What is Sustainable Travel (and How to do It)

Since first writing this article in 2015, sustainable travel has soared in popularity and the number of travellers now aware of the need to tread lightly has exploded. But beyond the appealing idea of Sustainable Travel, what does it mean and how can we all make steps towards it?

Sustainable Travel: What is It?

When first writing about this topic, ‘What is Sustainable Travel’ is a question that would come up at least once a week – often asked by people I would meet and talk to. Sometimes it would come up even more often.

Over the last few years, it has been fascinating to see the different reactions that the term Sustainable Travel generates.  Sometimes, there’s an instant click in peoples’ reactions.  Theres’s a second of recognition, an ah-ha moment —or whatever we want to call it— of just understanding, followed by ‘that’s great’. Often, though, there’s a lingering look of something else: confusion, and a few seconds or minutes in, well get to the point: so what do you mean by sustainable travel? What is it?

Someone once responded “as opposed to what, unsustainable travel“??

Well basically, yes.

More often than not, the conversation begins with the idea “travel can’t be sustainable.  If we want to be sustainable we shouldn’t travel, surely?

And on one level, we agree. In an ideal world we’d all reduce our carbon footprints to zero. But are we? Can we? In our view, just staying at home is not the solution.

What is sustainable travel?

Sustainable Travel: The Inescapable Truth.

Referring to travel that has a better impact as “sustainable” though, has it’s own challenges. Many would argue that travel and tourism – at the volume and level they are at now – are completely at odds with sustainability.

Because one thing is for sure: the current growth in tourism and the way we travel in general at the moment is simply not sustainable. 

If we all stopped flying tomorrow, global carbon emissions would be reduced by 12-15%.  If we stopped travelling en masse to Venice, to the Gili Islands, to Boracay, to Machu Picchu (the list goes on) these places would slowly recover from the current strain that the demands of tourism are placing on local ecosystems, the environment, and the communities that live there.

In 2014, there were 1.2 billion international arrivals (for business and leisure).

By 2030, that number will be at 1.8 billion. And these numbers don’t take domestic tourism into account, which is rapidly growing all over the world, but particularly in Asia’s most populated countries.

Pin this Post to save it for later or share with others: 

What is sustainable travel?

Finding a Path for more Sustainable Tourism

Suggesting stopping travelling would have far reaching implications. Many countries, particularly in the developing world, are heavily dependent on tourism as a main source of income. When that tap is turned off, things do not necessarily improve, as has been seen most recently in Sri Lanka, in Egypt, or even Kenya. Just as importantly, the cultural exchange opportunities would also be removed along with the opportunity to spread understanding knowledge, connection and personal growth through travel.

So the reality is that, for many of us, we are faced with a conflict.  With wanting to travel, loving to travel, needing our time off or our time to wander, but also caring about what we are doing to the planet on which we live.

And that’s why we believe in the power of Sustainable and Responsible Travel.

This video from the World Travel and Tourism Council shows what we can create if we work together to redefine tourism and travel more sustainably.

YouTube video

Definitions of Sustainable Travel.

So what is Sustainable Travel—or whatever we want to call it—that concept which seems to offer us a win-win solution?

According to the (UN) World Tourism Organisation:

“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…

…Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.“

Eco Tourism is another commonly used term, but one that is starting to be open to more abuse as people catch on to the marketing power of ‘eco’. In some countries, the term “Ecotourism” is simply used to describe any kind of tourism activity that involves the outdoors or wildlife: Whether or not there is any responsibility or sustainability behind it. For this reason, we try to avoid using the term ecotourism.

What is sustainable travel
Caring for our environmental impact is just one element of Sustainable Travel.

As is clearly stated above, sustainable travel goes well beyond the purely environmental, despite what we might associate with the term, and despite the fact that the environmental footprint of travel is one of the most obvious and important parts of the equation. Rather, there are three pillars of sustainable travel: The Environmental, the Economic, and the Social.

