Are you confused about sustainable travel? Not sure if there’s a difference between responsible travel, ethical travel, eco friendly travel and ecotourism? Then this is the post for you. Here are all my best sustainable travel tips to help you become a responsible tourist.
Sustainable travel can seem a little like the wild west of the travel sphere.
There’s lots of advice out there about how to make your travels more responsible. Buy ethical travel products to fill your eco-friendly travel bag with the perfect sustainable travel kit. Walk everywhere. Go nowhere. Carbon offset your flights. Don’t fly at all.
Honestly? It’s all pretty good advice depending on what you’re looking for. Maybe you are one of those people who’s quite happy to stay home and never take another flight. Sometimes I wish I was!
The reality, though, is that most of us look forward to travelling. It feels like the reward for all the hard work you put in during the rest of the year. Most people simply don’t have the time to sail to another continent for their holiday.
I think that travelling is the best way to learn about the planet. Seeing far off places often inspires people to make changes in their lives, both big and small. Other cultures and histories can be the best teachers in the world. To be a responsible tourist is to experience the world whilst giving back to the places and people that you visit along the way.
It really is that simple.
So if you’ve asked the question ‘why is sustainable travel important?‘ and are looking for responsible tourism tips then this post is for you. From planning where to go to how to get there, where to stay, what to do and more, here are my best sustainable travel tips.
MY BEST THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL TIPS
How to Travel More Sustainably – My 15 Top Eco Friendly Travel Tips
1. Pick off the beaten path destinations
- avoid contributing to overtourism and get away from the crowds
- boost a local economy that sees fewer tourist dollars
2. Travel off season
- destination infrastructure can cope better
- boost the economy year-round
3. Take your time
- slow travel lets you seek out great local spots
- you’ll actually become part of the local community
4. Fly less
- flying is a big contributor to climate change so not flying is best
- direct flights lead to fewer carbon emissions
5. Use public transport where possible
- cut back on your personal carbon emissions
- ongoing demand means ongoing supply, which is great for local communities who rely on it
6. Walk or cycle if you can
- no carbon emissions at all
- a great way to find hidden local gems
7. Support local
- essential for sustainable travel
- stay in locally owned and operated accommodation
- buy locally grown food and drink and eat at locally owned restaurants
- shop at independent locally owned stores
8. Choose ethical wildlife interactions
- one of the cornerstones of responsible travel but can be difficult to research
- no feeding or touching of wild animals
- affiliation with major conservation groups like WWF is a good sign
9. Pack light
- lighter planes create less carbon emissions
- buy local goods when you arrive
10. Bring reusable products with you
- tupperware, cutlery and a drinking bottle are the essentials
- less pressure on local rubbish facilities
11. Detox your toiletries bag
- reef-safe sunscreen
- vegan-friendly products tend to be best
12. Say no to single use plastics
- straws and plastic water bottles are some of the biggest pollutors on the planet
- many destinations don’t have recycling infrstructure in place
13. Use fewer resources
- electricity and water usage is much higher for tourists than locals
- turn off lights, appliances and air conditioning
- find out if drought is a problem and conserve water accordingly
14. Learn about local history, culture and language
- take a tour with a local and visit local museums
- learn some of the local language and be respectful of local customs and traditions
15. Leave no trace
- protect the local environment by staying on marked trails
- aim to make your vist zero waste travel, don’t litter, and pick up any rubbish you see
What is Sustainable Travel?
Sustainable travel means making a positive impact when you travel. It’s about finding ways that tourism can benefit local people, local culture and local environments in the long term.
Whether you want to call it sustainable travel, responsible travel, green travel, eco friendly travel, or (my personal favourite) thoughtful travel, it all means the same thing.
As an ethical traveller, your goal is to leave a destination better than you found it.
There are lots of complicated explanations online, but that’s really what sustainable tourism boils down to.
Sustainable Travel Benefits Local People
The idea is that by spending money at local businesses, the local economy benefits.
Your holiday becomes a truly local experience and, what’s more, the place that you visited continues to provide for the people who live there.
Consider your own country. There are probably ghost towns and local councils desperately trying to entice people into certain cities. The places you visit as a tourist are no different.
People want a certain quality of life, and if their hometown can’t provide that, they’ll move. Just like you would.
Sustainable Travel Supports Local Culture
By visiting a local museum, craft workshop or gallery and learning about the history and culture of a place, you’re helping to preserve it. By buying from a local artisan you’re helping local traditions to continue and flourish.
Learning some of the local language is a sign of respect more than anything else. It’s a small thing that can make a big difference in how all tourists are perceived.
