging in ethical tourism experiences. Through these values, I hope to contribute to preserving diverse cultures while enjoying authentic connections with communities.

Eco-Friendly Accommodations

As a conscious traveler, I understand the importance of finding sustainable accommodations to reduce my environmental footprint. In this section, let me share the types of eco-friendly accommodations available for eco-minded travelers like myself. These include green hotels, eco-lodges, and homestays.

Green Hotels

Inside 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, New York
Management / Booking.com

Green hotels have consciously committed to sustainable practices, integrating energy efficiency, water conservation, and environmentally-friendly construction and operations.

One example of a green hotel is 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, a LEED Gold Certified property that sources local and sustainable materials for its public spaces and guest rooms. They even have a green wall in the lobby where plants and vines help ease the city’s frenzy.

More and more travelers are looking for such hotels, as evidenced by an increase in demand for sustainable accommodations from 62% in 2016 to over 81%, according to Booking.com’s Sustainable Travel Report.

Eco-Lodges

Eco-Friendly Cave Lodge, Tham Lod, Thailand
Ai / Adobe Stock

Eco-lodges offer sustainable travel accommodations where guests can appreciate and experience nature responsibly. They often preserve local ecosystems, and their design minimizes the environmental impact of their construction and daily operations.

A great example is Calilo, a 30-suite luxury resort on the unspoiled island of Ios in the Greek Cyclades. This family-owned property was created with sustainability and ecotourism at the heart of its ethos.

Homestays

Homestays enable guests to stay with locals in their homes, offering a unique and low-impact way to experience the local culture and environment. By staying with locals, we contribute directly to the local economy while reducing the environmental cost of our travel.

Homestays can range from a single room in a family home to entire apartments or houses. These accommodations help us not only to tread lightly on the environment but also to make meaningful connections with local communities.

The Future of Sustainable Tourism

In recent years, sustainable travel has gained significant attention in the tourism industry, with more travelers wanting to reduce their environmental impact while exploring the world. As a result, we can expect to see several trends emerging shortly in sustainable travel.

First off, there seems to be a growing demand for eco-friendly accommodations. Booking.com’s 2022 Sustainable Travel report indicates that 33% of travelers choose sustainable accommodations to enjoy a locally relevant experience, and 31% believe sustainable properties treat the community better.

This growing demand can lead to a rise in community-based tourism initiatives and locally-owned businesses prioritizing sustainability and fair practices. Another trend is the increased awareness of climate change and the role that travel plays in it. Many travelers are now more conscious about their carbon footprint.

They are seeking ways to offset it by choosing greener modes of transport or participating in programs supporting carbon capture and offset initiatives.

Following this, airlines and other transport providers might invest more in alternative fuels and efficient technologies to reduce emissions. In addition, many travelers are now prioritizing local experiences and community engagement, which can favorably impact the local economy.

Lastly, the problem of greenwashing, or marketing a product as environmentally friendly when it is not, is becoming more prevalent. As sustainable travel becomes more popular, it’s crucial to be well-informed and discerning when choosing truly sustainable options. This may lead to more robust certification systems and guidelines for sustainable travel.

Many of the tips above are simple ones to get started with. Start by introducing one or two new practices, 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 change.

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

FAQs

What is the most sustainable form of travel?

The most sustainable form of travel is often considered to be slow travel. Slow travel is a philosophy that emphasizes connection to local cultures, environments, and economies, often involving longer stays in fewer destinations and using low-impact modes of transport. This form of travel reduces carbon emissions, supports local economies, and promotes cultural exchange, making it a highly sustainable choice.

How can I travel more ethically?

Traveling more ethically is about making conscious choices that respect the environment, local cultures, and economies. This can be achieved by choosing sustainable modes of transport, supporting local businesses, respecting cultural norms and traditions, and minimizing waste. Additionally, ethical travelers should avoid activities that exploit animals or people and should seek to contribute positively to the communities they visit.

Can travel ever be sustainable?

Yes, travel can be sustainable. Sustainable travel is about minimizing the negative impacts of tourism on the environment, society, and economy while maximizing positive contributions. This can be achieved through various means, such as choosing eco-friendly accommodations, supporting local businesses, reducing waste, and respecting local cultures and environments. While making travel completely sustainable is challenging, every effort helps make a positive difference.

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.

Erin
WRITTEN BY

Erin

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.

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