Sustainable travel

Sustainable travel guide: what, how and why?

After two years of turmoil, the world is finally opening up to travellers. And like all the travellers out there, we’re over the moon! But what’s even better is that the people are aware of the importance of sustainable travel more than ever, as the pandemic showed us both the negative and the positive impact of tourism. First, we cheered with joy reading how the environment and the wildlife started improving due to less air travel and decreased tourist numbers. Then we started to see the devastating economic and social effects of the pandemic on tourism-dependant countries. In this post-pandemic world, we feel responsible to start travelling again, but with a strong environmental awareness to do it sustainably. And we know we’re not alone!’s research on 20,000 travellers from 28 countries concluded that people want to travel more sustainably and to see more eco conscious tourism options. So let’s look at what sustainable travel means, why is it important and how can we be more responsible travellers. Here’s your ultimate guide to sustainable travel!

Solo woman traveller, travelling sustainably by train, carrying a small carry on luggage

What do we mean by sustainable travel?

It’s really exciting to see that more people are willing to board the sustainability train, but many of us don’t know what travelling sustainably means or how to be eco-friendly travellers. According to National Geographic’s 2019 survey, 42% of travellers want to prioritise sustainable tourism, but 85% of them didn’t know what sustainable travel meant. Don’t worry if this sounds familiar to you, as we’re here to help! 

It can get confusing when you hear a lot of different terms, such as sustainable travel, ecotourism, green travel and many other similar words. In a sense, they all refer to the concept of being more aware of our impact on nature, the local economy and native cultures when we’re travelling. In short, sustainable travel means being able to maintain tourism activities for years to come, without negatively impacting the surrounding wildlife and local communities. That way, future generations can also experience the world’s natural wonders and diverse cultures. 

The three pillars of sustainable travel

Sustainability has three pillars – environmental, social and economic. Which are also applicable to sustainable travel and tourism.

1- Environmental 

Terms like eco-travel and green travel mostly sit under the environmental pillar of sustainable tourism, as it refers to our environmentally friendly practices when we’re travelling. It’s all about reducing our negative impact on the environment, its rich resources and the wildlife. For example, when we’re making a conscious choice between taking a flight or a train to minimise our carbon footprint, we’re mostly focusing on the environmental aspects of our travel. 

2- Social 

On the other hand, the social pillar of sustainable travel is more about supporting local communities, local arts and crafts, and making conscious efforts to protect cultural and natural treasures. Therefore, it’s all about our impact on the social environment and native cultures. For example, buying from an independent shop instead of a chain, being careful when visiting national parks etc.

3- Economic 

Travel costs money, and in some cases a lot of money! When we talk about the economic pillar of travelling sustainably, we refer to how that money is spent. Are we contributing to the local economy or making international chains richer? It’s important that the money we spend on our travels goes back to local communities and small businesses, rather than businesses that exploit local resources and people. This can range from buying souvenirs from local artisans to staying in a local guest accomodation, to buying from big shopping centres and staying in all-inclusive resorts. 

Summing it up, travelling sustainably refers to the shift in our mentality. It’s about being mindful of our choices and personal experiences, and how they affect the places and communities we visit. 

This sounds all great, but why is sustainable travel important?

To answer this question, we should first answer the question of why we travel? Most of us travel to see extraordinary landscapes, witness wildlife, experience different cultures and meet with new people. If tourism is not well managed with an emphasis on being sustainable, we will start to lose all these amazing things. 

Sustainable travel and tourism are important as they can provide economic growth for countries, good quality jobs for the locals and opportunities for raising funds and awareness for conservation projects. If we all embrace the mindset of responsible travel, the benefits of tourism will start to increase. For example, if sustainable tourism becomes the norm, we wouldn’t need to ban travel to see the wildlife flourish again. The number of leatherback sea turtles can continue to increase in Thailand, whilst the tourism industry recovers. 

