So You Want to Be An Eco-Friendly Traveler: What is Sustainable Travel?

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The reality is that, for many of us, we are faced with a conflict - we want to travel; love to travel; need to travel - but also care about what we are doing to the planet on which we live.


Eco travel, green travel, ecotourism, responsible travel, ethical travel, conscious travel, culturally-aware travel, sustainable travel...what do all these terms mean and are they interchangeable? Confusing right? Sustainable travel is diverse from the rest and one of the most precisely defined.

Referring to travel that has a better impact as “sustainable” though, has it’s own challenges. Many would argue that travel and tourism – at the volume and level they are at now – are completely at odds with sustainability.

Because one thing is for sure: the current growth in tourism and the way we travel in general at the moment is just not sustainable.

If we all stopped flying tomorrow, global carbon emissions would be reduced by 12-15%. If we stopped travelling en masse to Venice, to Machu Picchu, to Boracay (and the list goes on) these places would slowly recover from the current strain that the demands of tourism are placing on local ecosystems, the environment, and the communities that live there.

On the other hand, many countries, particularly in the developing world, are heavily dependent on tourism as a main source of income. So stopping travelling would have potentially devastating consequences.

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Definitions of Sustainable Travel

So what is Sustainable Travel—or whatever we want to call it—that concept which seems to offer us a win-win solution?

According to the (UN) World Tourism Organisation:

“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities…

…Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.“

Eco Tourism is another commonly used term, but one that is starting to be open to more abuse as people catch on to the marketing power of ‘eco’. In some countries, the term “Ecotourism” is simply used to describe any kind of tourism activity that involves the outdoors or wildlife: Whether or not there is any responsibility or sustainability behind it. For this reason, we try to avoid using the term ecotourism.

As well when planning travel you need to be aware of "greenwashing". This is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is and is a problem in the travel industry as in many others.

So What Then Does It Mean to Travel Sustainably?

To travel sustainably is to:

  • Connect directly with local people before and during (and even after) a trip. It means being mindful of them by putting yourself in their shoes and discovering what they really think.
  • Be sensitive to the local environment. It is about being mindful of it, by putting yourself in the heart of it, and doing what you can to preserve it for the future.
  • Respect local heritage and culture. Put yourself in the local mindset, and share in activities and experiences as locals do.
  • Spend money locally. Be mindful of the local economy by putting your money into local businesses and ensuring that your tourism benefits the right people.

In short, it's all about not compromising on the sustainable behaviors you practice at home, while you're on the road. Just because you close the door of your home behind you shouldn't mean you leave behind best behaviors too.

What can you do?

Start by thinking about the four actions described above: a whole-hearted embrace of conscious and conscientious travel decision-making and behaviors that place value on the local people, environment, culture, and economy.

Want some practical steps? Download my free guide 10 WAYS TO TRAVEL SUSTAINABLY


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Shari Block

Shari Block

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