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What is Sustainable Travel? A Comprehensive Guide

December 14th, 2019 by Prontopia

Few of us have trekked across the globe without being changed by what we’ve experienced away from home. We travel for different reasons: to escape, to find ourselves, to learn, to adventure, to gain confidence, to feel small, to experience wonder, to aimlessly wander, to challenge ourselves. Traveling helps us gain a sense of perspective, learn new things about ourselves, and remember our common humanity.

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However, in order to preserve this freedom for ourselves and later generations, the way that we travel has to change – and that’s where sustainable travel comes in. What is sustainable travel? The sustainable travel movement is a part of the larger sustainability conversation and recognizes that the way we travel affects other people, cultures, and the planet.

We need to recognize that our planet and the people on it all make up a delicate ecosystem, and that we each play a role in the balance and health of that ecosystem. Traveling sustainably means minimizing the harmful effects of travel while maximizing its positive effects. Essentially, to travel sustainably, give more than you take, seek meaningful connections, and strive to see beyond your own experiences to the bigger picture.

What’s the Problem?

So we’ve established that there’s a problem with the way that we travel – it’s not sustainable. We can’t actually keep traveling the way we are – overcrowding destinations, using non-renewable resources, depleting local economies – without destroying the places that we love.

People Travel – A Lot

In 2014, there were over 1.2 billion international arrivals for business and leisure. It’s estimated that by 2030, there will be over 1.8 billion.

Strain on Local Economies

Many popular destinations from Banff National Park to Venice experience the realities of overtourism, a term coined in 2012. Overtourism has less to do with the number of tourists in a place at one time, and more to do with the the specific location’s size and ability to handle them.

There are many reasons that excessive crowds cause problems. On the surface, there’s the physical overcrowding of streets, public transportation, and tourist sites. But beyond the social component, too many people in a location at once poses problems for the ecology and environment of locations we should be preserving. Excessive traffic causes erosion of historical and natural sites in a way that may be impossible to recover from.

Ceasing travel altogether is not the solution. Many economies depend heavily on tourism, and to shut down the opportunity for connection, global understanding, and knowledge benefits no one.

So how can we travel in a way that minimizes these negative impacts – easing the strain of overtourism, using resources more effectively, and seeking meaningful connection while we travel?

What Does it Mean to Travel Sustainably?


Traveling, by nature, increases our carbon footprint – especially when we fly, go on cruises, or drive long distances. That’s why many travelers are embracing the concept of slow travel. A slow traveler takes slower modes of transportation, stays in one place longer, and generally seeks to know one place well instead of speeding through a trip.

Increasingly, zero-waste travel is making its way mainstream, and with it a swath of innovative products designed to help travelers minimize their single-use plastic waste. From collapsible water bottles to lightweight reusable bags, there are many ways to nix your plastic use on the road.

Respecting animals is another part of the environmental aspect of sustainable travel. Animals all over the world are often used in exhibits and demonstrations that are actually harmful to them (like elephant rides and snake charming). If animals are outside of their natural habitats or show any signs of abuse, choose a different activity.

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Travel offers the opportunity to invest in local economies. Unfortunately, mass tourism creates a reality in which the large bulk of the money you spend on your trip often stays outside of the country you’re visiting – in global corporations, airlines, hotels, and more.

Sustainable and responsible economical travel changes that reality. By staying in small, locally-owned accommodations, supporting local artisans, eating at local restaurants, and more, you can transfer the money you spend to go directly into the local economy.

Here’s a quick check: if you’re spending all your money in one place (like a resort) or before your trip has begun (in pre-packaged deals), your money is likely not benefitting the local economy.


Traveling is as much about the people as it is the place. Tourism provides 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, and at its best, tourism can bring positive experiences, connection, and understanding.

At its worst, though, travel can bring a sad picture. Many indigenous cultures have been eroded due to globalization, locals have been driven off their land, and communities have been exposed to sex trafficking and exploitation.

