We love to travel. But the ugly truth is that the tourism industry has fostered some unsustainable habits. From cities overrun by mass tourism to substantial environmental problems, our wanderlust has a serious impact. Air and water pollution, displacement of local populations, unfair distribution of wealth, and gentrification. In our attempts to see the world, we sometimes do more harm than good.
So, if we want to keep travelling and exploring the earth, we need to start taking better care of it. But sustainable travel is about more than just reducing your carbon footprint; it is also about supporting local communities. Travelling in a way that reduces our environmental impact as well as our social impact. Travelling in a way that benefits the local culture and economy rather than harms it. Travelling with respect for both people and the planet.
By practising sustainable tourism, we can have a positive impact on the world. And being a more sustainable traveller isn’t hard. It’s a matter of being mindful and making the right choices.
Pick your destination wisely
One of the first step for planning any trip is picking a destination. You may not have considered it, but this is where you can start making more sustainable choices.
Enjoy a Staycation
Travel isn’t always about distance; it’s about opening yourself up for new experiences. You don’t have to go far to get out of your comfort zone. There are probably lots of new and exciting things to do close to home. Instead of spending lots of money and flying halfway around the world, you can also have fun by travelling locally.
You could check into a hotel in your hometown and have a little staycation, plan a weekend trip to a nearby city, go on a road trip or why not go camping somewhere in your state or country. We are so obsessed with seeing the world, whilst there are probably a lot of beautiful places you haven’t visited nearby.
Avoid mass tourism destinations
If you don’t want to contribute to the negative impact of over-tourism, you’re best off avoiding the famous bucket-list destinations. Many places are popular for a reason but suffer from mass tourism.
So instead of planning a trip to the best-known places, why not pick something off the beaten track. Avoid cities like Amsterdam, Venice, or Barcelona or tourist hotspots like Dubrovnik, Phuket, and Bali.
There are plenty of beautiful places on this earth, so focus on the hidden gems rather than the big hitters. You’ll be able to enjoy your vacation without huge crowds, get a more authentic cultural experience, and have a much more original trip. Plus you’ll also help these smaller communities by providing them with income from your visit. Do you want to do what everyone else is doing?
Indulge in slow tourism
You could also travel slower and take the time to explore one country or region? They often have so much more to offer than just one capital city.
Take this opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and explore the countryside. You’ll be able to really relax and go at a leisurely pace, instead of constantly moving from place to place, rushing through the big tourist attractions and spending most of your trip in transit. And isn’t that vacation is really about?
If you have the time, it’s a great choice to plan a long trip where you travel overland, rather than flying back and forth. So instead of taking several short intercontinental trips a year, plan one big one.
Take a more sustainable form of transportation
Once you’ve picked a destination, you’ll need a way to get there. By now, we are all aware of the negative environmental impact of flying. It’s convenient and affordable, but it takes a massive toll on our planet. Aviation is responsible for 2% of all CO2 emissions globally. That might not sound like much, but one transatlantic return flight from London to New York emits roughly 986 kg of CO2 per passenger. That’s more than you’d be able to offset by eating vegan or not driving your car for a year. In fact, it’s more than the average citizen of Ghana emits in a single year!
When compared per kilometre and passenger, flights emit between 102-133 grams, trains about 41 grams of Co2 emissions, and coach buses only 27 grams of CO2. Take off and landing causes the most CO2 emission, so long haul flights are relatively “cleaner” than short flights. I.e. short-haul flights will often be doing more flights in the same period. So, the math is clear: avoid flying and choose a more environmentally-friendly form of transportation if you can.
Offsetting carbon emissions?
Some airlines, train, and bus companies have also adopted eco-initiatives, allowing you to pay a little bit extra to offset carbon emissions from your trip. Although this seems like a positive development, it isn’t necessarily as good as it sounds.
Unfortunately, these companies are often not transparent about how they offset these emissions, and it might only be little more than “greenwashing” (…). By firms presenting themselves as more eco-friendly than they are, they play into the growing concern of customers. In the end, even with the effort of offsetting carbon emissions, flying is still incredibly damaging to the environment.
The best way to counteract less sustainable choices is by adopting a more sustainable lifestyle and supporting green initiatives that go beyond offsetting a single flight. Sustainability is not a zero-sum game, and the more you do, the better.
Use local public transportation, bike or walk
Picking sustainable modes of transport doesn’t end when you reach your destination. So, instead of renting a car, consider taking public transportation. Even outside of cities, there may be local buses or shuttle buses to get around. Driving does work out as a sustainable option when you’re sharing the ride with as many people as possible, especially in an electric car. Road trip anyone?
