Sustainable Travel: What is It?

Do you ever have the feeling that you will keep on coming back to the same question?That’s exactly what we feel in this case. Any attempt to answer the question ‘What is Sustainable Travel’ seems to be more complex than it should be.

‘What is Sustainable Travel’ is a question that comes up at least once a week. Sometimes more.

Ever since joining discussions about sustainable travel (or mindful travel, or responsible travel or soulful travel), it has been fascinating to see the different reactions it generates.  Talking about Soul Travel, and about it being a sustainable travel blog, 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.

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.

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. 

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.

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What is sustainable travel?

So what is the answer for Sustainable Tourism?

Suggesting stopping travelling would have more 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 recently 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.

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.

Responsible Travel Definitions.

‘Responsible Travel’ is defined as:

“being mindful of the economic, environmental, and cultural impact/sustainability of travel. Responsible travel encompasses: the cultural impact of travel on locals, how travelers’ money is injected into/distributed in local communities, and the environmental impact of travel.”

For me, it’s the second definition, of Responsible Travel, that holds most significance and opportunity. Today, the word Sustainability is used often, but when it comes to travel is equally misunderstood to have purely environmental meaning and implications.

The definition of Responsible Travel tells us clearly that our travel plans and decisions can make the world of difference.

what is sustainable travel

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

What can we do Differently, to Travel more Sustainably?

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.

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!