It’s important to remember that our travel destinations don’t exist for our pleasure. They are places full of all kinds of history, and we are guests in a culture different from our own. That demands respect, curiosity, and humility.

Do your research about the culture that you are visiting prior to your arrival to be a respectful traveler. This will give a better sense of how to pack and how to act. Learn some basic phrases – “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, in the local language to help you navigate and express politeness. Dress according to the norms in the country you’re visiting out of respect – especially when visiting cultural or religious sites. This will also help you blend into crowds.

Always ask to take pictures of anyone. People are beautiful, but no matter where you’re traveling, they may not appreciate being photographed while going about day-to-day activities. Asking prior to taking someone’s photograph is also a way to strike up a conversation.

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How Far We’ve Come: The Move Towards Sustainable Travel

Public opinion regarding sustainability, and sustainable travel in particular, has clearly shifted. This year’s Climate Strike rallied environmental supporters all over the world.

Though there are more flights departing daily than there ever have been, according to the Independent, every generation of aircraft consumes about 20-25 percent less fuel than its predecessor. Increasingly, airlines are investing in biofuel development, and electric planes are in the works.

Airports, additionally, are seeking to reduce their footprint. From water refill stations, recyclable cups from Starbucks in the London Gatwick airport, a plastic ban in the San Francisco airport, and Air New Zealand’s edible plan-based coffee cups.

And while cruises get a bad rap for, well, most things (massive sewage dumps, the production of sulphur dioxide, worsening overtourism in major ports, etc.), there have been improvements in the industry, as well. A big change? A silicon-based paint applied to the hulls that allow ships to glide more easily through the water and thus reducing fuel usage.

In the world of accommodations, plastic-bans are sweeping the hotel industry. Single-use plastic straws will be banned in Europe by 2021. Hostelling International USA is the first hostel company to employ the use of “smart showers”, cutting showers off at seven minutes. This may sound insignificant, but just thirty seconds off each guests’ shower would save one million gallons of water each year. The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina has implemented a food waste program that converts half-eaten leftover food into reusable water (and has created 944 gallons to date).

Luxury travel operators worldwide are beginning to adopt the trend of giving back to their communities. This article shares how True Colombia Travel partners with nonprofits and community groups; how Coral Gardeners offers eco-tours of nature-filled Tahiti; how Careyes built their bungalows sustainably in Mexico and contributes through their charitable arm, the Careyes Foundation; and how Wilderness Safaris, a long-time safari operator, is committed to an operational blueprint consisting of commerce, community, culture, and conservation.

What positive changes have you noticed?

The Sustainable Development Goals: A Benchmark

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide a measurable framework for impact-focused companies and individuals to align their practices with. The goals were created at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. According to the United Nation‘s website, “The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world”.

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The goals all connect with one another – that is, success in one area naturally lifts up other areas. And they cover issues that affect everyone, all over the world. In essence, these goals provide a framework for global unity on pressing issues that affect everyone. With the help of these guidelines, it’s no longer a mystery where our time and resources should be spent, and what exactly “being sustainable” really means.

Both companies and individuals are taking the goals up.

Green-Colored Glasses: Recognizing Greenwashing and Making Smart Decisions

Just like labels in a grocery story, environmental labels like “eco” and “green” can be deceiving as they aren’t monitored or backed by any regulations. “Greenwashing” is a term to describe when companies spend more time or money on promoting their environmental efforts than actually implementing practices to minimize their environmental impact. In travel, this also applies to companies who make it seem like their operations are more environmentally friendly than they really are.

Historically, many companies have made outrageous claims about their dedication to the environment while simultaneously failing to change their damaging behavior. A great example of this is Chevron’s “The People Do” campaign, which ran while it violated the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and spilled oil in wildlife refuges.

As travelers increasingly begin to incorporate sustainability initiatives into their travel purchasing decisions, some companies see the “green” or “eco” label as an easy opportunity for profit without actually making any changes. With so many tour companies, hotels, and restaurants claiming to be “eco-friendly”, how should travelers determine which ones to choose?

