The tourism industry is constantly evolving and new trends always emerging as more people take to exploring the world every year. Sustainable travel and responsible tourism are two of the many terms to enter the travel lexicon in recent years. Given the environmental issues our planet is facing, both concepts are probably travel trends that are here to stay. As with all new trends and terms, there are a lot of related questions that you might be wondering. What exactly is sustainable travel? Is it different from responsible tourism? How do we get involved with these movements? I want to break down the similarities and differences between sustainable travel and responsible tourism for you so you’re on top of these super important concepts.
Broadly, sustainable travel means traveling in a way that doesn’t harm the people, culture, or environment of the places we visit. As the name suggests, it means ensuring our travel is sustainable, which by definition means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. For tourism providers, it means providing tourism opportunities for travelers to do just that. Generally sustainable travel focuses mostly on the physical impact of our travel on the planet. Issues like pollution, environmental degradation, eco-friendly accommodations, carbon emissions, and animal welfare are highly discussed within the sphere of sustainable travel.
Responsible tourism is a very similar concept that you could argue is interchangeably with sustainable travel. While I agree in part, I think responsible tourism has connotations often more related to the social aspect of our travel – protecting the culture, respecting the locals, and empowering disadvantaged populations to travel and support themselves through the travel industry. It is unfortunately possible for travel to be sustainable in the physical sense but not responsible in the cultural sense. (For example, it may be logistically sustainable for a certain number of people to visit a certain religious site without it being damaged or deteriorating. At the same time, it may be irresponsible for so many people to visit because it impacts the religious experience for the locals who visit the site as part of their religion rather than as a tourist attraction).
Whatever your opinions on the subtle differences between sustainable travel and responsible tourism, it’s hard to argue against the importance of learning and practicing these concepts as much as possible in our own adventures. The tourism industry is massive, bringing in about 1.26 trillion dollars globally in 2015. In that year, there were an estimated 1.19 billion international arrivals, or tourists visiting other countries. And that was three years ago – it’s only growing as our population, remote work capabilities, and access to information on travel grow annually. It’s more important than ever to ensure the industry is one that protects the planet rather than harms it. If we don’t, the consequences will be dire affecting us far beyond ruining the beauty of the places we aim to observe in the first place.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Protecting the Environment
Obviously one of the huge reasons people enjoy travel is to see the beautiful natural sites in places around the world. Planet earth is stunning, and the natural landmarks attract millions of tourists annually to destinations in all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, we have a lot of issues globally protecting our home environments from the huge impact 7 billion people have on the environment. Pollution from plastics and carbon emissions, for example, don’t disappear when we travel. Sometimes our pollution actually becomes more problematic when we go abroad. Let’s break some of the environmental issues travel contributes to and explore some approaches to more sustainable travel. (Note that these are just a few of the many things we could discuss in this section!)
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Plastic pollution
If you haven’t heard, we have a global problem with our plastic consumption. From fishing nets to coffee cups to plastic bags to straws – plastics can take up to 1000 years to decompose fully which means every piece of plastic ever created still exists on the planet today. This is really an issue that starts at home. The plastic bags we get from the grocery stores in the United States don’t stay in the US. The straws used in a restaurant in China don’t stay in China. The fishing nets used in oceans off the coast of Portugal don’t….okay you get the point.
Our plastic waste, even when recycled appropriately, typically travels great distances often making its way into our precious oceans. Have you heard about the 5 gyres of waste that have formed in our oceans? They’re basically giant cyclones in the water of whirling, swirling trash that has accumulated from the currents pushing waste together. One is estimated to be the size of Texas, which if you’re not familiar, is an enormous state in the US bigger than many countries.
These plastic bits end up killing our wildlife in a variety of ways. Sometimes the fishing nets trap the animals, other times they are eaten by animals who mistake them for food. Many of us have probably seen the dreadful video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. And straws make up only a tiny percentage of the plastic in the oceans!
The reason this is a sustainable tourism issue is because our plastic consumption tends to increase when we’re traveling, even if we’re conscious about it at home. Whether we have less access to recycling systems or we have less time to prepare home cooked meals with produce carried in our recyclable tote bags, plastic is a convenience. When we’re traveling we’re often huge fans of anything that makes our exploration more convenient. Our travel size plastic containers and other plastic-wrapped travel gear tends to get left behind in the countries we visit, rarely making it into a recycling bin. This is especially true when we visit places who don’t have as much of a recycling infrastructure.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Animal Tourism
Animal tourism is a sticky topic that gets people very heated. Some people think any type of animal tourism should be avoided, while others think it’s okay in the right ways. And of course, there are those who just don’t care about the impact at all. (And to those of you I say, shame!)
