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6 Ways to Engage in Sustainable Travel: A How-to Guide

10 min read

Sustainable travel is a popular buzzword in the tourism industry, but what does it actually mean? And how can you take steps to travel and eat more sustainably?

Ah, vacation! You’ve worked hard all year, made sacrifices, and now you’re going to travel and enjoy yourself. Splurge a little. Put yourself first for a change. What’s the harm in that?

It turns out that tourist travel is a huge contributor to environmental degradation and economic injustice around the world. And since we often travel in bubbles of comfort and convenience, the harms caused by our spending and other actions are generally invisible to us.

Enter a relatively new but increasingly popular movement: sustainable travel. Like sustainable energy or sustainable agriculture, sustainable travel acknowledges that the mainstream approach isn’t working, and offers a better alternative.

A study by Sustainable Travel International found 60% of leisure travelers in the U.S. have engaged in sustainable travel in the last three years. But what does sustainable travel actually mean?

Well, there’s a lot more that goes into it than you might think. Part of being a responsible consumer is recognizing how your purchases and lifestyle choices impact the world for better or worse. Sustainable travel is not just about reducing your carbon footprint or choosing a “green” or eco-friendly hotel. It extends to choosing a destination, the way in which you get to your destination, what you do when you get there, and how you leave it when you’re done.

Defining Sustainable Tourism

The UN World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as:

“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”

To break it down further, sustainable travel means being aware of and having a positive impact on the environment, the economy, the culture, and the community and its people. This is in addition to enriching your own life and experience.

The sad reality is that most forms of travel degrade their destinations over time. The more tourists, the more hotels, the more attractions, and the more unhealthy and unsustainable foods are produced and eaten, the worse the pollution and quality of life for residents. Over time, the very places we go to “get away from it all” become less and less hospitable and enjoyable.

Doesn’t it make sense to travel in a way that enhances and enriches our cherished destinations? Or at least stops doing them harm to them? In this article, we’ll explore how to travel sustainably for the planet, for local communities, and for your own enjoyment.

Types of Sustainable Travel

When people hear about sustainable travel, many think, “Oh, ecotourism.” While ecotourism does fall under sustainable travel, it’s only one of several different types.

Some of the major types of sustainable travel are:

Ecotourism“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

An example of ecotourism might be learning about wildlife and volunteering at various national parks and preserves like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, and doing trail maintenance with the local staff.

Geotourism“Tourism that sustains or enhances the distinctive geographical character of a place — its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and the well-being of its residents.”

Embarking on a guided excursion with a tour guide and geologist to the North West Highlands Geopark in Scotland, hiking and learning about fossils and rock formations, is an example of geotourism.

Voluntourism“The integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism — arts, culture, geography, history, and recreation -— while in the destination.”

Both ecotourism and geotourism can also fall under voluntourism if volunteering with a park or a reserve. There are many types of voluntourism. But ultimately, the best kind is the one that’s long-term and utilizes your unique skills without placing undue strain on the local community.

A popular form of voluntourism is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF for short). Volunteers, sometimes called “WWOOFers,” work and stay on an organic farm while they learn about organic food, farming, and sustainable agriculture. They also assist with farm work and other necessary tasks.

Note: Some types of voluntourism have come under fire for doing more harm than good. In order to avoid participating in opportunities that may have ethical concerns, research organizations and projects thoroughly before committing. And make sure you understand the destination’s unique needs. This post has valuable advice on where to find truly helpful voluntourism opportunities.

Community-based Tourism“A form of responsible tourism that supports local communities and improves livelihoods. The tourism destination is managed by the local community members themselves.”

In Cambodia, for example, you can visit Banteay Chhmar, a commune and temple that offers community-run programs for tourists. This includes homestays, tours, entertainment, and locally-prepared food. And the Pachamama Alliance leads journeys to Ecuador in which participants are hosted by a local indigenous tribe. They learn about their way of life and invest in their struggle and economy as an ally and student, rather than something to check off a bucket list.

6 Ways You Can Be a More Sustainable Traveler

Sustainable Travel: How To Be A More Sustainable Traveler

Whether your next trip is for business or pleasure, you can lessen your own travel impact with these six, helpful sustainable travel tips.

