'Sustainable travel' has become a buzzword thrown around by industry professionals to promote products and services deemed 'sustainable'. But what does it actually mean?
Every millennial concerned with protecting the environment, animals, and planet wants to live as sustainably as possible, and that desire spills over into travel. However, it can be difficult to understand which transportation methods, accommodation options, and sight-seeing practices can actually preserve the environment and local cultures.
Luckily, there are simple principles and habits we can adopt to minimize our footprint while on vacation, from saying no to plastic straws and choosing trains over planes, to staying at fully-fledged eco-friendly resorts committed to zero waste.
This article breaks down the meaning of sustainable tourism and provides 7 reasons to make your future vacations kinder to the planet. If you're simply here for juicy travel tips and don't give a hoot about sustainable travel, I hope to change your mind by the end.
What is Sustainable Travel?
The textbook definition of sustainability is "to meet current needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In terms of tourism, this means to travel in ways that won't limit future generations' ability to explore the world too.
Will our children and grandchildren be able to swim with whale sharks in Mexico? Or will they be met with a sea of plastic instead? Will there be an Antarctica left for them to witness penguins in the wild? Or will these creatures only be found in urban zoos?
Acclaimed filmmaker Sir David Attenborough puts it eloquently:
if you can't keep doing it forever, it's not sustainable
Thanks to the widespread use of buzzwords, many people think of sustainable travel as eco-friendly travel. They think staying in a solar-powered cottage is doing their bit. And yes, choosing accommodation powered by renewable energy is one way to be a responsible traveler, but it's just a drop in the ocean.
It's important to look at the big picture and consider all 3 main aspects of sustainable travel:
- Environmental impact,
- Socio-cultural impact, and
- Economic impact
A sustainable tourist will rent a room from a local, contributing directly to that city's economy, instead of staying at an overpriced international hotel chain.
They will shop at the farmer's market instead of Tesco, or dine at local cafes and pizzerias, not McDonald's and Domino's.
And they will always pick up their trash.
More importantly, sustainable tourists are interested in local subcultures. They care about waste reduction and say no to souvenirs of questionable origins. They want to leave the place in a better condition than they found it.
If you're doing any of these things, you've started on the journey towards sustainable tourism.
Why Is Sustainable Travel Important?
Tourism as an industry has blossomed over the last few decades. Actually, perhaps "blossomed" isn't the right word because it implies growth with natural beauty, and the emergence of mass tourism is anything but beautiful.
Entire indigenous communities have been uprooted and replaced with soaring hotels while the crowds and pollution that come with mammoth cruise ships have sent locals fleeing from historical cities like UNESCO World Heritage-listed Dubrovnik, Croatia.
The point of sustainable tourism is preservation.
It's about allowing your children and grandchildren to explore the same places you did. Think about it - Venice and the Maldives are slowly sinking; the Great Barrier Reef has been ruined by coral bleaching and you might have already missed the opportunity to see the glaciers of Kilimanjaro.
If we all just sit by and do nothing, many spectacular travel destinations will soon disappear, and we'll only have ourselves to blame.
So, make a change today.
The sustainable turnaround is already underway. Boracay Island in Thailand, once overrun with tourists, was shut down at the end of 2018. It has since re-opened but with far stricter controls in place to allow tourism to boost the economy while limiting damage to the island's fragile ecosystems.
You can start with a few simple actions like purchasing a reusable water bottle. Do your research before booking your next Airbnb or hotel to know where your money is going. Engage in sustainable tours and purchase souvenirs that support local communities.
If enough people spread the world, maybe our grandchildren will get to enjoy the same places we do. But if we continue engaging in unbridled mass tourism, then as the magic 8 ball said, "don't count on it".
Let's dig deeper into why you should care about sustainable travel, the benefits it offers, and practical steps you can take.
1.Help Local Communities Thrive
Where you spend your money has a direct impact on local communities you visit. It's up to you to decide whether that impact will be positive or negative.
In communities like Indonesia's Bali, younger generations are abandoning rice farming and agricultural traditions to pursue careers in hotel management. Tourists who stay at 5-star beachfront resorts encourage this trend. But if you choose a small guest house in the mountains of Ubud and take a guided tour of a rice field, Bali's youth may be reminded of the importance of their farming culture and keep their family businesses alive.
Similarly, if you purchase mass-produced plastic key chains and fridge magnets as souvenirs, you're sending money overseas (probably to China) and eventually sending more plastic into the ocean. Instead, buy locally made handicrafts and items that can only be found in that destination. Most of the time, traditional products are made from natural recourses like wood or woven leaves so are better for the environment and the local economy.
