Sustainable travel starts with your packing list. Each item you choose to take with you has an impact on the planet whether it's your clothes or the...
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The natural world is a place of mystery and adventure that human beings have been exploring since the beginning – but it only has a finite number of resources.
As a travel and nature lover, my impact on the places I visit is always on my mind. However, I believe that if done responsibly, travel can be a force for good. Sustainable travel, which is often tied together with responsible travel, green travel and ecotourism, supports the idea of conscious travel and being mindful of how our actions abroad affect others.
It encompasses the idea of minimising the negative impact that travel can have on the environment by transforming it into something positive for the local communities and economies. By making some key changes, anyone can be a sustainable traveller. This epic list of sustainable travel tips will show you how!
The World Tourism Organisation defines sustainable travel as:
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of its visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Sustainable travel essentially means travelling in a way that minimises our negative impact on the planet. This includes taking care not to harm or commodify the destination’s cultural and natural environments so that they can be maintained long-term.
It’s about ensuring that tourism is beneficial to the destination it operates in for generations to come. Being a sustainable traveller helps us to continue exploring and taking enjoyment from the planet while preserving its precious beauty, healthy ecosystems and diverse communities.
Sadly, so much of the travel industry isn’t sustainable from cruises to flights, all-inclusive resorts, overtourism and a lot of pollution. In fact, tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions and now with climate change being a very real threat to the survival of the planet as we know it, this needs to drastically change.
What’s more, the tourism industry has its fair share of unethical practices including wildlife and human exploitation. Although much has been done to raise awareness of these issues – like travel companies banning elephant rides, for example – many of these practices still go on.
Sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future of other generations to meet theirs. The concept is divided into 3 founding principles which come together to create ‘The Three Pillars of Sustainability:’
Economic Pillar: Traditionally, the economic pillar applies to a corporation’s ability to make a sustainable profit and how it aligns its values to the needs of the community.
We can still apply the economic pillar to travel by aligning it to the way we spend our money on the road. By financially supporting local businesses that are transparent about their values we can ensure that our money is funnelled directly into the local economy.
Environmental Pillar: This pillar gets the most attention. It’s what commonly comes to mind when we think of sustainability. It’s all about reducing our negative impact on the planet and wildlife.
To travel sustainably we need to decrease our carbon footprint as much as possible. This means flying less, using greener modes of transport, having shorter showers, using less energy and cutting down on waste.
Try to recycle or go zero waste, cut down on your meat consumption and stay in accommodation that has strong sustainable goals and initiatives.
Social Pillar: The social pillar is all about our impact on the local communities we visit. This includes respecting the local culture and avoiding businesses that might contribute to human rights abuses such as human trafficking and modern slavery.
Instead, support businesses that employ local people and treat them fairly. Get involved with community tourism projects and educate yourself about the country’s values and traditions before you visit.
Keep reading to find out how to put these pillars into practice with my top sustainable travel tips!
Sustainable tourism is not just up to us but the more we favour sustainable businesses while we’re abroad, the bigger message we will send to others. So, research the hotels you’re planning to book, ask questions about the tour operators and let businesses know that sustainability is important to you.
Ultimately, support those who are transparent about their sustainability goals and initiatives. We might not be able to make the travel industry greener overnight but as consumers, we have the power to put our money where it matters and make it count.
Being a sustainable traveller starts with the contents of your packing list. Everything you take with you, no matter how small, can have a huge impact on the environment over time. Even the amount you take plays a part.
I don’t recommend throwing out what you already have. It’s always a good idea to reuse as much as possible. However, if you do want to make a few key switches, some sustainable swaps can save you money in the long run too!
Sustainable travel can be as simple as packing light when you go abroad. Instead of packing an enormous suitcase that will need to go into the hold on your flight, take a carry-on. The more weight trains, planes and cars have to carry the more fuel they burn which means more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere.
Take a carry-on and train yourself to pack light. Start taking solid toiletries instead of mini bottles – they last longer so they’re far more economical. Use packing cubes and self-sealing vacuum bags to save space (honestly, these are an absolute lifesaver for a guilty over-packer like me. They’re also pretty handy if you’re travelling solo and can’t rely on a grudging companion to take a few extra bits of yours!).
