We love to travel. But the ugly truth is that the tourism industry has some unsustainable habits. From cities flooded with mass tourism to significant environmental problems, our wanderlust has a serious impact. Air and water pollution, displacement of local people, 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 travel on and explore the Earth, we have to do better. Sustainable travel is about more than just reducing your carbon footprint. It’s also about supporting local communities. Travel in a way that reduces both our environmental and social impact. Travel in a way that benefits local culture and economy rather than harming it. Travel with respect for people and the planet.
By pursuing sustainable tourism, we can have a positive impact on the world. And being a more sustainable traveler is not difficult. It’s about being mindful and making the right decisions.
Choose your destination wisely
One of the first steps in planning a trip is to choose a destination. You may not have considered it, but here you can make more sustainable decisions.
Enjoy a stay
Traveling is not always about distance. It’s about opening up to new experiences. You don’t have to go far to leave your comfort zone. There are likely to be many new and exciting things to do near your home. Instead of spending a lot of money and flying halfway around the world, you can also have fun when you travel there.
You could check in to a hotel in your hometown and have a short stay, plan a weekend trip to a nearby town, take a road trip, or camp anywhere in your state or country. We are so obsessed with seeing the world, while there are likely to be many beautiful places nearby that you have not visited.
Avoid mass tourism destinations
If you don’t want to contribute to the negative effects of over-tourism, you should avoid the famous destinations on the bucket list. Many places are popular for a reason, but suffer from mass tourism.
So instead of planning a trip to the most famous places, you should choose something off the beaten path. Avoid cities like Amsterdam, Venice or Barcelona or tourist hotspots like Dubrovnik, Phuket and Bali.
There are many beautiful places on earth, so focus on the hidden gems rather than the big thugs. You can enjoy your vacation without large crowds, experience a more authentic cultural experience and take a much more original trip. You also help these smaller communities by securing income from your visit. Do you want to do what everyone else does?
Treat yourself to slow tourism
You could also travel slower and take the time to explore a country or region? They often have so much more to offer than just a capital.
Take this opportunity to immerse yourself in local culture and explore the landscape. You can really relax and walk at a leisurely pace instead of constantly moving from place to place, rushing through the major tourist attractions and spending most of your trip in transit. And isn’t this vacation really about it?
If you have time, it is a good choice to plan a long trip where you travel overland instead of flying back and forth. So plan on a big one instead of several short intercontinental trips per year.
Take a more sustainable form of transportation
Once you’ve selected a destination, you’ll need a way to get there. We are now 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 worldwide. That may not sound like much, but a transatlantic return flight from London to New York emits around 986 kg of CO2 per passenger. That’s more than you could make up for if you eat vegan or don’t drive a car for a year. In fact, it’s more than the average citizen of Ghana in a single year!
In comparison per kilometer and passenger, flights emit between 102 and 133 grams, train about 41 grams of CO2 emissions and buses only 27 grams of CO2. Take-off and landing cause the most CO2 emissions, so long-haul flights are relatively “cleaner” than short flights. This means that short-haul flights will often operate more flights in the same period. So the math is clear: avoid flying and choose a more environmentally friendly mode of transportation if you can.
Compensate for CO2 emissions?
Some airlines, rail and bus companies have also taken eco-initiatives that allow you to pay a little more to offset the CO2 emissions of your trip. Although this appears to be a positive development, it is not necessarily as good as it sounds.
Unfortunately, these companies are often not transparent about how they offset these emissions, and it may be little more than “greenwashing” (…). By presenting themselves as more environmentally friendly than they are, companies are playing with the growing concern of customers. Ultimately, despite efforts to offset CO2 emissions, flying is still incredibly environmentally harmful.
The best way to counter less sustainable choices is to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and support environmentally friendly initiatives that go beyond compensating for a single flight. Sustainability is not a zero-sum game, and the more you do, the better.
Use public transportation, ride a bike or walk.
The selection of sustainable modes of transport does not end when you reach your destination. Instead of renting a car, you should use public transport. Local buses or shuttle buses can also be out of town. Driving is a sustainable option if you share the trip with as many people as possible, especially in an electric car. Road trip someone?
Or take an active cycling or hiking holiday! The most sustainable way to get around is, of course, to stand on your own two feet. Hiking is also a fun way to explore cities. It is free, healthy and good for the environment. You could also see and experience parts of the city that you would otherwise have missed.
Stay in environmentally friendly, locally owned accommodations.
Have you ever thought about the environmental impact of an average hotel? Just think about it once: continuous cleaning, cooking, air conditioning, heating, etc. The consumption of water, electricity and gas in hotels takes place through the roof.
Look for an environmentally friendly certification
Research local accommodations to find out what efforts they are making to become more sustainable. You can also let others do all the work and choose environmentally friendly, certified accommodation. Certifications such as Green Key and LEED in North America, Green Tourism in the EU and the Rainforest Alliance certification in South America are useful tools. There are also global eco-certifications like Earth Check, Green Globe and STEP.
Choose a locally owned company.
Not only the environmental impacts have to be considered; Tourist accommodations also have a significant impact on local life. The more tourists flock to a place, the closer the real estate markets and prices will rise. The quality of life of the locals drops, small businesses lose their business and have to close when the locals move away.
One of the biggest culprits of this type of city hollowing is Airbnb. The original business model looked very sustainable. Locals could rent guest rooms to tourists, earn additional income, and facilitate cultural exchanges. Unfortunately, with the boom in tourism, more and more living space is being converted into permanent tourist accommodation. If you choose to stay with Airbnb, choose one where the host lives on site. This way, your money goes directly to the owner, not a real estate mogul, and you can interact with locals for a priceless cultural exchange.
