Staying at Dreamsea surf camp beach is one of the best things to do in Uluwatu

What Is Sustainable Travel | And How To Do It

Maybe you’ve heard of sustainable travel and are curious to learn more about it? It’s been a buzzword in travel for several years. But what exactly is sustainable travel? Why is it important? And how can you help by incorporating more of it into your next trip?

It’s not the friendliest of phrases, but it’s something that’s really a win-win for everyone. Something we should all aspire to incorporate into our travels. A way of making sure we don’t strip away the essence of the very places we want to visit. A way of making sure the very places we love remain wonders for many years to come.

What Is Sustainable Travel?

So what exactly is sustainable Travel? According to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, “Sustainable Tourism refers to sustainable practices in and by the tourism industry. It is an aspiration to acknowledge all impacts of tourism, both positive and negative. It aims to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive ones.”

We all know that tourism can be good for a location, bringing foreign dollars, jobs, and infrastructure to a destination. It creates an awareness of its culture and history, and much more. But sometimes, too much of a good thing has negative consequences.

What are some of the negative aspects of tourism? Overtourism is definitely one. Too many tourists can have a negative impact on a destination in several ways. First, too many people can damage the environment and fragile ecosystems.

An example of this is the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was filmed in Thailand at Maya Bay, resulting in hordes of tourists wanting to visit. The ecosystem here was so badly damaged due to boat traffic and pollution that almost 80% of the coral reefs in the bay were damaged. As a result, in 2018 the Thai government closed the beach. It recently reopened in 2022, but now, with new regulations in place. They now minimize the number of tourists and have changed the way boats access the destination.

Sustainable Travel

Locals can also become frustrated when overtourism occurs. Especially when it results in rising housing prices, sometimes pushing locals out further away from their ‘home’. It can also result in the disappearance of small local shops and the creation of more tourist shops, usually ones that sell souvenirs made overseas, rather than local goods.

Another issue is damage to the environment caused by C02 emissions and pollution from long haul flights and large cruise ships. Sometimes more than the average persons’ annual carbon footprint!

Other ways the environment can become damaged is by the proliferation of non-biodegradable consumables, use of non-sustainable products, and trash.

All this damage can lead to deforestation, pollution, damaged coral reefs, and more.

‘Economic leakage’ is another negative of tourism. This is when the dollars you spend in a location end up in the pockets large over seaside companies, rather than in the pockets of locals at your destination. This happens when you stay at large international chains or eat at international chain restaurants, rather than those owned by locals. Especially ones that don’t follow sustainable practices. Or worse yet, when you visit via a large cruise ship, only stopping at a destination for a few hours, not even spending any money on hotels and minimal on food.

Ugh! It’s enough to make you think you should completely avoid travel. But that’s not the right solution either. Travel is an important way to learn about the wonders of our world and our collective history. A way for us to grow together as a cohesive community. There are ways we can travel sustainably, to help minimize these negatives.

One of the goals of sustainable travel is to create awareness of the negatives and improve the positives of tourism. With a few changes, we can shift back to focus on the positives of travel, like the benefit of foreign money flowing into a destination, the creation of jobs, the preservation of cultural heritage, and the preservation of the land, wildlife, and biodiversity.

It may seem a bit overwhelming, but once you become aware, it’s easy to incorporate practices into your travels that minimize the bad and maximize the positive.

Before I get into these details, however, I want to cover a few more related travel buzzwords.

Responsible Travel

Responsible travel is when travelers choose to take trips using sustainable travel practices, helping to preserve local culture, wildlife and the environment, and contributing to local economies. This is you (and me), actively practicing and participating in sustainable travel.

Experiential Travel

Although all travel is technically experiential travel, the phrase used currently means a bit more than that. According to Wikipedia, “Experiential travel, also known as immersion traveling, is a form of tourism in which people focus on experiencing a country, city or particular place by actively and meaningfully engaging with its history, people, culture, food and environment.” It’s about really connecting with a place, rather than just visiting.

Experiential travel goes hand in hand with sustainable travel as it can help to preserve both the environment and culture of a destination.

Regenerative Travel

Regenerative travel is the next step in all this. It’s about leaving a place better than you found it, not just not messing it up (yes, that’s a double negative). It’s actively participating in ways to make the location you’re visiting better.