I’m sure you’ve encountered prejudices in your own country about communities that “can’t even speak [local language]”. Imagine if that attitude was extended to all of us visiting another country without learning a single word of the local language. It would suck.
If you can, stay somewhere that superficially contributes to preserving local culture, history and language. They won’t be shy about advertising it!
Sustainable Travel Preserves the Local Environment
Finally, consider how you’re impacting the environment of the place you visit.
Small islands can’t cope with lots of rubbish.
Deserts shouldn’t have flourishing golf courses and massive swimming pools.
Pick accommodation that’s using renewable energy sources for power instead of burning fossil fuels. Avoid anywhere that’s destroying local habitats in order to build a foreign-owned and operated hotel.
If you avoid businesses with unethical methods then they won’t survive. Spend with the people doing the right thing as much as possible. It’s better to stay with locals who don’t have solar panels than in a huge resort that’s importing everything except the sun powering their electricity.
That’s why I like the term ‘Thoughtful Travel’. All you have to do to make a trip sustainable is think about where and how you’re spending your money, time and effort.
Why is being a responsible tourist important?
The money that you spend as a tourist is incredibly important. Tourism accounted for about 10% of the global GDP in 2019. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the World Travel & Tourism Council estimated that 10% of jobs worldwide were in tourism and travel.
Around 20% of those employed in the tourism sector lost their jobs during the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to consider what sustainable travel post covid looks like.
When you spend money in a local business, you’re directly funding the local economy. The impact of this is huge.
Shops can stay open, allowing locals to continue shopping there long after you’ve gone.
Local staff are employed in local businesses. They stay in the area because they have work there, and they spend their salary at other local places.
Restaurants that have local chefs are likely to be cooking local foods. That means buying local goods, supplying local farmers with a market and reducing the distance that food travels before it makes it onto your plate.
That’s not only great for the destination but good for the planet.
Pandemics aside, tourism grows year on year. By making your own travels more ethical, you’re actually contributing to a better world for everyone. That’s about as important as it gets.
Is sustainable travel possible?
In a word? Absolutely.
Now, you might think that this all seems like too much to think about. You just want to go and lie on a beach for a week. You really don’t want booking your holiday to become a research job.
Well, there are easy options too!
You can simply book with tour operators that have already done a lot of the work for you. I’ve used G Adventures several times and rate them very highly. I Like Local are also working hard to support communities around the globe.
Intrepid is another company with a great reputation and their Urban Adventures are great for city exploration.
If you’re planning on taking a tour or day tours at a destination, a quick google of your destination + “locally owned” or “locally operated” will usually deliver. Asking around at your hotel can be a great way to get local recommendations too.
Nobody’s expecting perfection, just do the best you can with the information you’re able to find.
Picking Your Destination As A Thoughtful Traveller
Overtourism may not be a word that you’re familiar with. It’s actually quite an easy concept. Overtourism is when too many tourists visit a destination and cause problems.
Those problems can take many forms, but essentially they’re down to upsetting local people, ignoring local culture or destroying the local environment.
See how that’s just the opposite of what it means to be a sustainable traveller?
Some destinations suffer from overtourism year-round, but for most, it’s only during their peak season.
When you’re thinking about where to go, here are some things to ask yourself:
Why do you want to visit?
Thoughtful travel means going somewhere because you want to learn more about it.
Perhaps you’re fascinated by the culture or history. Some of the most visited cities in the world have incredible museums, and you shouldn’t miss out on that in the name of being more responsible.
Maybe you love a specific type of cuisine and you’re desperate to go and eat it in the place where it’s most authentic.
If you’re a nature or wildlife lover then you’re going to want to go to places with amazing hiking or animal encounters. Just because they’re popular doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. You just need to consider your approach.
Please don’t go somewhere just to take one photo for the ‘gram.
Are there any well-known problems with tourists?
Venice and cruise ships. Barcelona and AirBnB. Boracay and the sewage problem. Machu Picchu and eroding hiking trails. A quick google search will show you the biggest overtourism problems in your intended destination.
Try not to add to the problems that are already being experienced. Be aware that there might be limits on numbers or fees associated with travel to certain destinations.
This is a great time to explore sustainable accommodation options, local tours and alternative places to visit.
Is there an alternative?
Rather than going to that place you saw on Instagram, take to the internet for some inspiration. You’d be amazed at what you’ll find if you look.
I also think that guidebooks are a great resource for this, as are environmentally conscious tour agencies. You might not be able to afford a package with them, but you could get some great ideas for alternative destinations without the crowds.