Chain hotels are not much better because they often only employ locals in the lowest paid positions and not much of the profit goes to the local economy. So always choose locally owned and operated.
Book sustainable activities
Perhaps the most entertaining part of planning a trip is creating an itinerary. You want to do as many fun activities and explorations as possible. But unfortunately not everything you do as a tourist is fun for the locals too.
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 peculiarities of his hometown and country. Or go through Airbnb experiences for cultural exchange, for example to learn how to make pasta from a real Italian grandmother. Take your time to learn about the local culture and history, because doesn’t traveling make you great?
Use a B-Corp company
If you’re not in the mood to plan the whole thing yourself and want the convenience of an organized tour, book one through a certified B-Corp. These are companies that reconcile profit and purpose and strive for positive social and environmental impacts. Intrepid Travel is an excellent example of an accredited B-Corp tour operator. Other B companies traveling.
Take a certified eco tour
If you want to do nature activities, you should choose tours and activities that are environmentally friendly. Be sure to avoid animal tourism, where animals are exploited and mistreated to keep tourists entertained. That means not riding elephants or taking pictures with tigers.
Instead, opt for wildlife tours that are led by real experts and conservationists and that are ecologically certified. You will learn a lot more and benefit directly from our beautiful planet. GetYourGuide offers such tours all over the world. Or do something free, fun, and environmentally friendly like beach cleaning!
Here is an example of a tour that is environmentally certified on GetYourGuide.
Spend your money on site
Travel also has enormous potential for positive effects. Tourism brings in a lot of money and many economies largely depend on it. Unfortunately, much of that money goes into the pockets of large corporations and corrupt government officials.
But there is a simple solution: spend on site. As a visitor, you have the choice to support local companies rather than large companies and chains. Instead of hoping that your money is slowly sinking, invest directly in local businesses.
Eat at local restaurants, shop in small local shops, and hire local guides and drivers. It may not always be as convenient or cheap, but it has a big impact. You can support local businesses that offer quality products, maintain traditional practices, and support the local community. This is especially true for women-owned companies, which often give women the much-needed financial independence.
As good as it is to support the local economy, giving money away can do more harm than good. Giving money to beggars encourages them to drop out of school, and the money is often collected through organized begging rings. You are better off donating money to a local charity that helps these children and gives them the opportunity to help them live a better life.
Don’t waste valuable resources
We live on a beautiful and abundant planet. Unfortunately, these natural resources are not infinite. The way we live and travel burns fossil fuels, pollutes water and air, and has a negative impact on the environment.
Of course, companies and governments have to take responsibility. But there are many things we travelers can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Small changes can have a significant impact. The magic mantra is: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce your plastic waste
Over half of the 300 tons of plastic that are produced each year are single-use plastics. Think of plastic water bottles, plastic bags and disposable cutlery. All of this plastic ends up in landfills, or worse, in the rivers or in the ocean. Plastic pollution is a big problem, especially if it ends up in our oceans. An estimated 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic end up in the sea annually. It contaminates the water and hurts marine life. The same applies to plastic that lands on fields, in forests and on the side of the road.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to counteract this: Avoid single-use plastic. Reject straws and plastic bags and choose packaging-free products made from natural and compostable materials. Make some simple swaps to trade your regular travel products for more sustainable alternatives (see link below).
If you need to throw something away, try to recycle or dispose of it where possible. Do not throw away! It is a simple matter of respect as a guest for the living environment of others. If you didn’t throw garbage on the floor in your own home, why would you do it with someone else?
Use less of everything
Try reducing your waste in general. Pay more attention to the amount of water and energy you consume. Especially if you travel to regions that are struggling with droughts and bottlenecks. Just keep in mind that your 30-minute shower will reduce available clean drinking water for others. Be a good guest by not taking more than you need.
Shorter showers, pulling out the power plug and switching 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 blow up the air conditioner while you’re on the go.
Adopt a (mainly) plant-based diet
Intensive agriculture pollutes the environment enormously. Farm animals and especially cows cause at least 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle manure contributes significantly to water and air pollution. Not to mention the enormous amounts of water and food that are needed for animal husbandry.
Approximately 1020 liters of water are required to produce one liter of milk and 100 times more water to produce one kg of animal protein than for one pound of vegetable protein. And animals have to eat. A third of all arable land worldwide is used to house cattle and to grow their food. It is a major cause of deforestation, desertification and species extinction.
While this happens on land, overfishing, illegal fishing and bycatch threaten marine biodiversity. Even with ecological and animal-friendly certifications, sustainable fishing is not the norm.
So if you immediately reduce the amount of animal products you eat, your carbon footprint will decrease – both at home and while traveling. You don’t have to be fully vegan, but it’s a good idea to include more plant-based dishes in your diet. Apps like Happy Cow show you which restaurants offer vegan and vegetarian dishes all over the world.
Here are some of the key ways you can change your travel style to become more sustainable and have a better impact on the world and places you visit. Of course, traveling is an incredible thing and although we shouldn’t stop traveling, we should be more aware of how we travel.
Sophie is a digital nomad from the Netherlands. She travels the world while working as a writer and translator from afar. She has a serious wanderlust and is enthusiastic about the freedom and adventure of traveling alone. In her spare time, she loves exploring new places by getting a little lost and trying strange new foods. You can follow their travels on Instagram and their blog.