How to be a more sustainable traveller?

A guy travelling in the mountains on his bike

What can we do on an individual basis to become sustainable travellers? The good news is you don’t need to move heaven and earth. When it comes to sustainability, relatively small decisions or minor changes in our behaviour can make a huge difference. Here are some tangible actions you can try on your next trip. 

Stay close to home

When we think about travel, we usually dream of foreign, exotic places and don’t consider our local options that much. In a sense, it doesn’t feel like real travel to take the train to the countryside. But the shorter the distance you travel from home, the lower your carbon footprint will be. Especially if you only have a limited time, then it’s best to discover the areas where you can travel by train or bus, rather than high emission flights. 

Try slow travel and stay longer

If you’re keen to travel long distance and experience different cultures, then try to stay as long as possible. You can reduce the negative impact of flights with slow travel, or in other words, by spending more time in one destination. The carbon footprint of your travel is the same, whether you stay in a destination for a weekend or a month. By staying longer, you can get to know the local culture, and naturally contribute to the local economy more. It’s a win for everyone!

Be smart with your air travel

Yes, we all know that air travel is bad for the environment, but we also know that it’s here to stay. By taking certain actions, we can reduce the negative impact of flights as much as possible. Instead of choosing the cheapest fare, you can pick the most eco-friendly option. For example, Skyscanner has a special filter for greener options. Showing flights with lower carbon emissions. 

You can also try to get more information from the airlines and pick the ones with newer aircrafts that are designed to reduce fuel consumption. And try sticking to the shortest flight path with fewer or no stops, as take-offs and landings are the biggest reasons behind flight’s carbon emissions. 

Pick sustainable travel destinations

You may have heard of sustainable or eco-friendly travel destinations and wondered what they are. You’re not alone! It’s a relatively new concept, that refers to countries or regions with governing bodies who actively manage the impact of tourism. These are wonderful destinations that show commitment to sustainability by protecting their natural resources, local communities and native culture via various legislations and conservation projects. 

One example is Palau in The Pacific Islands, the first tourist destination to ban the sale and use of non-biodegradable sunscreen products. They also created the world’s first shark sanctuary back in 2015, and are asking every traveller to sign a ‘Palau Pledge’ upon arrival to promise they will respect the people and the environment.

Opt for an eco-hotel

Whether you’re in a sustainable destination or not, always try to choose accredited eco-hotels for your stay. However, always do your research and make sure that the accreditation is legitimate. If you can’t find eco-hotels, try to pick the most eco-friendly lodging option by checking their sustainability practices. 

Visit destinations that need your support

Rather than going to overcrowded tourist destinations, pick countries that need your support. These can be countries that recently experienced crises such as natural disasters, economic loss or recovering from previous political turmoil. Just be careful and make sure that the destination is open and safe for travellers to visit.

Support local economy

Whatever you do, try to give back to the local economy. Rather than eating at big well-known chains, eat delicious food at local restaurants. Food is more likely to be fresh and locally sourced. Plus, it will give you a better idea of the countries’ food culture. Don’t be scared of trying street food, or shopping at the food markets. But make sure that it’s sustainable, as not all local food is environmentally friendly.

Avoid all-inclusive resorts, as they discourage people from going out and trying local places, therefore they don’t enhance the local economy. Instead, opt for locally owned accommodation options.

local market to buy sustainable gifts and souvenirs

Get your souvenirs from local artisans

Be mindful when buying gifts or souvenirs, and shop from local artisans and merchants. Avoid imported, factory-made souvenirs, which most of the time are made from cheap materials or plastic. 

Be kind to animals and mindful the wildlife

Always be aware of animal welfare and know when to say no to cute Instagram photo opportunities. It could be very tempting to pose with a sedated lion or go for an elephant ride, but these are unethical activities that any responsible traveller should refuse. Instead, visit animal sanctuaries, such as ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, where you can help carers to bathe elephants. That way, your money is going towards protecting wildlife, rather than exploiting them. 