I fall somewhere in the middle. I personally think and have experienced that people don’t often care about what they haven’t seen. It’s all fine and good to tell your mom, boyfriend, teacher that the sea turtles are getting trapped in fishing nets and dying. If that person hasn’t ever seen a sea turtle though, it just gets tacked on to the list of issues they’ll worry about if they ever get the energy. After all, there’s a lot to worry about in the world.
When that person has the chance to see a sea turtle in person, or an elephant, or whatever beautiful creature it is, suddenly the gravity of their endangerment becomes that much more real, that much more important. Of course, riding an elephant does a lot of damage and doesn’t outweigh the benefits of someone suddenly becoming impassioned about the elephant plight. And so, I think there’s a fine balance – exposure can be good and can stir people to act who otherwise just wouldn’t care. But the exposure can’t cause harm or trauma or stress to the animals.
Like any issue, people will also disagree about what constitutes an appropriate animal encounter. To that end, I think the only solution is to do as much research as you can and make your own choice. Some people avoid zoos altogether, while I feel that some zoos do their upmost to create an enjoyable living environment for animals that are injured, endangered, or otherwise would not survive in nature on their own. On the other hand, I’ve visited zoos in the past that clearly did not have the best interest of the animal at heart, and I regretted contributing any money toward their cause.
Each animal encounter will have its own set of questions to ask. You’ll never ride a sea turtle, so you’ll have different red flags to consider when looking for animal encounters involving these critters than you would with elephants, or sloths, or dolphins. A few tips that you can always try though:
- Google – a simple “are dolphin animal encounters ethical” or whatever you’re wanting to see will provide you with a host of articles, research, and opinion pieces to start
- Check the Trip Advisor reviews, or reviews of whatever else you can find – and thoroughly. Make sure there aren’t any reviews that indicate it’s a tourist trap rather than an ethical encounter
- Do some basic research into the animals’ habits – what do they eat, are they social creatures, what is their natural environment like; make sure the animal encounter isn’t offering experiences counter to this research
- Don’t feed wild animals
- Avoid purchasing animal souvenirs of any kind (ivory, rabbits foot, fur products, etc)
- Look for reputable eco-friendly tours and organizations
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Carbon emissions
You’ve likely heard about carbon emissions and their impact on the planet lately, but here’s the scoop in case you haven’t. Carbon emissions are all those nasties that are emitted when we burn fossil fuels (drive, fly, bus), chop down forests, when cows fart, and a lot of other natural and unnatural things. Most of this human impact comes from fossil fuel use which typically falls into either electricity/heat, transportation, or industrial processes. Global aviation makes up about 11% of the transportation part of carbon emissions, but creates more of the pollution than other forms of transport so the impact is disproportionately damaging.
Why is all this extra CO2 a bad thing? Well briefly, CO2 helps absorb radiation and keep the heat inside our atmosphere, when we’d rather it leaves. More CO2 means more heat and all the extra heat in our atmosphere leads to higher temperatures or ~global warming~. Sorry folks, it’s real and if you want to fight me on it then this probably isn’t the article for you.
For more on carbon emissions and why they’re important in the sustainable travel sector, check out Earth Hero’s informative article.
So, what can we do about it in regards to travel? Well, we can do a lot actually! For starters, we can try to limit our direct behaviors that contribute to carbon emissions.
One way to do this is just cutting down on our transportation and energy use in general. Basically, slow travel. The longer you stay in a destination, the less time you spend getting to and from said destination. If you fly from the US all the way to Australia for only a week, you’ll spend most of your time on a plane and not much time getting to explore. You’ll probably end up taking a lot of taxis or ubers too, since you don’t have as much time to walk if you want see the sights.
If you’re visiting Australia for a month, you might have more time to take some trains or buses that essentially carpool. Even better, you might decide to stick around in one city for the month and really get to know the place.
