What is Sustainable Travel?

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 from Charlie on Travel (1)

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.

Tai Dam Village Thailand Loei Province - Women in rice field - Charlie on Travel 2

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.

Luke overlooking Barcelona

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.

Dancing Ledge Dorset Walking the coast


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.

Local Environments

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.

Charlie at Quepos farmers market - Charlie on Travel

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.

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

3 thoughts to “What is Sustainable Travel?”

  1. Charlie,

    I really loved the message and direction you went with this post. Distinguishing sustainable travel from responsible and green is a pretty important and difficult task and I think you did well to focus on just the one. The message would get muddied otherwise. I’m a bit guilty of opting for a flight over other means when time was the biggest factor. I’d like to chime in and nominate local travel as another method of sustainable travel. We don’t necessarily have to leave our own countries or even cities to get out there. As our carbon footprint gets bigger and bigger, that’s definitely something to think about. Regardless, thank you for bringing up this important topic and for writing in such a poignant manner on it. Cheers.
    Duke Stewart recently posted…Why I Love Chiang MaiMy Profile

    1. Hey Duke, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Differentiating all of those terms is quite a challenge because there are so many overlaps and because the tend to be used interchangeably due to their similarities – but I do think that there are some distinctions to be made. I totally agree with local travel as being an excellent method of sustainable travel, great shout! Really appreciate you taking the time to comment :)

  2. Hi Charlie! You are right to say that sustainable tourism involves the concerted effort of all players in the tourism industry. Tourism involves a chain of activities, and unfortunately, most of these activities can have negative impacts on the environment.

    My work is in the field of environmental management and incidentally, I also love to travel. As a traveler, I wanted to infuse the environmental management principles I use at work, in my way of travel. I myself admit that it is not always easy to practice sustainable travel. In choosing hotels, for instance, I’m guilty of choosing only based on cost and online reviews. And these reviews often lack the criteria on social and environmental sustainability.

    There are much more that needs to be done, but I want to take it positively that it can be done. Being sustainable is a process and as you said, it’s not just the traveler’s responsibility alone. It’s best to start with what we control, meaning us, as travelers.

    Thank you for putting this information together and I hope more and more travelers will be more conscious about responsible travel.

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