The Environmental Pillar of Sustainable Travel

The concept behind environmentally sensitive and sustainable travel is straight forward. The popular “Leave only Footprints” term was coined in the 1990s and summarises the concept of not causing any damage to the places that we visit environmentally: Not leaving trash, toxic substances or anything behind us that might alter the environment of a place.

Today that extends to things such as not creating plastic waste and saying no to single use plastic, avoiding using polluting forms of transport (air travel for example), and generally keeping our carbon footprint to a minimum. It also extends to respecting and helping protect wildlife when we travel: Namely refusing to ride and interact with would-be-wild animals as well as supporting initiatives that protect and conserve wildlife.

what is sustainable travel
Appreciating nature can always be at the top of our list when we travel.

The Social Pillar of Sustainable Travel

Just as travel and tourism has a huge impact on the environment, it heavily affects people, too. Travel and Tourism is (indirectly) responsible for as many as 1 in every 10 jobs around the world, and has the power to bring new opportunities to people around the world. It offers tremendous potential for connection – if we are willing to open ourselves to that, that is.

But travel is also responsible for some less than desirable side effects on societies around the world. Because of global movement and western influences, many indigenous cultures have become eroded or commercialised. People have been driven off land by governments who want to cash in on tourism bubbles and sell land to resort developers. Children and vulnerable social groups have been harmed through trafficking, sex tourism and exploitation fuelled by travel. At its worst, the impact of travel leaves a very sad picture.

The Economic Pillar of Sustainable Travel

One of the biggest benefits of travel – especially to developing countries – is the possibility to create economic opportunities and distribute spending within local communities through travel.

The reality, however, ends up being a little more complex. There are times when it’s no longer enough to say that “tourism creates jobs” and that the environmental and social impacts are becoming too detrimental to a destination to justify purely the “jobs” benefit.

There’s also the issue that some type of travel – notably mass tourism, does little to benefit local companies and people at all, with as much as 80% of the price you pay for your holiday staying outside the country you visit. On the contrary, responsible travel, using local companies, organising your own accommodation at small, locally owned hotels and guesthouses, using local transportation sees as much as 80%+ of your money going directly into the economy of a destination. Some types of travel, such as cruising are notorious for providing very little benefit to a destination while simultaneously having a heavy carbon and environmental impact.

Tips for Sustainable Travel – What we Can Do to Become Sustainable Travellers.

It might sound from some of the above that we can’t do much about the sustainability of tourism, but in thinking that we’d be completely wrong. Not only do we have huge collective power as individuals to drive change (can you imagine if everyone you know travelled with their own water bottle and said no to single-use plastic?), but as consumers we also have the power to influence and drive change in the policies of travel companies that we book with.

Our choices of where we visit, how we get there, where we stay, and what we do when we get there can make all the difference in the world.

These are some ideas that we can be aware of:

Often, it’s as much about spreading the benefit as much as anything else.  Anything that involves staying solely in one place, spending all one’s money in one resort, participating only in pre-organised tours and paying for everything before reaching the destination country, tends to mean that our heard earned cash goes to the pockets of few (and not necessarily to locals).

On the other hand staying in different accommodations (particularly smaller, locally owned ones), eating at varied, local restaurants (as opposed to staying inside a resort), and generally going off the beaten path result in your spending being spread and of benefit to more people. Increasingly, large properties have Eco-Labels, and I would definitely recommend supporting them, but be aware that the quality of these and what they actually mean unfortunately ranges wildly.

When it comes to transport, we often have little choice but to fly for long trips. But where there are alternatives it is up to us to make that choice and take the train or bus instead of a one hour flight. Or to take public transportation instead of a taxi.

Things to do: 

    • Choose small scale, locally owned accommodations to stay at (but be careful with airbnbs)
    • Eat at different restaurants, go outside of your hotel
    • Choose a mix of doing things yourself and exploring off the beaten track as well as hiring different local guides
    • Travel outside of high season for a less crowded and overtouristed experience
    • Travel by local (public) transport to lower your footprint and meet locals
    • Avoid flying wherever you can. If you do need to fly, fly direct with an efficient airline, and consider staying longer in a destination to compensate for the flight.
    • Avoid single use plastic and pack for sustainable travel (read all our sustainable packing tips in this post)

A question we like to ask is ‘do we feel like we have done something a bit different’, and by that we mean—are we managing to get away from the crowds and out of the guidebook Top Ten? For me, that’s an indicator that I may be helping to spread the benefit of tourism to places that get less than the latest hotspots.