Plan your wardrobe. Mixing and matching your outfits is a much more effective technique than cramming everything in and hoping for the best. Trust me, I’ve been there. If you need some pointers, here’s my guide to packing a carry-on for anywhere in the world.
Editor’s Tip: The key to your packing success is all in the travel bag you take. You need a trusty sidekick that will be there for you and keep your items safe through thick and thin.
I personally love Osprey Europe’s Fairview 40L for women (there’s a men’s version too – Farpoint!). It has so many compartments and it’s sturdy. What’s more, Osprey Europe will repair rather than replace if it’s in warranty under their ‘All Mighty Guarantee.’ Not bad for an eco-friendly travel bag!
What you pack is as important as how much you pack. A report by WWF found that tourists cause a 40% surge in waste entering the Mediterranean sea each year and 95% of it is plastic. It wouldn’t be fair to put all the blame on tourists though.
Many of us go to a country unfamiliar with the waste management systems if indeed we can find them. That’s why it’s important to limit waste from the start!
Pack a few essentials that will save you from using single-use plastic abroad like a set of reusable bamboo cutlery, a shopping bag, a reusable cup and a high-quality water filter bottle you can rely on for safe drinking water anywhere in the world. Think about the money you save not buying single-use plastic water bottles wherever you go!
Check out my complete sustainable travel packing list for tips on what to bring.
As a nature lover, I’m always torn between wanting to explore as many beautiful places around the world as possible and wondering about the damage I’m unwittingly inflicting.
Luckily, more and more destinations around the world are realising the benefits of sustainable travel and how it can have a positive impact on the environment, local communities and the economy. Below are a few destinations that use tourism to put people and nature first!
New Zealand: The country is an outdoor lover’s dream (and ideal for solo female travellers). There are over 10,000 protected areas, including reserves and 13 national parks. New Zealanders know how to protect their natural assets too. Ecotourism is the fastest growing sector in the tourism industry!
Fiji: Picture perfect Fiji has islands galore. One particular archipelago, the Yasawas, have been practising sustainable tourism for 30 years – since the first resorts were built there. Most of them have fairly low carbon footprints. Unsurprising when they use electricity at night only and hot water heated by the sun!
Costa Rica: Tropical Costa Rica is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity so it goes without saying that it’s a world leader in conservation. More than 11% of the country are protected national parks and reserves.
Palau: This tiny country has been making waves on the sustainable travel scene. Every visitor must sign the Palau Pledge and vow to protect the nation’s environment. Non-reef safe sunscreen is banned here and Palau is well on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral destination.
Iceland: This country is particularly lucky when it comes to clean energy. An enormous 75% of its total energy consumption comes from hydroelectric and geothermal plants. Pretty convenient assets!
As mentioned, what you do on your travels can have a huge impact. By opting for ethical activities, you can help support the local economy, take a stand against animal cruelty and even keep families together. Here’s how to find sustainable and ethical things to do in the destinations you visit.
Tours are a great way to explore a destination if you’re a solo traveller or want to meet new people. The right one will give you a much deeper understanding of the places you visit too.
My top tips would be to choose a travel company that’s passionate about protecting and preserving the destination they operate in (click here to discover 11 that do). Research their green credentials before booking. Key accreditations to look out for include:
You’re unlikely to find a bad review on their website so read reviews on third party sites such as Tripadvisor to see what kind of negative feedback they get and how they respond to it.
Study how the tours are being portrayed on the website and on social media. Have a look at what’s being offered and stay clear of visits to orphanages and suspect wildlife attractions.
Editor’s Tip: One of my favourite travel companies is Intrepid Travel because all their tours focus on authentic and experiential travel. They have small-group tours to suit a variety of interests from food to wellness and adventure. They also do expeditions to Antarctica! Another one is Byway. They create bespoke no-fly itineraries around the UK and some parts of Europe. No cars or flights needed.
Avoid animal attractions that advertise close encounters with animals as they may be unethical. Touching, holding or getting up close and personal with an animal is usually a bad sign, especially if they’re wild or usually unfamiliar with human contact.
Opt instead for wildlife attractions that allow you to observe the animal in its natural habitat at a safe and respectful distance.