You can participate in beach cleanups, volunteer to plant trees or other necessary greenery in your location, volunteer to help protect local wildlife, help to support local economies, and more.

What Is Sustainable Travel And How To Do It

So now that we know what sustainable travel is, and a few of its related travel buzzwords, let’s get into what we can do to make a difference.

Choose Off-The-Beaten-Path Destinations

By choosing off-the-beaten-path locations, we can help reduce overtourism. Uzbekistan, Montenegro, or lesser visited cities in well-known countries like the Monasteries of Meteora in Greece are a few examples. They may not have as much notoriety of places like Rome, Bali, or Paris, but are just as rewarding, if not more so.

These ‘hidden gem’ locations offer more experiential, more authentic travel opportunities. Many yet ‘undiscovered’ by the masses, providing a chance to really immerse yourself into the location and culture. Plus you’re usually standing on that mountaintop alone, not crammed with hundreds of other vying for the same photograph (like I was in the photo below).

What is sustainable travel? Visit off the beaten path destinations
The ‘Fjords’ of Montenegro

Travel Off Season

Another way to help reduce overcrowding at locations is to travel off season, or visit when fewer tourists visit.

For example, I visited Zanzibar in April, when it was rainy season. Before I left, the weather reports showed rain all day every day. I was actually a little worried. In reality, it just rained in short bursts, and not even every day. Some brilliantly sunny!

It was great as accommodation was a little less expensive, one even offered a special rate (lower than online) when I physically stopped and asked if there was availability! Taxi drivers were also more likely to negotiate with me and there were fewer tourists around, making the experience feel much more authentic. I would definitely visit during rainy season again.

There may be downsides to this, however, as some tourist attractions may not be open. For example, the local surf shop was not offering daily surf lessons. Instead, I improvised, and got my Open Water Scuba Diving Certification!

What is sustainable travel? Visit off season.
Zanzibar Off Season

Curious who the guy in the red wrap is above? He was a Maasai from Tanzania working as a security guard at the place I was staying in Zanzibar. He had just killed a snake in the garden for us and was walking it to the sea. If you look closely, you’ll see it in his left hand.

Carbon Offset Your Flight

If the flight to your destination is a long haul flight, it’s probably responsible for the largest carbon footprint of your entire trip, emitting damaging CO2 emissions into the environment. You can help minimize this by offsetting the carbon footprint of your trip.

There are several tools out there to help you determine the CO2 emissions of your flight. I like the Sustainable Travel International Carbon Footprint Tool. They make it easy as you can donate directly on their site, or you can choose your own organization.

The dollars you spend on this site help fund carbon reduction projects around the world. There are a variety, like clean energy initiatives and forest conservation. Initiatives they say are scientifically proven to mitigate climate change. 

The certificate below is what I received after offsetting one of my trips.

What is sustainable travel? Offset your C02 emissions.
C02 Offset Certificate

Minimizing Damage From Cruises

Believe it or not, cruise ships have an even worse impact on the environment than long haul flights. Not only are they bigger polluters, most of your money goes to the cruise company, rather than the local economy, since you don’t stay in hotels or eat at local restaurants. And if you take a long haul flight to get to your cruise, it’s even worse. On top of this, you generally don’t really have any meaningful interactions with the culture, making it a quadruple whammy!

If you still decide to travel via a cruise, read up on which cruise ships are worst. It’s not easy though as the 2022 report above shows top name cruise lines with grades of C, D, and F. None had anything higher. 🙁

The carbon offset tool above also has a calculator for cruise C02 emissions, so that’s a start. Also try to stay locally a few days at the beginning and/or end of your trip, and try to spend local when you can to travel more responsibly.

Minimize Use Of Non-Biodegradable Consumables

Always try to minimize or eliminate single use plastics when you travel. Bring a small fabric tote bag for purchases rather than getting plastic bags at grocery and convenient stores.

Also bring a refillable water bottle with you and fill it with tap water rather than buying bottled water. You can now buy the type that rolls up in your luggage and expands when filled.

Minimize use of mini travel supplies, or just refill yours when you do travel. There are also now a lot of ‘solid’ products like bar shampoo and conditioner, that help minimize plastics. Try to stick to organic products when you can too.

Choose Accommodation Owned By Locals

Another way to travel sustainably, or responsibly, is to stay at lodging owned by locals. This reduces the ‘economic leakage’ by keeping your travel in the hands of locals, rather than international corporations. Not all hotels, home stays, or Airbnbs, specifically state when they are locally owned, so to be sure, ask.