1. Consider Transportation Options Carefully

The farther you travel, the greater the environmental impact. Globally, transportation contributes over 20% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Local travel, within your own region, will always be a more sustainable option. But if you’re traveling a greater distance, some options are better than others.

In the U.S., train travel contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions, followed by ships and boats, buses and motorcycles, airplanes, and cars.

However, some types of transportation have additional environmental impacts besides greenhouse gases.

Cruise ships, for example, also contribute to air and water pollution and can damage reefs and ecosystems.

They also don’t necessarily benefit local businesses when in port. This is because many people choose to stay onboard or only frequent the tourist shopping areas next to the docks.

But most travelers are still going to either fly or drive to a destination, depending on cost and distance. If you like, you can choose to offset carbon emissions for air travel by supporting projects that reduce global carbon emissions. You can calculate your offset, and invest in approved projects, using a tool like this one.

To reduce emissions, you can also use less impactful forms of transportation at your destination. Take public transportation like buses (many are hybrid-electric now) and subways, or bike, walk, and ride-share with others.

2. Make Sustainable Food Choices

Eating healthily can sometimes be challenging within your own city, nevermind when traveling somewhere else. But there are ways to keep your food choices sustainable.

First off, no matter where you eat, cut back on single use-plastic and waste by bringing your own reusables. Choose water bottles and straws made from glass or stainless steel, cloth shopping bags, and bamboo or stainless steel utensils. When you go to restaurants, you can even travel with your own “to-go” glass or stainless steel containers for leftovers.

Then, when choosing where to eat, aim for locally grown ― or sourced ― foods at restaurants, farmers markets, food stands, and the like. This will cut down on the food-mile impact of your meals. It will also help support the local community and its economy.

And for that reason, it’s more sustainable to eat at locally-owned, mom and pop-style businesses as well — especially when traveling internationally. Large fast food companies may be recognizable, but they’re generally not a sustainable choice. Not only have they likely pushed out local cuisines in favor of the standard American diet (or similar, unhealthy diets), but they’re negatively affecting global health.

Meat- and dairy-heavy dishes, often found at fast food restaurants, also contribute an astounding amount of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Beef makes up 60% of the total, worldwide agricultural emissions.)

Choosing plant-based dishes over meat- and dairy-based are better for your health and the environment.

Even eating fish can be an unsustainable option in many places around the world where there’s overfishing. If you do choose to eat fish or other seafood, use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides to find out the sustainability of different seafood options.

There are also more specialized apps and tools to make eating out more sustainable when traveling. TheFork is a popular online restaurant scouting, review, and reservation service based in Europe. Vegetarians and vegans find wonderful options and reviews all over the world on And Food Tripping, a GPS-based app, is especially helpful if you want to find local, sustainable food at convenient spots while you’re traveling. Options include healthy food markets, farmers markets, quick eateries, organic coffee shops, and juice bars.

3. Weigh the Impact of Your Accommodations

Family meeting their host at a homestay Trade

Where you stay also has an impact on whether travel is sustainable or not.

A 2017 study from found that 68% of global travelers were more likely to stay in accommodations that are eco-friendly. So, what types of accommodation are the most sustainable?

Hotels are a $570 billion industry worldwide. And although they haven’t traditionally been the most sustainable choice, that’s changing. Many large players in the hotel industry have adopted “green practices,” like water conservation, linen reuse, waste management, and energy conservation. There are also many sustainable tourism hotel certifications such as EarthCheck, Green Key, and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which you can look for before booking.

Even though hotels are getting greener, the best and most sustainable accommodations involve staying with locals.

Stays with locals may include:

Your stay benefits their livelihood and contributes to the local economy. And as a bonus, you get a sense of the local culture and may even make a new friend in the process.

4. Support Local Businesses and Artisans

Part of sustainable travel is supporting the local community and its economy. Depending on your choices, the souvenirs and gifts you buy can benefit local craftspeople and merchants. On the other hand, they can also degrade the local economy and environment in favor of mass-produced junk from overseas factories.