Another way is to choose the most sustainable travel method possible for your situation. Walking, biking, scootering, skateboarding – these rank at the top since they need to fuel to get you around. Trains beat planes for long distance travel plus give you a chance to see some incredible sights like on my Oslo to Bergen trip you’d miss from the sky. Trams and metros tend to beat busses, which are more sustainable than driving alone. But if you do drive, carpools are better than solo taxis and ubers. Before you get worked up, I know, I know! It’s not always possible to walk or bus or train and sometimes flying is cheaper. (Though the costs don’t reflect the environmental damage they’re causing.)
It’s not a perfect system and travel in itself leaves more of an impact than we’d get from staying home but most of us will choose to travel anyway. So use the most sustainable travel option you can and slow down to afford yourself the option to walk to that museum, instead of rushing to fly to the next city. I’ve made that mistake before, taking 7 flights in a three-week trip, because we were just so close to Kuala Lampur with a quick flight! But we can always try to improve and I’m trying to do better all the time.
When we must use carbon-emitting transport, we can try to offset our carbon emissions through carbon-offset programs. What are these, you ask? Basically, they’re programs where you pay a small amount toward a company that uses that money to plant trees, clean up the environment, or otherwise help reduce the carbon. It’s usually pretty inexpensive – dollars per flight. And while it would still be better to keep the carbon out in the first place, we can still try to minimize the damage once it’s done. Girl vs Globe has a great article about the best carbon-offset programs that I recommend reading.
Another thing we can do up front is to try and fly with airlines who are doing the most to limit their environmental impact. All airlines are not the same. Finally, you can try to pack a little lighter whatever kind of transportation your taking. Every pound means a little more carbon used to try and propel us and our luggage to our final destination. Packing lighter will mean an easier trip for you and more sustainable travel for our planet.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Sustainable Travel Solutions
How do we solve some of these issues or minimize them when we travel? In a nutshell – slow down. Here’s a few quick ways to make sure you’re contributing to the sustainable travel movement:
- Minimize or eliminate the plastics you pack in your luggage
- Eat vegan or vegetarian as many meals as possible (this will look different for everyone, but even one meal a day without dairy and/or meat can make a big difference)
- Travel slowly – this means less time and resources spent on transportation
- Eat local and avoid chains when possible – your food will travel a shorter distance to get to you AND you’ll get a better taste of the food of the region
- Save your trash until you find a recycling center, even if it means bringing some of it home
- Use public transportation as much as possible
- When you need to fly, opt for non-stop flights
- Take part in carbon offset programs
- Avoid purchasing animal-product souvenirs
- Support the locals as much as possible via tours, accommodations, and dining
Read my 20 tips for sustainable travel for a more in depth look at responsible tourism.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Our Social Responsibility
On the responsible tourism side of the coin, we have an obligation to respect and protect the places and people we visit when we travel. To be completely straight with you, this will most likely translate to some extra effort and research before you travel. If we choose to disregard our responsibilities, we threaten the culture and the sites that we want to visit, leaving them in worse shape for those who haven’t had a chance to explore and learn from the places we’ve been. And we’ll experience the same when we go elsewhere if those who travel to a site before us don’t choose to respect and protect the places they visit too.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Responsibility to the Community
Again, responsible tourism has a lot of overlap with environmental issues and sustainable travel, but I tend to think of it more in terms of the locals. Here are a few of the issues related to responsible tourism and how you can get involved or travel more responsibly yourself.
Respect the holy sites
This should be a simple one, but yet so many people don’t consider it when they’re traveling. I’m speaking from experience. Just because you’re allowed to visit a site doesn’t mean you should act as you would at home. People around the world have different customs and traditions, generally with more history and reason behind them than we’ll ever take the time to understand. The quicker we travel the truer this becomes. So how do we respect the local heritage?
If the holy site you’re visiting requires certain dress, wear it. If they don’t allow photos, DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS. People will believe you went there, I promise. And there are usually photos on google by people who were given permission to take them which you can use (and credit appropriately) if you need a shot for your blog post. Be silent where silences is requested. Don’t laugh or joke about the way things are done while you’re visiting, even if it seems a bit funny to you. Generally, just don’t be an asshole and it will all be fine!