Putting money back into communities helps locals survive during challenging times. In places with seasonal peaks and troughs, like the Greek Islands, locals rely on making enough money for the year in the 6-or-so months when tourists are present. By purchasing from them instead of massive chain stores that funnel profits overseas, you help these communities survive the year and ensure they'll still be around when you visit again.
2.Preserve the Environment
With an unimaginable amount of damage already inflicted on our planet, it's more important than ever for our collective actions to have a positive impact on the natural environment. Overtourism is a peril of the modern era that threatens to erase entire communities and habitats.
Travel agencies exist for the sole purpose of making money. And the easiest way to make money is to find a couple of hundred people who want to visit the same country, put them all on a massive ship or a plane and send them on their way.
Without mindfulness, an undesirable effect can start to kick in - herd consumption.
Individual awareness and compassion take a back seat to a primal compulsion. Now, like a swarm of locusts, travelers tune out the harmful effects of their actions - not thinking twice about throwing their trash onto the nearest pavement, garden, or waterway. All that matters: consuming more and more, and fitting in with the crowd.
It is crucial for us all to do everything in our power to mindfully preserve natural resources and reduce our environmental impact when we travel. How? Start with these easy tips:
- Always dispose of your waste properly. Whether through recycling (where possible) or simply saving your trash until you see a bin.
- Bring a reusable water bottle on your next trip. You'll also save money as you can fill your bottle in your apartment or hotel instead of buying water in a mini-mart.
- Don't ask for fresh towels every day at your hotel. After all, you don't do that at home, right?
- Eat local produce. The less distance your food has to travel, the less carbon emissions are produced. Local food is often fresher and tastier too.
- Consider public transport over a taxi or Uber. The levels of emissions per passenger are typically lower (unless you find an electric car).
Always remember this simple benchmark for your choices - if the natural environment of a destination cannot sustain how we are treating it, then we can't do it forever.
3.Responsible Tourism Benefits Everyone
Overtourism is one of the worst things to happen to the travel industry. You have travel agencies wanting to make money and governments with the same goal. When these two entities combine their efforts without mindfulness, they produce effective tourism campaigns, but often at the expense of locals' quality of life.
The goal of attracting more and more tourists each year eventually reaches a tipping point where there are simply too many visitors, the locals either get fed up or leave, and steps to reverse the trend have to be taken.
You can't have 20 people cram around a small table to enjoy dinner for four. It's vital to realize, that each destination has a different maximum capacity to operate sustainably, although that number can be somewhat subjective.
Here's how it happens. When a destination starts to become popular the buzz spreads, a hotel or two will pop up to house more and more tourists. Maybe they'll add a golf course or a fun park, something that's really going to draw people in. Jobs are created and everyone is happy.
Then after a while, locals are pushed out and forced to uproot their entire lives to make room for accommodation and tourist attractions, or they simply cannot afford housing and food anymore. The roads become more and more congested. This process is repeated year after year. The authenticity and core identity that made the location popular in the first place is gradually lost.
So, what can you do differently?
Travel off the beaten path to find destinations not yet overrun by tourists. You may have to venture a little further, but you're sure to have a better time away from crowds while spending in communities who will most benefit from it.
If you absolutely must see over-touristed destinations like Venice and Amsterdam, travel in shoulder seasons. That way, you'll reduce the peak demands of water, electricity, and waste management, and boost the local economy at a time when it would usually wane… and probably find discounted accommodation to boot.
If you've ever visited bustling cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Min City, you'll realize just how polluted cities can get. One of the largest causes in these cases? Heavy vehicular traffic. And the thousands of taxis, rideshare services, and private busses adding to traffic congestion to cart tourists around only make things worse.
Instead of viewing a new city from the back seat of a taxi, why not hire a bicycle. You'll get to explore narrow laneways and areas not accessible by car, and it's a great way to exercise while traveling, something we often struggle to fit in while on vacation.
Alternatively, share your footprint with other travelers by jumping on a public bus, tram, or train. This will shed insight into the daily lives and routines of locals, and often get you where you need to go faster than driving.
Leaving your car keys at home is great for your wallet too. You'll save money on gas and parking, not to mention the time you'll save avoiding traffic jams.
If traveling in a car is unavoidable, try to hire a fuel-efficient car or choose rideshare providers like Uber and Lyft which incentivize electric vehicles.