Most local souvenir shops have items with their city or country’s name on them, but many of these souvenirs are made in China. Shopkeepers may choose these imports because they’re cheaper, but their production has far-reaching cultural and environmental effects.

China has the worst air pollution and carbon emissions in the world, and much of that comes from producing outsourced goods, such as souvenirs, in toxic factories. Some Chinese companies have also been known to rip off designs from artists and artisans, in addition to popular brands.

When souvenir shopping, look for locals making things on the street or items that are clearly signed by an artist or artisan. And make sure to avoid anything made from animals, which may be illegal or unsustainably sourced. You can also ask shopkeepers and street sellers where they get their goods from, although they may not always be transparent about their sources.

You might also try art and craft fairs, boutiques, and other small businesses that only sell locally made items.

Where you spend your money doesn’t just apply to souvenirs, however. Choosing a locally owned shop, cafe, or even a tour company over a chain or corporately owned one, is usually a much more sustainable travel practice.

To find sustainably run tour companies, check out this resource.

5. Prioritize Animal Welfare

Getting to enjoy nature and observing exotic wildlife are common activities while traveling. However, they sometimes come at a cost to the animals.

Even a seemingly harmless activity like swimming in the ocean can hurt wildlife. The chemicals found in major sunscreen brands and certain cosmetics have been shown to damage coral reefs and injure other marine life. (This article has natural sun protection ideas that won’t harm the environment.)

Many wildlife or animal-centric tours and attractions cause animal suffering. Or they allow travelers to interact with them in an abusive way.

A study by World Animal Protection on elephant attractions in Asia found more than three quarters were living in “severely cruel” conditions.

And other attractions featuring tiger hugging, dancing monkeys, and dolphin shows, among others, have also been revealed to have a detrimental impact on animal welfare and conservation.

Better wildlife attraction choices include animal sanctuaries, rescue centers, and rehabilitation centers accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. These facilities provide either lifetime or temporary humane care, depending on the needs of the animal.

In general, if you can touch an animal, ride it, or get close enough to take a selfie with it, chances are it’s not truly living in humane conditions. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s unwise to touch or feed wild animals you may come across while traveling. Human interaction can cause injury to yourself or the animal.

6. Respect Local Culture

Behave Decently sign in Asia Murdoch

While it’s not as well known as some of the other aspects of sustainable travel, respecting local culture is one of the most important.

Even before choosing a destination, you can help respect local cultures around the world by not participating in “overtourism.”

Responsible Tourism Partnership defines overtourism as “destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably.”

Although it’s a relatively new term, the impact of overtourism continues to grow in major cities, putting undue stress on infrastructure and local residents. Being aware of these destinations and choosing less frequented locales will allow you to have a better and more sustainable travel experience.

And once you choose a destination, being aware of local customs, rules, and traditions will both immerse you deeper, in addition to helping honor the culture you’re visiting.

A large number of tourist hot spots, especially in Asia, are sacred or religious sites that are vitally important to local culture but are sometimes disrespected by visitors who either don’t know the significance or don’t care. This can lead to unpleasant interactions with locals, negative impact on the community, damage to the site, and in some cases punishment by local authorities.

Even just covering up in a mosque or temple or learning a little bit of the local language can bridge a cultural divide and lessen misunderstandings and resentment of tourists by the locals and vice versa.

Speaking in the local language will also allow you to meet people and make friends. This will make your trip more about human interaction and connection rather than just visiting a famous place or buying souvenirs.

While sustainable travel isn’t the norm yet, keeping these tips in mind can help you enjoy traveling responsibly without overburdening a destination, disrespecting locals and local sites, or damaging the environment.

We live in a vast and extraordinary world. Seeing the wonders and diversity of cultures, ecosystems, climates, and customs on this planet can be an extraordinarily enriching and even awe-inspiring experience. And when you travel sustainably, you can enjoy the world without contributing to its destruction.

Tell us in the comments below:

  • Have you ever participated in eco-tourism or any travel-related sustainability practices
  • Where do you want to travel, and how can you implement sustainable travel principles when you do?

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