If you’re unsure about whether a wildlife attraction is ethical or not, ask yourself these questions:
If you go snorkelling or scuba diving, be careful not to touch or tread on the coral as it could damage the already fragile ecosystem. Coral reefs are threatened on a global scale due to overfishing and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming.
Coral reefs are disappearing twice as fast as rainforests. 5% is already damaged beyond repair with another 35% set to disappear within the next 10-40 years!
If we want to preserve our beautiful coral reefs then responsible snorkelling and scuba diving is a must. Go in smaller groups to avoid overcrowding and don’t try to feed or touch the fish. Wear a mineral-based water-resistant reef-safe sunscreen both in and out of the water.
Reef-safe sunscreens usually contain non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which are both approved as effective sunscreen actives by the FDA.
Harmful chemicals in sunscreen to avoid include oxybenzone and octinoxate which are known to bleach coral reefs. Read my guide to zero waste and reef safe sunscreens here.
If you go camping, backpacking or hiking, always make sure to stick to the Leave No Trace code of ethics. They help you stay safe whilst reducing your environmental impact as much as possible. In short, they are:
Buy local handmade souvenirs to take home instead of imported souvenirs that have been flown in. It’s better for the environment, the local businesses and makes for a far more meaningful token to remember your trip by.
Avoid any souvenirs that have been made out of animal products such as fur, bones or feathers as they could be contributing to the illegal wildlife trade. Wildlife crime not only impacts critically endangered animals such as rhinos, elephants and tigers to name a few, but it also runs on dangerous international networks.
Wildlife trafficking is akin to arms and drugs in its notoriety. It’s a lucrative business that is estimated to be worth billions of dollars by the experts at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Illegal wildlife trade threatens the future survival of many wildlife species second only to the destruction of their habitat!
Ecotourism refers to a specific type of travel that focuses primarily on conservation and the natural world. It’s essentially tourism that takes an active role in preserving the environment.
If you’re passionate about the outdoors, one of my top sustainable travel tips is to add some ecotourism-specific activities to your itinerary. Join locally run small-group tours that consider their impact and teach you about conservation. Again, Intrepid Travel and G Adventures are perfect examples.
Another way to support ecotourism is staying in ecolodges and eco resorts. They go above and beyond to ensure that their accommodation is cohesive with the natural and environment and benefits the local community.
Share your sustainable travel experiences. Talk about the ecolodges you stayed at, the responsible tours you joined and the ethical animal attractions you experienced to your friends, family, colleagues, social media and blogs.
Spread the word about sustainable travel because the more people hear about it the bigger it will get. Knowledge is the key to making a real difference.
‘Greenwashing’ is a marketing ploy that targets our well-intentioned desires to be more sustainable and ethical.
Any travel company can say they’re ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ or a ‘sanctuary’ to make us feel better and make them a more attractive choice when in reality, they’re anything but!
The greenwashing problem is rife in every industry. Distinguishing the genuine companies from the pretenders is tricky. If you want some tips on how to navigate through it, check out my guide to finding ethical activities abroad.
Changing how you travel can have a big impact. Here are a few ways to cut down your carbon footprint through the modes of transport you choose.
Get creative with your transport. Travelling by train can save up to 90% of CO2 emissions in comparison with air travel.
If trains aren’t the most practical solution for you (they can be more expensive and time-consuming!), try to use the most sustainable forms of transport when you’re at your destination.
Explore on foot or go by bike if you can. Make use of public transport and minibuses and take the bus or join a ride-share for longer distances.
Try travelling in the slow lane and take the time to get to know a destination rather than racing from place to place. Slow travel helps to mitigate the negative effects of air travel because it gives you a deeper cultural experience of the destination you’re visiting.
You become more familiar with your surroundings, you stay in local guesthouses, eat more locally and support local businesses. For this reason, slow travel is considered low impact in comparison with standard tourism.
According to the International Air Transport Association, aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions and it’s one of the fastest-growing polluters.
A Guardian analysis found that a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries worldwide produces in a whole year!
Until the aviation industry goes greener, the simple solution would be to fly less. Take longer holidays with fewer flights per year rather than several short trips. Choose other modes of travel where possible and when you do have to fly opt for economy class as it’s less polluting than business class for the simple reason that you take up less space.
Carbon offsetting is another option. Click here to find out how to do it and the pros and cons to consider.
