Travel is truly food for the soul and can teach us unparalleled lessons about life, love, and culture.
Unfortunately, the luxury of travel can often be wasteful and damaging to the environment. Flying, in particular, is currently responsible for 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions, but with travel becoming more popular and affordable, these emissions are predicted to triple by 2050.
Everyone deserves to experience the beauty of the world, but there are ways to be as thoughtful, responsible, and sustainable as possible, to feed your soul and help the planet.
What is sustainable travel?
In its simplest form, sustainable travel is traveling in a way that is respectful to culture and the environment. The concept of sustainable travel extends beyond just avoiding plastic or walking instead of taking a cab.
Sustainable travel means offsetting your carbon footprint by playing your part in protecting the environment and supporting countries and communities that have been affected by tourism.
Tourism pollution is responsible for the deterioration of many nature preserves, ecosystems, small communities, and businesses due to foot traffic, litter, and carbon emissions. The goal of sustainable travel, however, is to find new and unique ways to experience the world while leaving behind a positive impact, instead of a wasteful impact.
The 3 Pillars of Sustainability
In order for travel to truly be responsible and sustainable, it should contribute to the Three Pillars of Sustainability: Environmental, Social, and Economic.
The environmental pillar of sustainability focuses on what most of us think about when we think of being sustainable: playing our part to help the planet and climate. This is where being reducing air travel, avoiding or greatly reducing plastic consumption, being conscious of water consumption, and not disrupting wildlife. This is where being prepared with reusable items, doing research about parks and ethical tours, or even looking ahead to find sustainable hotels will come in handy.
The social pillar encourages tourists to be thoughtful about the impact your visit has on the local culture and community. Participating in tours and events that not only promote positive and safe environments for the locals but also provide fair wages for those working to educate you. Volunteering at local charities, or attending a charity market, are great ways to see and immerse yourself in the local culture while also having a positive impact.
There’s a saying: Think global, act local. This stands true for the economic pillar of sustainability. This means visiting local hotels, restaurants, vendors, and individuals. Ultimately, it means using your money to support the local economy in order to help it thrive.
19 ways to be a sustainable traveler
1. Take direct flights whenever possible
When taking a flight, especially a long haul flight, its important to find a direct flight due to the emissions caused d by take-off and landing. Avoiding unnecessary carbon emissions is key.
2. Fly economy class
Not only is this the more budget-friendly option, but opting for the less spacious business-class or first-class seat means saving space, therefore, less waste.
3. Take public transportation
Walking is always the most sustainable way to get around. But if your destination is too far, take a train, subway, bus, or rideshare. This will create fewer emissions than driving on your own.
4. Check for green certifications at hotels/hostels
This might take some research, but nowadays, hotels and hostels will call out if they are energy efficient or adhere to sustainability initiatives. Every now and then, you might even find a new hotel that’s made from sustainable materials. Equally as important, if you are staying at a chain hotel, make sure their employees are paid fairly and/or contribute to the community.
5. Stay at a locally owned hotel
Local hotels can help you immerse yourself into the local culture, all while you’re giving back to the community by supporting a local business.
6. Avoid All-Inclusive Hotels
All-inclusive hotels are extremely appealing on paper, however, having unlimited food and drink means a lot of accumulated waste and plastic use. This also means that you’re in no way supporting the local economy because you have little incentive to leave the hotel grounds.
7. Look for Green-Washing
Much like fast fashion brands like to greenwash, or use terms like “green” or “eco-friendly” to cover up their wastefulness, many institutions in the tourism industry do the same. Do your due diligence when looking up a tour-vendor, hotel, or attractions. Here’s where “think global, act local” comes in handy again. If you’re having trouble finding information, try to choose a local company to at least contribute to the community.
8. Give Camping a Try
Camping might not be your thing, which is fine! If you’re up for an adventure, camping out in a new park, beach, or forest can really give you a new perspective while be sustainable. That being said, be sure to follow the camping guidelines of the area and properly clean up after yourself. Let’s not be counterproductive here.
9. Volunteer at an Animal Sanctuary
Zoos and aquariums are huge tourist attractions that can be hard to pass up. Their also extremely unsustainable, as the animals in captivity are not always treated to the most optimal conditions. There are plenty of rescues, sanctuaries, and habitats that, with advanced notice, will let you volunteer at for a day and allow you to get up close and personal with many rehabilitating animals.
