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Last Updated on 20/03/2021

Sustainable travel should be the only way to travel. The world is a place full of mystery and adventure that human beings have been exploring since the beginning but it only has a finite number of resources.

Sadly, so much of the travel industry isn’t sustainable from cruises to flights, to all-inclusive resorts, overtourism and pollution. In fact, tourism is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions and now with climate change a very real threat to the survival of the planet as we know it, this needs to change. 

Sustainable travel, which is often tied together with responsible travel, green travel and eco-tourism, 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. Here’s how it works: 

READ MORE: 9 People Changing the Face of Responsible Travel in 2019

What is sustainable travel and how do we benefit from it? 

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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 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 untouched beauty, healthy ecosystems and diverse communities. 

I’ve gone into detail about the difference between sustainable travel and ecotourism here. 

The three pillars of sustainability 

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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 wherever you go, 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, 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. 

READ MORE: What Is Carbon Offsetting and Does It Really Work?

15 Ways to be a sustainable traveller 

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We can’t make sustainable travel become the norm overnight but we can work together to change the impact that travel and tourism have on the planet for the better. Here are 15 ways to be a sustainable traveller: 

1. Transport

Get creative with your transport. Travelling by train can save up to 90% of CO2 emissions in comparison with air travel. 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. 

2. Slow travel 

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. 

3. Fly less 

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. 

READ MORE: No-Fly Holidays: London to Barcelona by Bus (Review)

4. Fly direct

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. 

A hut in the middle of rice paddies with two children walking up to it.

5. Stay in locally owned accommodation

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.

Having said that, 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. 

6. Green key hotels 

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.

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 its green accreditations.

Here’s a list of awesome budget and eco-friendly stays from around the world. 

7. Green tour operators

Choose a tour operator that’s passionate about protecting and preserving the destination it operates in (here are 10 of the best). Research their green credentials before booking and look for accreditations such as Green Globe, EarthCheck, Rainforest Alliance, Green Tourism Business Scheme and GSTC to help inform you. 

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. 

8. Responsible wildlife tourism 

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 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 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 MORE: How to Pick the ULTIMATE Ethical Activity

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9. Eat locally 

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 – contributing to carbon emissions. 

10. Buy souvenirs from local artisans

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. 

11. Avoid animal products 

Avoid any souvenirs that have been made out of animal products such as fur, bones or feathers as it 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 which 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. 

READ MORE: 7 Ways to be an Ethical Traveller

Tiger and her cub lying down together.

12. Pack light

Sustainable travel is 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. Use packing cubes and self-sealing vacuum bags to save space. Plan your wardrobe. Mixing and matching your outfits is a much more effective technique than cramming everything in and hoping for the best (I’ve been there so if you need some pointers here’s my guide to packing a carry-on for anywhere in the world).

13. Pack eco-friendly essentials 

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 each year and 95% of it is plastic. It would be unfair to put all the blame on tourists, however. 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.

Try to swap out single-use plastics for more eco-friendly alternatives such as solid toiletries instead of mini bottles and a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one. Pack a few essentials that will save you from using single-use plastic abroad like a set of reusable cutlery, a shopping bag, a reusable cup and a high-quality water filter bottle. 

14. Research before you go 

Sustainable tourism is not just up to us but the more we favour more sustainable businesses while we’re abroad, the bigger message we will send to others. Research the hotels you’re planning to book, ask questions about the tour operators and let businesses know that sustainability is important to you.

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. 

Man sitting outside with his laptop.

15. Spread the word 

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.

Sustainable travel should be the rule, not the exception. It may be growing and bigger than ever before but we still have a long way to go before the tourism industry can be called sustainable.  

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