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Sustainable Travel: 10 Helpful Considerations For More Environmentally and Socially Conscious Tourism

Cheap travel, rising incomes and an increasingly globalized world have made getting to know more places on our planet easier than ever before.
sustainable travel is about minimizing your ecological footprint

This is why an understanding of and an insistence upon sustainable travel is so critical. 

As someone who has been traveling constantly for the better part of a decade, I have seen firsthand the effects that mass and careless tourism have on places around the world–especially in biodiversity hotspots in SE Asia and Latin America.

I have put that experience, as well as years of reading and writing about the global tourism and hospitality industry, into the below article. The aim of the article is straightforward: to be a guide for two types of travelers.

The first is the person who understands that there is a difference between sustainable travel and other types of travel and tourism. The second person is someone who travels often, is aware of many of the global environmental issues facing the planet and humanity, but who may not fully grasp the effect their travel habits have on the world. 

Understanding that many of the most beautiful places in the world are under increasing strain from the constant flow of tourism and that a great many locales and countries rely on tourism for economic prosperity, the article is broken down into ten sections. Some are purely informational; others are inducements to do or stop doing something. They include: 

Think About How You Travel

Thinking about how you travel means deciding upon the form of transportation you use to get from A to B. Different means of travel have vastly different carbon footprints, with air travel contributing 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions and responsible for the majority of an individual traveler’s carbon footprint. 

For the sake of full disclosure and to avoid hypocrisy, I must admit that I have traveled by air a lot over the past several years. I have tried to live minimistically otherwise, but the bottom line is that if you travel by air on a regular basis, and you consider yourself someone with an environmental conscience, your air travel is your biggest demerit. 

You can, however, choose to do things like travel by train, bus or ride-share if you don’t have to cross oceans. You can also take some solace in the fact that in 2021, airlines with international routes were compelled to offset their CO2 emissions per the UN’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.

Support Local Businesses and People

Sustainable travel is about trying to do things in ways that minimize and maximize your negative and positive impacts, respectively, on both the natural environment and local people. 

It could even be argued that the social component of your sustainable travel is, perhaps, more important than the environmental one because the material conditions of a place have such a large impact on how the ecology is treated by local people. The often-invoked Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that human beings are unlikely to care about things like conservation if their daily physiological needs are not being met. 

Instead of supporting environmentally disastrous, massive multinational hotel conglomerates headquartered in tax havens, put that money to use in local boutique or family-run hotels, guest houses and homestays. If you are interested in nature travel and wildlife tourism, consider supporting local, community-based tourism that funnels the proceeds back into the local economy. 

Don’t Participate in Irresponsible Wildlife Tourism 

Sustainable travel and a lot of what passes for wildlife tourism around the world are simply incompatible. A good question to ask yourself any time you are contemplating an experience with an animal is: is this in the best interests of the animal? 

Many of the experiences involving tigers, elephants, dolphins and monkeys are unequivocally not. Anything where you suspect an animal may be drugged or in any other way incapacitated is animal cruelty. On an entirely different level of cruel would be something like drinking civet coffee.

If you find yourself in a place like Indonesia or Thailand, it is quite common for locals to put on “snake” shows for curious tourists. Snakes are often captured from the wild, kept in dirty, inadequate enclosures where their needs aren’t met, and pulled out several times a day to be harassed and goaded into defensively striking for the amusement of viewers. The process is typically repeated until the snake dies (from stress, disease, malnourishment, etc.)

Mind Your Foodprint

Your foodprint is the ecological and environmental damage that can be attributed to what you eat and being mindful of it is an essential part of sustainable travel. 

At this point, most educated people are likely aware of the impact of cattle farming on the planet. In almost any South American country with Amazonian rainforest, for example, you can be sure that cattle ranching is the number one cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss. 

The seafood you choose to eat also factors heavily into your sustainable travel. Unsustainable fishing is devastating the world’s oceans and it is getting to the point where it is difficult to make sustainable seafood consumption decisions. 

The marine ecosystems in many coastal tourist destinations, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, are being pillaged to feed seafood-hungry tourists.  

If you are sincere about more sustainable travel now and in the future, you will likely have to resist the temptation to indulge in certain foods while abroad. 

Be Aware of Greenwashing

Sustainable travel is also about knowing how to spot and evaluate the various sustainability and “greenwashing” efforts and scams. I’ve stayed many places over the years that have used the word “eco” (the implication being “eco-friendly”), for instance, that were anything but. From hotels to hostels to “eco” lodges, it was clear at many of these places that the “eco” in the title was simply the owner cashing in on a fad. 

You show up and find a gardener dousing plants in pesticide and half a dozen cats wandering the premises, terminating everything small enough to fit in their mouths. 

There are plenty of other “greenwashing” tactics that go on in the tourism and hospitality industry that you can look out for as well. If you know how to spot the lip service, as well as what is conspicuously missing from a hotel or resort’s corporate social responsibility page and mission statement, you will up your sustainable travel IQ. Questions to ask yourself include: 

  • Does the place recognize or align itself with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
  • What is their energy use policy like (where do they get their energy from)?
  • How do they treat water consumption? Do they have low-flow showers and low-consumption toilets, and do they recycle greywater?
  • Does the business mention how much waste gets sent to the landfill? Do they mention concepts like “circular economy” and “closed-loop system”? 
  • How integrated into the local community and culture is the establishment? 
  • Do the building and grounds seem in harmony with nature or are there glaring things like huge expanses of impossibly green, heavily watered turf and grass everywhere? Do their gardens contain native plants? What kind of alternations or damage has been done to the surrounding coastline and freshwater bodies? 