10. Volunteer at a local charity or non-profit
As stated before, sustainability is not ONLY about the planet, it’s about the people too. Dedicating time to give back is not only helpful to the community you’re visiting, but it’ll teach you about the culture and history of the people. Whether you choose a children’s center, a beach clean up, or even just pop into a charity-run class, you can meet the people that make up the community and get your true value out of the travel.
11. Go on a Walking Tour
Seeing a new site AND getting some exercise and fresh air? You’re also much more likely to get some great photos, find awesome food, and really take in the culture and your surroundings.
12. Visit a Farmer’s Market
Staying in a location for a few days? Visit a local farmers market to pick up some fresh produce and some snacks. This gives back to local farmers and artisans, but it can also save you money if you cook for yourself.
13. Eat Local Cuisine
One of the best parts of traveling is trying new foods. Finding those hidden gems of local cuisine is truly an amazing way to immerse yourself into a new community and support local businesses. It’s also a great way to meet locals and get some insights into places that most tourists might not know about that the locals do.
14. Find a Vintage or Charity Shop
There’s something about travel that makes people want to shop for new clothes or souvenirs. It has happened to all of us. If you find yourself itching to hop around to different stores, check out local vintage or charity shops to look for a new jacket or maybe a piece of jewelry to remember your trip by.
15. Bring a reusable bag & Tupperware
Reusable bags can easily be stowed away in a suitcase and can come in handy if you choose to go shopping or need to pick up some food at the market. You might not want to lug around a full-sized glass container, but there are plenty of travel-friendly containers you can find to stash some baked goods or a sandwich to-go. This will save you from having to use boxes and bags provided by delis and bakeries.
16. Bring a reusable water bottle
Utilizing a reusable water bottle is one of the easiest ways to support the planet. You’re avoiding using single-use plastic and producing no waste.
17. Pack Light
Packing light means adding less weight to any plane or car ride that you might take during your travels. It also means less space taken up. This is also just plain beneficial on your end, as you’ll have less luggage to pull around while you’re exploring.
18. Pack Eco-Friendly or Zero-waste toiletries
Brands like Lush and Ethique have mastered the zero waste toiletry department. You can find shampoos, conditioners, body soap, facial cleansers, and even moisturizers and lotions all in bar form. This can save space in your suitcase and keep you from having to purchase plastic bottles or refills to travel around with.
19. Leave every place you visit just a little bit better than it was when you arrived
Sustainability is more than just keeping locations and communities alive, its about helping them thrive. By dedicating your time and your actions and being present, you’re leaving a bit of your best self behind to help the community grow. If you’re not 100% comfortable doing these things just yet, that’s completely fine! Start by respecting your surroundings, cleaning up after yourself, and doing all that you can to be mindful and not wasteful.
Sustainable travel FAQs
What is the most sustainable way to travel?
The act of traveling itself is always going to produce some kind of waste, especially since electric cars are not accessible to everyone. That being said, some methods of travel are much more sustainable than others. Trains, public transportation, and car shares are always your best options.
If you must travel by air, take direct flights, and be thoughtful about the length of your trip. A great way to justify air travel is by extending trips for as long as possible. This will not only give you more time at your destination but will make the air travel worth it.
Why is sustainable travel important?
Do you want your kids and grandkids to be able to experience the beauty of the world? That’s why it is important! Tourism can be destructive when abused, and many sites and cities are becoming run down and economically unstable due to the heavy foot traffic and pollution caused by visitors.
By taking baby steps (and eventually huge leaps) towards more sustainable travel habits and leaving a place better than when you arrived, you’ll be preserving it for future generations.
What are the benefits of sustainable tourism?
The benefits are enormous! Not only will you be playing your part in helping the environment and all that lives within it, but you’ll also be contributing to local economies and cultures and helping them thrive. You’re contributing to the planet and the people in it while doing your best to not creating more waste and pollution.
On a personal level, sustainable tourism can teach you to slow down and take time to learn about culture, appreciate the food you eat, practice being more mindful and less wasteful, and truly just being present.