There are always exceptions, but unless your health requires it (turning down an alcoholic offering from a host, or avoiding an allergen in a food you’ve been offered) respect the customs of the places you’re visiting. I’m not on board with dressing however you like at a temple because you disagree with women being told what to wear. I love the freedom to dress as I like too, but if you can’t respect the customs then don’t visit the sites or culture. Your brief visit to another country is not the time to dismantle the patriarchy or try to convince an entire country to turn vegan, even if you believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s neither the time nor place, and I can guarantee your well-intentioned acts will not be received in a productive way. End rant.
Learn the Language Basics
This can be really difficult, especially if you’re visiting a lot of countries quickly. Another benefit of slow-travel is having the time to master some basics. Still, I think learning “sorry, no Russian” or whatever language applies, “please” and “thank you” go a long way. I’ve had many Russians seem a bit frustrated with my lack of language abilities, but when we finish the conversation (of body language) and I say “thank you” in Russian, it usually elicits a smile. Or a laugh. Which for my self-esteem I will interpret as “aw how cute, she’s trying”.
Learning how to say “I don’t speak ___” can also help end a lot of awkward silences if you look like you might be a local, and someone comes up to you speaking in full sentences without pause. Yes, no, cash/card, bathroom, water, and help are also some good words to memorize.
Learning the Basic History
Go a step further and learn the basic history of the place you’re visiting, and you can avoid committing some serious taboos. Or even better, you can show some respect on a level that might be unexpected. Two Dusty Travelers and How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch do a great job with this, noting the Native American tribe that used to occupy the land (before they were forcibly kicked out by white Americans) as they travel through the US. Learning a bit of history can also help to understand some of the sites you’re seeing, avoid asking awkward political questions, or avoiding attractions you wouldn’t want to visit knowing the history.
Since I already did a giant spiel on sustainable travel, I’ll just say this: I think it’s unfair to travel some place for vacation and disrespect the environment of the locals who have to deal with your mess when you leave. Here’s a few tips on avoiding leaving a mess:
- Reduce, reuse, recycle – in that order
- Consider what you pack – try to bring eco-friendly items, especially if there isn’t great recycling infrastructure where you are
- Souvenirs – avoid buying exotic ones that perpetuate environment-damaging practices; also buy from local artists rather than buying mass-produced keychains and things that are probably not made from the country you’re visiting anyway
- Support tours that respect the environment
- Leave nature alone – don’t bring back all the sand and flowers and rocks that make the place so beautiful in the first place
I’ve got a handy little checklist for you to print off or check off from your phone to keep all these tips in order. Sign up for the mailing list and get the checklist for free, along with some other inspiration straight to your inbox.
I’m going to try and keep this short too as much of this has been touched upon in earlier sections, but I think its super important to respect the individuals who live where we’re visiting, for aforementioned reasons. We’re leaving an impact when we go someplace, like it or not, and it’s better for everyone (locals, tourists, future tourists) if we’re respectful visitors.
One thing you can do right away is make sure to ask permission if taking photos of locals. Especially if you plan on sharing it. Some people might not want their photo taken and in some cultures, being photographed is culturally inappropriate or taboo. It might be awkward at first, but asking is always polite and can open up the door for some great conversations too.
When possible, support the locals over foreign industries, whether we;re talking souvenirs, restaurants, tours, or accommodations. I’ve already discussed avoiding animal products and buying from local artists when purchasing souvenirs.
When you’re able, avoid the chain restaurants too in favor of mom-and-pop shops or local diners. You’re guaranteed to get more culturally authentic food from the small restaurant down the street than the McDonalds in the train station. I’m not above going to Starbucks from time to time when I have a virtual work meeting and reliable Wi-Fi is proving elusive, but I try my best to choose local coffee shops when I’m not in a crunch. Visiting local farmer’s markets and grocery stores can be an amazing experience in itself when abroad, plus will often save you tons of moolah and introduce you to great snacks you’d never discover otherwise.
Tours and Accommodations
There are a lot of tour groups that are run by locals if you do a little research. This is one I have less experience with and am just starting to try to incorporate more in my own travels. A favorite example I saw along my current trip that I was sad I couldn’t try myself was a local street art tour run by homeless men and women in Berlin (who know the streets better than anyone else probably could).
Finally, accommodations! Again, your bed and breakfast run by locals will probably provide a more cultural experience than your Holiday Inn. AirBNB is a controversial option too that is straight up illegal in some cities, and causing serious issues in others like Venice or Barcelona. While Four Seasons might not be a locally run operation, they are paying taxes and are regulated by the city, so sometimes it’s still the better option. There’s a lot of grey area in this but keep an eye out for places that show how they’re trying to be environmentally friendly or places that are run by locals themselves.