Here are some questions to ask if you’re trying to determine if a company is legitimately working towards sustainable practices, or if they are simply using labels to boost their brand:

  • Does the company employ local people?

  • If the company is a tour, do they have a “Leave No Trace?” policy?

  • Does the company buy locally sourced products?

  • Is the company involved in any community-based initiatives?

  • Is it possible to substantiate any of the company’s claims?

  • Are the environmental claims the company is making vague or meaningless?

Additionally, look for labels that are verified by a trusted third party. If you’re uncertain, look it up on Ecolabel Index, which is a global directory that tracks over 400 eco-labels in 197 countries.

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What Can You Do?

The good news is that your actions matter – the way you travel, the way you talk, and the example that you set for others. There are a lot of easy and practical ways to adopt a more sustainable way of traveling that leaves places better than you found them, and it doesn’t mean your trips need to be less incredible. In fact, you may be surprised by the things you learn as you strive to make positive changes to our global ecosystem.

Stray off the beaten path. You will find places you never expected, and you will be able to purchase souvenirs and eat amazing food in local-owned businesses.

Travel in the off-season. Peak season varies place-to-place, but it’s generally late spring to late summer.

Use local transportation. It’s nearly always cheaper, and it’s a great way to interact with locals and get to know your geography.

Avoid single-use plastic. Carry a reusable water bottle that you can fill up at restaurants or water fountains. Bring reusable bags for shopping, and small reusable containers or bags for food and snacks.

Aim to make your holiday travel more green. Christmas is a filled with meaningful traditions, but it’s also the most wasteful time of the year. There are lots of creative ways to make your Christmas more green.

Ask questions, and listen more than you talk. There is so much to learn in a new environment, and you are surrounded by teachers.

Finally, set a good example. People are inspired by people close to them making positive changes. Tell people around you why you’re making changes, what makes you care, and how easy it is to take steps towards sustainable travel. Share this page as a resource if they have any questions!

Sustainable Travel Resources


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Chris and Hayley of EcoLust (defined as “an insatiable desire to live sustainably”) lived fairly regular lives – until they began to realize that the way they were living was harming the planet. They committed to change and adopted an increasingly sustainable, digital nomadic existence, all while producing a podcast and acting as a resource for those looking to travel and live more sustainably, as well. Catch their podcast here for personal stories, travel tips, and inspiration – and join their Facebook community, while you’re at it!

Responsible Travel’s Overtourism Map

Responsible Travel’s interactive map provides a visual outline of locations that are struggling with the strain caused by overtourism. These locations range from cities like Paris, to specific monuments like the Statue of Liberty. You can even click on each alert to read an article.

Ethical Traveler’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations for 2019

“Every year, Ethical Traveler reviews the policies and practices of hundreds of nations in the developing world. We then select the ten that are doing the most impressive job of promoting human rights, preserving the environment, and supporting social welfare—all while creating a lively, community-based tourism industry. By visiting these countries, we can use our economic leverage to reward good works and support best practices.” CREST Trends & Statistics 2018

Unite to Light

Every traveler knows the struggle of having your phones battery creep lower when you need it. Luckily, you can charge your phone and give back at the same time. Unite to Light is a Santa Barbara based nonprofit that provides solar-powered lights to people who don’t have access to electricity, empowering midwives, students, disaster victims, and more. You can purchase a solar-powered phone charger (which doubles as a flashlight) that charges your phone up to four times, and Unite to Light will donate a light to someone who needs it. If you like, you can also donate light directly to those in need.

This Carbon Offset Calculator from Co2nsensus

You know that traveling increases your carbon footprint, but until now, that was just a vague idea. This calculator was designed to provide a user-friendly way to figure out what impact your trip has on your carbon footprint, and then offers the ability to donate to projects aimed at offsetting carbon.

Updated: November 2019.


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