Sustainable Travel Means Avoiding Over-Tourism

The world is currently in the middle of an over-tourism crisis, making sustainable travel and education more of a necessity than ever before. Low-cost air carriers and an explosion of people throughout the developing world into the middle class over the last couple of decades are putting tremendous strain on many of the planet’s most beautiful locales. 

Perhaps the most iconic example of the ills of mass tourism is Thailand’s Maya Bay. 

This beautiful island in the Andaman Sea was the shooting location for the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” and since then it has become one of the most frequented tourist destinations in Thailand. The effects have been devastating.

Tourist trash, boat noise, oil and gasoline pollution, coral damage from boat anchors and the ecosystem disturbance caused by thousands of people visiting each day eventually prompted the Thai government to close the island entirely a number of years ago. It only just reopened in 2021. 

Thailand is far from the only global tourist destination suffering because of mass tourism. Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Santorini, Greece, Barcelona, Spain, Iceland, Islands throughout the Philippines, Bali, Machu Pichu and myriad other places around the world are plagued by inconsiderate, irresponsible tourists. 

None of this is to say that you can’t go to and enjoy these places. But understanding what mass and over-tourism are and how to minimize your part in it is important to developing sustainable travel skills and knowledge. 

Be Better With Your Plastic Use

The World Economic Forum believes that by mid-century, at current rates of plastic use, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, by weight. That same report contends that plastic use has increased 20-fold in the last 5 decades and will likely double again over the next 20. 

The amount of plastic that we choose and are forced to use in our daily lives in developed countries is sickening enough. But anyone who has ever spent a considerable amount of time in the global south knows this pales in comparison to the situation in places like Asia and Latin America. 

Combine this with inadequate or non-existent waste management and you have the ecological catastrophe that is unfolding. Some 80 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans, for instance, originates in Asian rivers. 

In places like SE Asia and Latin America, because water tends not to be potable in many major cities and because it is commonplace to receive a plastic bag with almost anything you purchase, you have to be diligent about saying no and reducing your plastic use. 

Learn how to say “no plastic bag” in the local language any time you travel somewhere new. Always travel with a recyclable grocery bag. Travel with a metal straw. Remember that one of your biggest sources of single-use plastic waste while traveling (especially in the global south) is bound to be water bottles. 

Be Reef Safe

Sustainable travel means doing your part to minimize your impact on any of the ecosystems you spend time in. For me, much of what I am interested in doing while traveling is snorkeling or diving, so understanding how to be reef safe is important to me. 

Being reef safe means doing things like making sure you are not entering the water wearing non-biodegradable sunscreen or insect repellant. It means not touching or walking on coral, turning off the flash on your camera while photographing marine life, and not touching or feeding animals. 

It means refusing to eat unsustainably sourced fish–either caught using environmentally damaging fishing methods like dynamite or dragnet fishing or seafood that is undersized and/or threatened. 

Sustainable travel as a diver or snorkeler also means avoiding dive shops and tour companies with bad reputations and calling out those that are irresponsible. If you observe a dive company harassing wildlife, breaking or standing on coral, or feeding fish, you can punish them by leaving a comment or review on their Google or Trip Advisor profile. 

Don’t go on Cruises

If you are serious about sustainable travel, cruises really are unjustifiable, that’s basically the long and short of it. I’ve been on one cruise in my life. It was a family vacation and I didn’t know any better at the time. 

Cruise ships regularly kill marine life like whales, they leak greywater into the ocean and require massive quantities of fuel to power what are essentially moving cities. 

What’s more, a large part of the cruise experience for most people is round the clock access to all you can eat food. Bear in mind up to 30 percent of food on a cruise ship ends up wasted. 

I’ve personally never understood the appeal of a cruise. You are basically trapped on a floating shopping mall and never really end up getting to see much of anything when you dock somewhere.

When you disembark at a port in Greece or Mexico, you aren’t really seeing either of those countries or experiencing anything worthwhile. You’re getting something canned, impersonal, watered-down and over-priced. 

Consider Going Places Outside of Peak Season

Not only will you probably enjoy lower prices and fewer tourists, but you will be supporting the local tourism industry during its slow months and spreading out the human pressure on local ecosystems over more months of the year. 

I have always gone to SE Asia, and Thailand in particular, during the monsoon season from May-September. These months are not ideal for beach selfies, but far better for visiting national parks and wildlife activity–especially the reptiles and amphibians I am interested in seeing. 

And you don’t have to be after better wildlife photography opportunities to enjoy places during the offseason. The same concept applies to places all over the world from the Americas to Europe and Africa. 

Seeing the World Means Minimizing Your Negative Impact on the World 

The fact that travel, both national and international, is now open to so many more people around the world is great. The very upwardly mobile poor I have met in places like North Africa, the Americas, and Asia, especially young people, all aspire to travel and see the world. I think that’s a positive thing (in theory). 

As more people travel (and more people will be traveling) and make their mark on the places they visit, there needs to be far more education around what it means to be a sustainable traveler. Sustainable as a buzzword is just a synonym for “good.” Sustainable things are good, unsustainable things are bad. 

But sustainable, in the literal sense, is an adjective that refers to the ability of something to be carried out or perpetuated over time. For tourism to be sustainable, it needs to be something that the world can bear and recover from indefinitely. Much of what is currently considered “tourism” definitely would not fit this definition. 

Hopefully, the above list has opened your eyes to some things and, at the very least, reinforced others, driving home both the importance and necessity of more sustainable travel and tourism.

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