Or perhaps go for an active cycling or hiking holiday! Of course, the most sustainable way to get around is on your own two feet. Walking is also a fun way to explore cities; it’s free, healthy, and great for the environment. Plus you might see and experience parts of the city that you would have otherwise missed.
Stay at eco-friendly and locally owned accommodations
Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the average hotel? Just think about it: continuous cleaning, cooking, air conditioning, heating, etc. The use of water, electricity, and gas in hotels is through the roof.
Look for an eco-friendly certification
Research local accommodation to see what effort they are making to be more sustainable. But you can also let others do all the work and pick an eco-friendly certified accommodation. Certifications such as Green Key and LEED in North America, Green Tourism in the EU, and Rainforest Alliance Certification in South America are handy tools. There are also global eco certifications such as Earth Check, Green Globe, and STEP.
Choose a locally owned business
It is not just the environmental impact to keep in mind; tourist accommodation also has a significant effect on the life of locals. As more tourists flock to a place, the housing markets get crowded, and the prices go up. The quality of life for locals goes down, small shops lose business and have to close as locals move away.
One of the biggest culprits of this type of hollowing out of cities is Airbnb. The original business model looked very sustainable. Locals could rent out spare rooms to tourists, earning extra income, and facilitating cultural exchange. Unfortunately, as tourism boomed, more and more living space gets converted to permanent tourist accommodation. If you do choose to stay at an Airbnb, pick one where the host lives on site. This way, your money goes straight to the owner and not some real estate mogul, and you get to interact with locals for a priceless cultural exchange.
Chain hotels aren’t much better, because they often only employ locals in the lowest paying positions and not much of the profit trickles down to the local economy. So, always opt for locally owned and operated.
Book sustainable activities
Perhaps the most fun part of planning a trip is making an itinerary. You want to do as many fun activities and exploring as possible. But unfortunately, not everything you do as a tourist is also fun for the locals.
Hire a local guide
The best way to get to know a place is through the eyes of a local. Choose a tour with a local guide who knows all the ins and out of their home town and country. Take the time to learn about the local culture and history, because isn’t that what makes travelling so great?
Spend your money locally
Travel also has massive potential for a positive impact. Tourism generates a lot of money, and many economies largely depend on it. Unfortunately, much of that money disappears into the pockets of big corporations and corrupt government officials.
But there’s an easy fix: spend locally. As a visitor, you have the choice to support local businesses rather than big corporations and chains. Instead of hoping that your money slowly trickles down, you invest directly in local businesses.
Eat at local restaurants, shop at small local shops, and hire local guides and drivers. It might not always be as convenient or cheap, but it has a huge impact. You can choose to support local businesses and that provide quality products, conserve traditional practices, and support the local community. This is especially the case for women-owned businesses that give women often much needed financial independence.
As good as it is to support the local economy, giving away money can do more harm than good. Giving money to child beggars encourages them to leave school, and the money often gets collected by organized begging rings. You’re better off donating money to a local charity that helps these kids and provides opportunities to give them a better life.
Don’t waste precious resources
We live on a beautiful and plentiful planet. But unfortunately, those natural resources are not infinite. The way we live and travel burns fossil fuel, pollutes water and air, and negatively impacts the environment.
Of course, corporations and governments have to take responsibility. But there are lots of things we can do as travellers to reduce our carbon footprint as well. Small changes can have a significant impact. The magic mantra is: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce your plastic waste
Over half of the 300 tonnes of plastic produced every year is single-use plastic. Think of plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and disposable cutlery. All that plastic ends up in landfills, or worse, in the rivers or the sea. Plastic pollution is a big problem, especially when it ends up in our oceans. An estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea annually. It contaminates the water and hurts marine life. The same goes for plastic that ends up in fields, forests, and on the side of the road.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to combat that: avoid single-use plastic. Say no to straws and plastic bags and opt for package-free products from natural and compostable materials. Make some simple swaps to trade your regular travel products in for more sustainable alternatives (see link below).
When you do need to throw something out, try whenever possible to recycle it or dispose of it correctly. Don’t litter! It’s a simple matter of respect as a guest for the living environment of others. If you wouldn’t throw trash on the floor in your own house, why do it in someone else’s?
Use less of everything
Try reducing your waste in general. Be more mindful of the amount of water and energy you are using. Especially when travelling in regions that are battling droughts and shortages. Just consider that your 30 minutes shower reduces the available clean drinking water for someone else. Be a good guest by not taking more than you need.
Taking shorter showers, unplugging appliances, and turning off the lights when you leave are small changes that build up over time. And as a hotel guest, you can avoid getting new sheets and towels every day and don’t blast the A/C while you’re out.