Sustainable travel should be the only way we travel. From excessive air travel that causes harmful CO2 emissions to package holiday resorts that are built on natural areas, international travel and tourism are far from sustainable.
Our world has finite resources. There are only so many beautiful, natural, untouched places on our planet and mass tourism threatens their existence. Nature, culture and history are things to be preserved, not commodified.
Unfortunately, many travellers and travel industry operators remain in denial about how limited our world’s resources are and how tourism is negatively affecting the environment, local cultures and communities. That’s where sustainable travel comes in.
What is Sustainable Travel?
Sustainable travel means finding a way that tourism can be maintained long-term without harming natural and cultural environments. Sustainable travel should minimise the negative impacts of tourism and ideally be beneficial to the area in which it takes place.
The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “development [which] meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support system.”
Sustainable travel is about valuing the environment and looking after our natural resources. Travellers need to be more aware of pollution levels caused by travel and how that affects the environment and local wildlife. They also need to be aware of how tourism affects local people, businesses and native cultures.
While there is some crossover in definition between sustainable travel, responsible travel and green travel, the core focus of sustainable travel is reducing the environmental impacts and the problems associated with mass tourism models.
Sustainable Travel and the Environment
Tourism relies on burning fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change. It’s predicted that 40% of the world’s carbon emissions will be generated by tourism by 2050. To break this down, right now 72% of tourism’s CO2 emissions come from transportation, a further 24% from accommodation, and 4% from tourism activities.
The problem is that while our environmental conscious tells us we should moderate how often and how far we fly, we rarely do. I recently read that many of us are ‘binge flying’ – that is flying far more often than is necessary just because we can. We have the time, the money and the desire to travel abroad. Some of us have an almost “insatiable” appetite for travel — and us digital nomads are particularly guilty here.
I’ve discussed whether air travel can really be sustainable and ways to mitigate the negative impacts of air transport before, but it’s important to remember that the choices we make when we’re at our chosen destination affect the environment too.
Many destinations do not have regulations or strategies in place to cope with rapid development and overcapacity which is caused by increased tourism. Quite often foreign investors will come, build and leave chaos that the locals have to tidy up — including issues with waste, carbon and water.
How to Travel Sustainably
As travellers and tourists, we need to take responsibility for advocating a more sustainable way of travelling. This isn’t going to happen overnight and there isn’t a magical solution to solve the problems associated with tourism, but we can work towards better, more sustainable travel.
Air transport – Mitigate the negative impact of air travel by flying less often and staying for longer in further away destinations. Many long-term travellers can opt to travel through neighbouring countries instead of flying between countries that are further away.
Ground transport – Go by foot or bike whenever possible, and use public transport and car shares to get around instead of private cars.
Local Accommodation – Opt for accommodation with locals, such as through Couchsurfing, Airbnb and other similar sharing economy networks, or locally owned guesthouses and b&bs.
Sustainable Hotels – Alternatively, look for accommodation with a commitment to sustainability and initiatives such as solar power, energy-efficient lighting, recycling and so on. Find out whether a hotel employs local staff, source their food locally and use locally sourced building materials and decor.
When we travelled in Costa Rica, we stayed in a number of eco-lodges that were built and operated in a sustainable way (our favourite was La Kukula!) Do watch out for ‘greenwashing’ — there’s no independent regulator so many hotels have labelled themselves green without actually making an effort.
Camp – If you’re committed to sustainable travel accommodation and love the outdoors, then camping is another great accommodation option. We‘ve only camped at a few odd times – such as at Dancing Ledge last summer – but can definitely see the environmental benefits.
Avoid all-inclusive holidays and staying in large resorts or foreign-owned chain hotels.
Eat Local – Eat locally grown food from local producers. Avoid imported foods and international food chains where food has had to be transported from far away causing carbon emissions.
Be Aware – Be aware of your environment and respectful of the surroundings. For example, if you’re snorkelling be careful not to tread on the coral as this can damage the fragile ecosystem. Avoid any wildlife tours that promise up-close encounters with animals, as these may be unethical. Look for tours that won’t disturb wildlife.
Speak Up for Sustainable Travel
The responsibility of finding a more sustainable model of tourism doesn’t only fall with the traveller, but with the airlines, host countries, local governments, and business owners. Many of them realise that they need to work on more sustainable tourism initiatives but are concerned about upsetting the status quo by putting restrictions or taxes in place to mitigate the negative impacts of mass tourism. Speak up and let places and people know that you’re interested in sustainable travel.