We try to ask ourselves if we feel good about what I’m doing.

This is the type of travel that we see as win-win and promote on the blog.

And last by no means least, when we have moments where we think to ourselves – “I’m only one person I can’t make a difference” – I remind myself of Gandhi’s message: “Be the change you want to see in the world”

What do you think about Sustainable Travel? Is it possible? What do you like to call it? Let me know in the comments section below!

16 thoughts on “What is Sustainable Travel (and How to do It)”

  1. Choosing the right accommodation and tour companies can make a difference. It is getting more difficult to tell the difference between eco-friendly companies that are genuine and ones that just claim to be ‘green’ for marketing purposes. I normally do a lot of research before booking a wildlife tour, like trying to find out what percentage of profits are invested in conservation efforts, or if the company exercises a Leave No Trace policy. Rainforest Alliance have a list of hotels and tour operators that comply with strict sustainability standards, which I find very helpful when traveling to the Caribbean and South America.

    • Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I agree with you that it’s still far too time consuming for travellers to research if a company is actually ‘eco-friendly’ or just using eco for the benefits of marketing. I always ask companies to tell me what they are doing that’s eco / sustainable. Those that are genuine love to talk about all their efforts, whereas it’s clear from the websites of other ‘eco’ hotels that they’re not doing anything eco at all really. I think the positive is that the more people ask questions, the more this gets driven as a priority within the travel business. Great that you find the Rainforest Alliance list useful! We’re working on some projects here on Soul Travel Blog too, so stay tuned :-). Happy travels, Ellie

  2. This is such an important post. We have a duty to preserve the sights and cultures that make this world so diverse and beautiful, through every means possible. I personally always try to go off the beaten path when I can, but keeping sustainability in mind is something I definitely need to work on. Thank you for sharing, it was super informative!

  3. I must admit I’m always thinking first of the environmental meaning of responsible (or sustainable, am I allowed to use them interchangeably?) travel as well. But, we always try to eat local as well, use public transport, walk a lot instead of taking taxis, and more importantly do responsible activities. By that I mean for example: visiting Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, instead of riding them or watching them paint or play football. In my opinion it’s not a big effort to travel responsible, while it has such a great impact on our world!

  4. Thanks for clarifying! It is actually very helpful since I just started working in a ranch with tourist activities and they have a mission and vision of being a 100% no waste ranch in 3 years and already now a lot of activities have been made to recycle and re-use materials and the use of carbon is now 0. This is a thing we want to communicate to our visitors and educate and inspire them in terms of sustainability. I am still very new to this concept so this article is great!
    hugs, Nana

  5. Great post! I try to be a conscious as I can be when t comes to Eco-tourism, sustainable tourism and my personal favourite- community based ecotourism. any frequent traveler should be making this a priority!

  6. Lovely post ! I try to keep sustainability in mind … but I still need to work on. I always try to eat local, use public transport, get a walk instead of taking taxis… and I personally always try to go off the beaten path when I can ☺

  7. I always try to stay in small local hotels and eat in small restaurants. But the idea behind this is not even that I’m trying to be sustainable. I just want to see a real place (with the eyes of a local), get a genuine experience. And for me, this is the whole point of travelling. Some people do stay in all-inclusive hotels and go on standard tourist tours – but then you don’t get to see a real place, you are not exposed to local culture and real people! You are just shown standard tourist attractions like in an amusement park. To me, all tourists spots look the same – same souvenirs, same types of tours, same “western tourist” food and same types of hotels. What is the point to travel to the other side of the world if you can get the same kind of thing near your place? So, in some way sustainable travel is REAL travel 🙂


Leave a comment