Choose the shortest and most direct flight to your destination. When you book connecting flights you have to fly a greater distance and takeoffs and landings are responsible for most of the flight’s carbon emissions.
Travel allows you to explore a world of fascinating flavours and delicious cuisines. The problem is we now have to consider what our food consumption is doing to the planet.
Don’t worry, there are a few simple steps you can take to make sure the food you’re eating is ethically and sustainably sourced whether you like to eat out or cook. I highly recommend you pack a lightweight lunch box for leftovers too. It’s an easy way to cut down on food waste!
Consider choosing more vegetarian or plant-based dishes when you travel. It’s a simple way to be more sustainable and reduce your carbon footprint.
The total emissions from global livestock is a staggering 7.1 Gigatonnes of CO2. The cattle industry has the biggest beef with the environment, contributing 65% of livestock emissions!
Eat like a local when you’re abroad. It’s cheaper and better for the environment because more often than not the ingredients are locally sourced.
When you’re not dining out, make use of the farmer’s markets instead of shopping at the big supermarket chains because the food would have been grown locally rather than shipped in which contributes to carbon emissions.
Editor’s Tip: One of the best ways to eat locally and get a culturally immersive experience is to join a food tour. You’ll get a much deeper understanding of the cuisine not to mention a whole array of delicious dishes to eat!
Sustainable accommodation doesn’t have to be expensive. From camping to glamping, ecolodges to eco hotels, there is a wide variety of sustainable places to stay around the world that suit a range of budgets. You just have to do a little more digging than usual to find them. I can help. Here are my top tips for finding sustainable places to stay wherever you go.
Editor’s Tip: I personally love CoolStays for finding eco-friendly accommodation. They have a stunning selection of unique places to stay around the world. Better still, they have a whole section dedicated to eco-friendly stays, making bookings a breeze!
Opt to stay in locally-owned accommodation including eco-hotels and ecolodges instead of all-inclusive big chain resorts. This is a guaranteed way to make sure that your money goes directly into the local economy, keeping small businesses alive and strengthening the community.
It’s worth noting that chain hotels aren’t always the enemy of sustainability. Boutique and green chain hotels are now on the rise and it’s because sustainability sells. Just make sure you don’t fall victim to greenwashing by researching the hotel’s accreditations and transparency policy!
The Green Key award is the leading standard for excellence in the field of environmental responsibility and sustainable operation within the tourism industry. The eco-label has been awarded to more than 3,100 hotels and other establishments in 60 countries.
Having said that, just because it doesn’t have a Green Key award it doesn’t mean it’s not sustainable! There are over 140 green certifications worldwide. If in doubt about the hotel’s sustainability initiatives, research what it’s doing to be more sustainable.
If you want a free digital copy of my ultimate sustainable travel guide with all my best tips to help you plan your future trips, let me know where to send it below!
As well as my complete sustainable travel guide, here is some more reading material on sustainable travel. I’ve included a combination of my favourite non-fiction, fiction and travel books.
The Tusk That Did The Damage: One of my favourite books of all time, Tania James’ novel is all about the conflicts between humans and the natural world. Set in Kerala, India, it gives a compelling argument for the ethical treatment of animals and each other.
Lonely Planet: Sustainable Escapes: If you’re in need of some sustainable travel destination inspiration, Lonely Planet has done the hard work for you with this guide to ‘the best eco-conscious travel experiences.’ There are nearly 180 escapes to choose from!
The Beach: This book is on just about every traveller’s reading list. Written by Alex Garland, this classic is inspired by the beaches of Thailand and teaches you about the incredible power of nature. I highly recommend giving it a read!
A Woman Alone: Travel Tales From Around The Globe: Perfect for solo female travellers, this book is divided into short stories by courageous women travellers all over the globe. It’s a thrilling and witty guide to understanding our cultural and social impact on the destinations we visit. All true stories too.
Going Local: Experiences And Encounters On The Road: Written by Nicholas Kontis, this book explores the meaning of modern-day travel beyond the bucket lists and Instagram-worthy places. If you want to immerse yourself in culture and real life experiences when you travel, this is the book for you.
Here’s a quick recap of all the sustainable travel tips we’ve covered.
Catch up on some of the latest blog posts about sustainable travel.
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