Is it a Sustainable Destination?
There are certain places where you can be sure that you’re supporting best tourism practices. Check out the Green Destinations Top 100 list for some inspiration. It’s a great place to start, but you should be aware that the destination has to submit and pay for their application in order to be considered.
The Yale Environmental Performance Index is a marker of how well a country is doing when it comes to sustainability policies. This accounts for things like appropriate infrastructure, renewable energy, pollution and biodiversity.
Countries that feature on this list are generally doing a good job, but do remember that it’s much easier to hit these targets as a wealthy and politically stable country.
Who will benefit from your visit?
If you’re the only person getting something out of your visit then you haven’t prepared your trip well enough.
I absolutely understand that your budget may not allow for endless possibilities, but if you can’t afford to do a single thing that benefits the local community then you need to go somewhere else.
Book tours with local guides and tour operators. Pick wildlife experiences that are ethical. Explore the neighbourhood and sample the food and drink on offer. Seek out the local markets. Honestly, it’s pretty fun being a responsible tourist!
Tell your friends if you find something or somewhere incredible. Word of mouth is just about the best promotion a place can get.
Travel Outside Peak Season
Some places can only be explored at certain times of the year due to weather conditions that make them unsafe or unreachable at other times. You can’t do anything about that.
All city destinations usually have times of the year when they have to cope with an influx of tourists, and you don’t want to add to that pressure.
Consider the Dolomites in Autumn, a little trickier logistically, but a magical experience compared to the summer crowds. Venice in spring or autumn is a completely different place from the heaving streets of summer. A trip on the Trans-Siberian railway in winter is like stepping into a different world.
Having incredible landscapes and iconic works of art almost to yourself makes the possibility of worse weather more than worth it in my opinion.
As an added bonus, accommodation and tours tend to be cheaper outside of peak season too.
Choosing Eco-Friendly Transport Options
I’m sure you’ve heard by now that flying isn’t very good for the planet. Since I don’t think everyone is suddenly going to stop flying, here’s what you can do to make your flight as eco-friendly as possible:
- Fly direct since take-off and landing create the bulk of emissions
- Fly economy since more butts on seats is more efficient use of the flight
- Use airlines investing in new aircraft (more efficient) and fuel technology
- Carbon offsetting with a reliable company is better than nothing
All of the above will make your personal carbon footprint as small as possible, but it’s still considerable compared to other methods of reaching your destination.
The best transport option is, of course, walking. Not always realistic, but worth mentioning. A walking or hiking holiday is one of the easiest ways to ensure that you’re not contributing to carbon emissions. The next best option is cycling.
In terms of long-distance travel, you’re going to be looking at public transport options. Trains and busses that are intended for locals, as well as tourists, are best because you’re providing additional funding to support those routes. That means they’re likely to continue to run which benefits local communities connected by the line.
Ferries and water taxis tend to be good for the same reasons – connecting communities without other means of reaching the destination.
Cruises, however, are almost universally bad when it comes to sustainable travel. Passengers spend almost nothing in the destination country, pollution is a real issue, and all the produce is imported.
How To Travel Responsibly before you leave home
I know, I know, you’re beginning to feel like ethical travel is a homework assignment. I promise, though, that a little bit of effort before you go will make a world of difference on your trip.
Learn some language basics
Learn some basic phrases in the local language. It’s entirely possible you’ll get stuck in a foreign country for 7 months in the middle of a pandemic and you’ll feel like an idiot otherwise. Why yes, I do speak from personal experience. In Russian now, as it happens.
I recommend learning the words for yes, no, sorry, please, thank you and I don’t understand. For everything else, there’s Google Translate or a phrasebook!
Learn some local history
I’m not suggesting that you go and buy some dry historical textbook. Firstly, you won’t read it and secondly, it’s probably all bullshit anyway.
Instead, find books written by people who live there. Watch TV shows and movies created by people who are from the place. Listen to podcasts. Ask your friends for advice. Ask the internet if none of your friends have been there.
Hopefully, you’ll learn a lot more when you visit, but having the basic knowledge means you’ll get a lot more out of interactions with local people once you arrive.
Find out about cultural norms
You don’t have to like them or want to live with them, but you do need to respect them. Dressing appropriately for the country you’re visiting isn’t a big ask. If you don’t want to do it, don’t go.
Photography might not seem like a big deal, but some cultures believe that a photo can steal your soul. Better to find that out before you plan a portrait photography expedition.