Select your tour operators carefully

Always make sure to question tour operators on their sustainable and eco-friendly practices. Try to understand how their tour packages help to support wildlife or protect cultural heritage. See if they use local guides or foreign tour guides. Whenever possible, try to hire local independent guides. Don’t be shy to meet and talk to local people and to ask if they know anyone who can show you around. You’ll find the best experiences that way. 

Engage in local and authentic tours

Find ways to engage in local activities that help the community and introduce you to the real culture. For example, instead of staying in a luxury glamping tent in the Sahara, find a local guide who can arrange for you to stay in a real nomadic tent, or even better, to sleep under the stars.  

Choose sustainable forms of travel

Instead of taking a taxi or Uber everywhere, take public transport and mix with locals to reduce your carbon footprint and experience the countries’ way of life. Arrange walking or cycling tours wherever possible, as these are the most environmentally friendly forms of travel. Also, show a conscious effort to pick an itinerary that avoids unnecessary flights and allows for greener options. 

Travel off-season

One of the main issues in the travel industry is over-tourism. Overcrowding of tourists causes pollution, destruction of natural sites and discomfort on local populations. You probably heard that in 2019 Barcelona’s mayor declared an environmental emergency and pledged to reduce the number of tourists. Lack of affordable housing for locals due to the increased number of Airbnbs and increased levels of air pollution due to cruise ships were amongst the reasons why Barcelona wants to put a limit on tourists. But the issue is not about the number of tourists in a year, it’s more about the number of tourists who arrive at the same time. Try to travel off-season to help destinations manage their tourist overload and support local businesses during their quieter months. 

Pack light with eco-friendly products

Pack smart to keep your luggage light to reduce your carbon footprint, especially when taking air travel. The plane’s fuel consumption increases the heavier it gets, meaning the heavier your luggage is, the more your carbon footprint increases. In addition to keeping it light, pack eco-friendly products to make your travel more sustainable. Here’s a shortlist of some essential products we love. 

  • Carry biodegradable shampoo and conditioner in reusable bottles. Instead of buying travel-size toiletries every time you travel, invest in reusable bottles and fill them at home. Or try shampoo and conditioner bars. 
  • Pack reef safe biodegradable sunscreen with fewer chemicals. 
  • Carry a water bottle to avoid buying plastic bottles. 
  • Pack reusable straws to avoid single-use plastic ones. 
  • Keep a tote bag in your luggage to use while shopping to avoid purchasing single use plastic bags. 

And most importantly, don’t buy new clothing every time you go on a holiday. Invest in good quality, sustainable bags, comfortable eco-conscious shoes, recycled swimwear and sustainable light-weight outdoor wear that you can use during all your holidays. 

This list may look quite long and scary, but don’t let it discourage you. You don’t need to do all these things, just like you don’t need to give up on air travel. Every small change you make or every eco conscious decision you make helps massively. Being a sustainable traveller is all about that mind shift and becoming more aware of our decisions. In the end, every little action helps!

Train travelling along the mountain range, with a female traveller watching outside

FAQ: What is the most sustainable form of travel?

Trains and buses have the lowest carbon footprint as they emit relatively fewer greenhouse gases, plus they allow slow travel. In that sense, we can say that taking a train or a bus is the most sustainable form of travel. However, it also depends on other circumstances. For example, if you’re travelling long distance, air travel may be a better option. The longer the distance you travel, the more efficient the flight is. 

As a general rule of thumb, opt for a train and run away from cruise ships. If you need to drive, consider renting an electric car and sharing it with other passengers. 

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a big applause! It’s great that you want to travel responsibly and sustainably. In addition to everything above, try to keep the conversation going by asking about sustainable travel practices and sharing your own experiences. Why not start today by leaving us a comment below, or sharing this guide with your fellow travellers.

Keep safe and travel responsibly!

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