Some of my more memorable stays were in locations owned by locals, including home stays, Airbnbs owned by locals. Especially if they live on the property. Even government lodging on hikes in places like New Zealand, like my hike on the Routeburn Trail were very rewarding. They’re not always the fanciest of places, but they’re very welcoming, and usually provide a more authentic, more cultural travel experience. They’re more experiential.

Not all international chains are bad though! As more and more travelers demand and choose organizations that support the local areas they operate, hotels are making changes to be more sustainable (see below). They’re making efforts to consciously be more eco-freindly, support local team members, and providing jobs and training. Plus they do help the local economy through the local taxes they pay.

Choose Accommodation That Supports Sustainable Practices

Because there is a demand for more sustainable travel, sustainable hotels are a growing trend. This means it’s getting easier and easier to choose accommodation that supports sustainable practices.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has worked to set criteria “…to provide a common understanding throughout the world of “sustainable tourism”, and are the minimum that any tourism business should aspire to reach. They are organized around four main themes: effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage, and reducing negative impacts to the environment…” Sometimes they’re also called eco-friendly or green hotels.

Booking.com, the one of the world’s biggest travel marketplaces, has developed a system for third-party certifications to recognize an accommodation’s efforts to operate more sustainably. As you search for accommodation, you can see which accommodation have certifications. You can also use the filter to search for those places that have this.

What is Sustainable Travel?
DreamSea Surf Camp, Sustainable Lodging

DreamSea Surf Camp in Uluwatu, Bali offers sustainable accommodation.


Learn About The Cultural Heritage Of Your Destination

Supporting the local culture is also a part of sustainable travel. Try to find places on your trip where you can learn more about the culture and interact meaningfully with locals. If you travel independently, it’s relatively easy to add this into your trip, but some quality tour groups are also adding elements of this into their trips.

I used this example in my post on Experiential Travel, but it was one of my favorites and fits here too. I took a tour guided by a local in the far western part of Mongolia (so far from Ulanbataar the only way to get there is by flight) to live with the pastoral Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia for a few days and visit their annual Golden Eagle Festival. There is no way I could have done this on my own (the nomads didn’t speak English at all). Plus, it was led by a local whose parents were both born as nomads, so I learned so much about the culture here…it was truly incredible. Plus there were only 2 other tourists in my tour group so we got 100% attention.

Since I already used this one, I’ll add another to this post. I spent a night in the amazing lunar red landscape of the Wadi Rum Desert as part of my trip to Jordan. We stayed in tents with water heated by soar energy. Fire was out source of light in the evening and used to cook our meals. Our guides were locals, sharing local dishes, music, and stories under starlight. Sustainable, experiential, and amazing at the same time!

Red landscape of wadi rum in the Jordan Travel Guide
Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan

Use Public Transportation

If you can, use local transportation, like trains or buses instead of flights. The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto is a much better option than flying, plus you learn so much more about the culture along the way.

Beyond this, walking is the greenest method of travel once you reach your destination. I do this when I can and find I often discover little treasures along the way that I wouldn’t have noticed taking a taxi or the subway.

Buy Souvenirs From Local Stores

Try to buy souvenirs actually made at your destination, not cheap stuff made by China or other overseas countries. This helps to reduce the economic leakage mentioned earlier and helps strengthen cultural heritage.

Wear Reef Safe Sunscreen

A very easy way to help protect the environment when your in the beach is to wear reef safe sunscreen. According to Save The Reef, “the key is to find an SPF that uses physical UVA and UVB filters (as opposed to the chemical ones that have been connected to coral reef deterioration). You’ll be able to find them by flipping the SPF tube over and looking for the active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”

They go in to say that the words “reef safe” are not regulated, so you really need to check the ingredients. Make sure your sunscreen does not include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nano-sized)
  • Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”

If this is still confusing (which it kind of is) they also show products that are both toxic and good. If it’s difficult to see the detail in the photo below, visit save the savethereef.org for more details.

Thanks for taking the time to read about sustainable travel. I hope I’ve encouraged you to travel more sustainably, or responsibly.

If you have any ideas on other ways to travel more sustainably, please add them in the comments below.

Safe Travels!

Julie

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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