Pointing, wearing shoes in the house, not wearing shoes in the house, eating in public, stepping over somebody’s legs, giving the wrong number of flowers and even tipping. All represent a potential minefield of offences. A quick google search before you go will save you any number of embarrassing moments!
What’s in an Eco-friendly Travel Bag?
There are some things that I consider to be essential environmentally friendly products. Think of these as your basic eco-friendly travel kit to travel sustainably.
Reusable Water Bottles
There’s simply no excuse to use single-use plastic water bottles these days. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know they’re bad for the planet.
Instead, invest in a reusable water bottle that will last for years to come. I use a couple of options for different situations.
For hiking I like to use my Hydroflask for day hikes, since it keeps my water cold for hours. It does weigh a little more, so for longer hikes I’ll take a Nalgene bottle as it’s lighter. I pair these with a Steripen Ultra if I’m in a destination where I’m concerned that the water may not be safe.
The other bottle I use is a Lifestraw bottle with an integrated filter. This is best for situations where the water has sediment in it since it safely filters that in addition to other contaminants. If I’m really concerned about water quality then I use my Steripen too.
Reusable Coffee Cup
When you’re as addicted to coffee as I am this is one of the most essential sustainable travel products. You can, of course, use it for your hot beverage of choice if you’re not all about the coffee!
In the US, check out the Fellow Carter mug, which came in an Everywhere model with a wide mouth, a splash guard model and one with a 360° sip lid. Although their sustainability model could do with some work, they’re taking active steps to improve their diversity and support of BIPOC communities in the coffee industry.
Tupperwear or Bento Box
This is great since you can take leftovers with you without worrying about the polystyrene and plastic that usually come along with them. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve used these for all sorts of things. I use this stainless steel box from Black + Blum which comes with a built-in fork.
If your box doesn’t come with cutlery then consider getting a reusable bamboo cutlery kit. I grabbed one when I was on a Queensland road trip in Australia and I don’t know how I managed without it!
Environmentally friendly toiletries
There’s a lot that you can do to detox your toiletries bag. Reef safe sunscreen is a must and, fortunately, there’s more available than ever before. Make sure your sunscreen is oxybenzone free and if not, I recommend Tropic for those in the UK. The brand is landfill-free, vegan and eco-conscious.
In general, look for products that are vegan and have recyclable packaging, with a clear sustainability plan on their website.
An environmentally conscious holiday wardrobe
It can be tempting to rush out and buy a whole new set of clothes for your holiday. Please reconsider. Hit the second-hand stores or get basics that will last and suit multiple trips.
Linen is a better option than cotton in terms of its environmental impact. Ethically sourced merino is great for almost every type of trip. I love Patagonia, Kathmandu and Icebreaker for hiking and outdoors gear.
Try to pack light, since you’re actually reducing carbon emissions by taking less weight on a plane! Packing cubes are great to organise your luggage and Patagonia’s Black Hole cubes are a great option.
How to Choose Sustainable Accommodation Options
The most sustainable way to select accommodation is by choosing local. It’s possible that you won’t tick all the boxes, but this is how to ensure that most of your money goes where it should.
Choose a homestay or guesthouse
Homestays will mean that you’re part of a local family, and they’re one of the best ways to experience community. You’re likely to be exposed to the local language, cuisine and culture throughout your stay, making this one of the best ways to learn about the place you’re visiting.
One of the other great things about staying with a local family is the local recommendations that you’ll get when you’re there. Let’s face it, nobody knows a place like the people who live there! Google your destination + “homestay” or “guesthouse”, or search for a room in a house using AirBnB.
Since you’re just looking after the place for someone who actually lives there, this is a truly sustainable option. You’ll often have the added benefit of some cute animals to look after. Check out websites like Trusted Housesitters, House Carers or Mind My House to find a property.
Some of these options require a membership fee, but you’ll probably save the entire cost of accommodation with a couple of nights stay!
Choose a local or community-run hotel
These are great because the local community is involved in setting them up and determining how they impact the area. If you’re going on safari then look for conservancies or lodges that have an active community role and a clear sustainability page.
Don’t dismiss a property just because it doesn’t have a green certification such Green Key or Green Globe, since many of these programs require payment to be assessed. Some small properties simply don’t have the means to do this.
Large chains aren’t necessarily the bad guys of sustainability
Now look, I’m not saying that you can’t stay in your Four Seasons or Crowne Plaza Hotel, just that if there’s a local option where the money stays in destination, that’s better. Many large hotels do employ staff locally and undoubtedly contribute to the local economy.
The problem is that a lot of the profits go offshore, and local people are only employed in low-wage service jobs.