One sight that can help you find such accommodations is TravGanic. I personally find sustainable accommodations to be one of the most difficult things to research, but sites like TravGanic have done a lot of the work in providing lists of eco-accommodations around the world.
The last topic I’ll discuss is voluntourism – tourism where you travel to volunteer. This can be a really big issue in a lot of cases which could warrant a whole novel of its own. What are some of the issues with this? After all, isn’t all help good help? No. In a nutshell, no. Especially when that help is done by people who are unqualified, or is unrequested.
Voluntourism often funnels a lot of money into the tourism industry under the guise of helping locals, when the people doing the help don’t really know what they’re doing. I’ve done it before, unfortunately, too. I flew to Jamaica for a week to “help” with a variety of different projects. One included helping ‘build a church’ with absolutely no knowledge of construction. We ended up transferring large rocks up a hill, bucket-by-bucket. The money and time we spent to get there would likely have been much better spent donated to the cause, where they could hire locals who knew what they were doing or buy some equipment that would allow them to skip the manual labor all together.
In less harmless situations, such as visiting an orphanage, you can do real damage to those you’re “helping”. Sure, it might raise your individual awareness of the issue, but no actual help was provided. Even worse, the likelihood of contributing to abandonment issues, if not perpetuating a system which exploits children for income, is pretty high. The dangers of voluntourism as it relates to orphanage visits it well documented – don’t take my word for it. Read this Global Citizens article to learn more about it. (This is not to guilt trip, but to educate. We also did this on our “mission trip” to Jamaica which I deeply regret.)
Finally, voluntourism often contributes to or perpetuates colonialist mindsets whereby a nation’s locals are reduced to people in need of help from a wealthier, whiter nation. It’s usually not the intent of those who want to volunteer, but it’s the reality. Again, I could write novels, and many people have. I encourage you to read them and learn more about it. The Wayfaring Voyager has written about voluntourism (and other sustainable travel topics) in on her blog too if you want to read more about this.
So, is all volunteering bad? Absolutely not. There are a lot of organizations volunteering the right way and providing help that is needed. Sometimes it does come in the form of manual labor after a natural disaster, where all-hands-on-deck is the approach needed. Sometimes it requires skilled labor in places where there aren’t enough locals to do the task themselves. Building houses, for example, is something that there are usually local experts available to do if hired. If you’re not skilled in an area, don’t volunteer to do the work.
Other times, like through Workaway, locals will ask for specific kinds of help to which you can apply. In these instances, you can be sure that the local needs the help you’re offering and agrees that you’re an appropriate person to do the task. Again, research is in order to make sure the organization you’re volunteering with is a good one. Go Abroad has a helpful article (and rating system for volunteer organizations) to help you sort through your options.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Other Related Topics
Hopefully this has given you more than enough to think about in the sustainable travel and responsible tourism field. It probably seems overwhelming, but I encourage you to start small. Pick one area that you think you can improve upon on your next adventure and work toward more sustainable actions there. Slowly, you’ll find these become second nature and you can work on modifying other habits.
If you have any other resources, suggestions, tips, or tricks I missed that you think should be included, let me know! I’d love to update this guide to include your wisdom. This is especially true if you have some resources on eco-friendly accommodations, tours, or animal encounters as these are always hard to research.
Sustainable Travel and Responsible Tourism – Other Readings & Resources
If you’re looking for some examples of other travelers doing sustainable travel well, I’ve got some suggestions.
Sustainable Travel & Responsible Tourism Bloggers:
- How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch – Lots of great posts on responsible tourism through the local culture. (plus other great topics like passport privilege and cultural appropriation).
- Two Dusty Travelers – For content on volunteering abroad and ethical travel.
- Speck on the Globe – For sustainable city guides around the world.
- The Traveling Elly – For some info on plastic use, volunteering, and other sustainable travel topics.
- The Wayfaring Voyager – She’s got several great post on sustainable travel throughout her blog.
- Eco Kats – An environmentalist with lots of great travel content about sustainable travel.
- Soulful Travels – For some tips on reducing your carbon footprint.
- Girl Vs Globe – A travel blogger sharing tips on all things sustainability, from travel to vegan recipes.
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