Locations like Bali also suffer from unsustainable pollution - if the waste generated by tourists cannot be effectively managed and disposed of, then it will eventually reach a tipping point and everyone will suffer. The best time to act is yesterday. The next best time is today. Ask your hotel about their waste management practices, or raise awareness to put pressure on elected officials to take decisive action.
If you don't know where to start, simply carry a backpack or shoulder bag when exploring your destination. If you decide to do a little souvenir or food shopping, say no to the disposable plastic bag and throw it in your bag instead. When buying a drink, choose a recyclable aluminum can or glass bottle over a plastic alternative. And bring your own reusable straw everywhere.
5.Better Understand Foreign Cultures
Sustainable tourism isn't all about preserving the environment. It's also about preserving local communities and exploring different cultures in a more meaningful, respectful, authentic way.
Free grass-roots walking tours have become a popular way to do this, with cities including Bogota, Sarajevo, and Athens connecting friendly locals with tourists who wish to explore their home town. Walking tours are a great way to experience new a new city through the eyes of its residents and gain insight into the values and traditions that make the people who they are.
Instead of just lining up to take a selfie in front of the Acropolis, have a coffee with a local Athenian in their favorite café and find out where they go to read a book or watch the sunset. Hidden gems like these aren't included in commercial agency tours but will undoubtedly be the highlight of your trip.
Airbnb has developed a whole section of its platform to help locals share their knowledge and services with the world, so that's worth exploring for your next trip too.
Other ways to experience local cultures include trying new dishes, learning basic phrases in the local language, and reading up on the city's history. Netflix has some handy docudramas, like Medici, that help you get a feel for the history and culture of cities like Florence before your visit.
When you understand a destination's culture, you can choose museums and attractions with deeper meaning. Don't be shuttled around to cliché tourist traps just because they provided your travel agency with cheap bundled tickets.
Consider your choices, and whether they will support or hinder the thriving local culture.
6.Preserve Endangered Species and Fight Animal Cruelty
You don't have to have a degree in economics to understand supply and demand. As long as customers are willing to pay for something, suppliers will find a way to get it to them. This becomes a problem when the product or service in demand endangers the lives of animals which has sadly become common practice in many tourist attractions and souvenir stores.
Examples include jewelry made from red coral or ivory souvenirs and homewares. Items like these, that no one should be buying, flood tourist-oriented stores, waiting for ignorant shoppers unaware of the impact their dollar is having.
Next time you're shopping for souvenirs, steer clear of anything made from animal products. Even if the animal in question is not endangered, like the wild sea cucumbers used in medicinal oils across Southeast Asia - their lives are still sacrificed for the sake of profit.
When it comes to tourist attractions, stay away from theatrical shows involving trained elephants and horses, or any temple, zoo, or safari promoting interactions with endangered tigers.
Many sustainably-minded travelers can't wait to see animals when they travel, and there are ethical ways to do so in most locations. Look for animal sanctuaries that invite tourists to help care for animals, like Bali Zoo's Elephant Mud Fun program, or volunteer at animal rescue organizations and wildlife sanctuaries. Always do your research before choosing which animal-related attractions you're going to support.
If we stop paying for animals to be exploited, people will stop exploiting them.
7.Create Opportunities for Indigenous Communities
Mass tourism has created an international standard when it comes to accommodation, tours, and meals. Unique locations and experiences offered by indigenous communities are many times rejected in favor of more profitable bland options that can be easily rinsed and repeated.
Sustainable tourism, in contrast, seeks to learn from indigenous communities, gain respect for their cultures, and shed any misconceptions you may hold. At the same time, this creates job opportunities for indigenous people that keeps them connected to their history and culture while allowing them to share their unique traditions and beliefs with others.
In Australia, tourists can take a nature walk through the outback with an Aboriginal guide, or sample "bush tucker" on a food tour. Or in Bali, be guided by a Hindu priest to a remote waterfall for quiet meditation. Perhaps watch a beautiful piece of art being created by a First Nations person in Canada.
If you genuinely want to learn about different cultures and experience their art, music, dance, food, and craftsmanship, seek out the authentic local tour guides - not a BYO from your home country.
So, if you thought you didn't care about sustainable tourism, what do you think now?
Mass tourism has taken a serious toll on local communities, economies, and the environment. It is up to each of us to change our approach to travel, even if it means putting in a little extra work to plan a more memorable experience that will benefit, not hinder, the places we choose to visit.
Perhaps they'll still be around in decades to come so you can visit again with your grandchildren.
The future is in your hands.