If you’re planning a stay with a well-known brand then take a look at their sustainability initiatives both locally and globally. They shouldn’t be expanding their properties into pristine natural environments. They can afford to get properly certified by international environmental organisations.
They can also afford to give back to the local community by funding community initiatives and raising awareness of local issues with their guests. They should encourage exploration with locals and ensure that it’s easy for their guests to do their part to be a responsible tourist.
Avoid all-inclusive resorts unless they clearly support the local community
Of all your options, this is the least sustainable. By not venturing outside your hotel, no local business is supported. If you live somewhere where cruise tourists hit the city in massive numbers without providing any boost to the economy, you’ll know what this sort of tourism does.
The exception to this is something like an eco-lodge or safari lodge. These are often in remote areas and offer full board and activities as there are no other options. In this case, ensure that local communities are actively involved in how tourists are being brought to the area.
I’ve found that these properties are excellent at showcasing what they’re doing for sustainable travel. You’ll usually find the information front and centre on their websites.
Picking Activites as a Responsible Tourist
I’m sure that you’re getting the hang of this by now!
You’re going to go on tours that are run by local operators and have clear sustainability practices in place. This is going to look different depending on the type of place you’re exploring.
Look for local cooking classes or food tours that take you to spots that locals love. Boutique wineries, breweries and distilleries are also great places to visit as they’re usually run by locals who are passionate about their communities.
Tours run by Indigenous people and marginalised communities are great options to support, as you’re providing valuable income to groups who may struggle to find other income streams. I personally love to do tours with womxn owned businesses where I can.
Any tour involving interactions with wildlife should follow ethical principles. All interactions should be on the animal’s terms, with no guarantee of particular behaviours. Being able to hold animals that would usually run a mile from humans is usually a bad sign.
Your activities should leave no trace on the environment when you’ve gone. Tours that promote rubbish collection are wonderful as they’re actively improving the place as you go. Snorkelling or scuba activities shouldn’t promote chumming the water and should clearly state how they’re protecting the marine environment.
Where & What to Eat and Drink
It can be so tempting to find that one restaurant right by your accommodation and eat there for every meal because you know it’s good. Try to spread your money around though! Check out a variety of cafes, restaurants and street food stalls if they’re available.
For some unusual dining inspiration, check out Atlas Obscura’s Gastro Obscura.
If you’re trying to budget and cook your own meals then go to local food markets and farmers markets rather than big grocery chains. Not only is the food likely to be fresher, but you’re still supporting local that way. Food that is locally grown also has less of a carbon footprint.
Find out if there are any regional specialities and try them whilst you’re there. Did you know, for example, that there’s a type of pasta that’s only made by a handful of women in the whole world?! You’ll have to literally take a pilgrimage to Sardinia in May or October to try it.
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet then you’re already opting for a more sustainable food style, but it’s important to be aware that local cultures may not have the resources to provide the food you’re used to. I’ve had more than a few meals consisting of nothing but potatoes in various forms!
What to Bring Home
If you love to take home a souvenir, then pick one that’s been locally made. Some markets can be deceptive, with everything being mass-produced elsewhere and then shipped in to be sold as a “local” product. In Zimbabwe, I visited a market where every stall had the exact same “handmade” carving, which had clearly come off a production line elsewhere.
The best way to know if something is locally made is to meet the person who’s actually making it. Likewise, if there’s something specific that the area is known for then ask at your accommodation for a local recommendation.
Unless there’s something in particular that you’ve been planning to purchase I’d encourage you to consider whether you really need a physical item to remember your visit. Most of us take photos of our trip and, unless you’re supporting an artist, you probably don’t need more generic stuff that will eventually make its way to landfill.
So, there you have it. My best sustainable travel tips and hacks. If you’ve got any other recommendations, advice or experiences I’d love it if you’d leave a comment below to help out fellow travellers.
SUSTAINABLE ACCOMMODATION | How to Choose the Best Green and Sustainable Hotels and Finding Sustainable Holiday Accommodation with AirBnB
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t go anywhere without it! I use and recommend Safety Wing.
THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL | No matter where you go, try to always be aware of the fact that travel impacts the place and people that live there. Being a thoughtful traveller is more important than ever. Here are my top tips to make your trip a mindful one.
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love my photos and want to know how to take better shots on your own trips? Then my photography guide is for you. Here’s all the photography gear I use too. Want to buy one of my images? Head to the Print Store.
ESSENTIAL GEAR | You’ll find my travel essentials here, and a complete guide to all my hiking gear here.
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