What is Sustainable Travel?

As my husband and I have traveled around the world, we have seen first-hand the impact of tourism has on our fragile eco-system and we wondered what could be done.

I started to feel guilty how little I considered sustainability during our travels. We tried to re-use water bottles and bring our own bags to the store, but beyond that, I didn’t really research the other ways we were impacting the places we visited.

l felt it was time for a change and so started learning all I could about sustainable travel.sustainable travel

I love to travel and don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. I want to encourage everyone to explore and see the world around us.  But we have to be smarter. We have to travel in a way that supports and enhances our world so we can ensure that it is still here for generations to come. 
So, what is sustainable travel and what can be done?  








What is Sustainable Travel?  

The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “development [which] meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing the 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.”

It’s becoming a hot-button issue especially as we’re seeing the effects of climate change around the globe and the tourism numbers drastically increasing year over year. The United Nations even declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism.

What are ways that travel is harmful?

This is in no way an exhaustive list, as there are so many factors that should be considered, but here goes:


Emissions from air travel, trains, buses, and automobiles add up to a significant amount of pollution. With tourism increasing, tourism alone is now responsible for more than 60% of air travel. source

In addition to air pollution, waste from cruise ships, an excess of garbage, overuse of water, soil erosion, and decreasing numbers of endangered species and plants, are all environmental impacts that are caused by increased tourism.


Traveling and exploring other cultures is an amazing gift that we have in this day and age. For me, I don’t think that just not traveling is an option.  Where can we find a balance of going to beautiful places, seeing how other people around the world work, and connecting with other cultures, without detrimentally changing livelihoods and irreparably damaging the local way of life?  Ideally, tourism should enhance the world.

With tourists come money. When an area is strictly catering to tourists, it can easily steamroll the locals. Necessary businesses, like grocery stores and pharmacies, are replaced with bars and souvenir shops. And in some cases, money that is brought in doesn’t stay. It goes out of the country to foreign owners and investors.

Traditional values can also be disrupted when trying to accommodate foreigners on a large scale. Locals can also get priced out of housing and even products and services as the rates increase to both meet demand and to serve those with deeper pockets.  While tourism can create jobs, it also creates a seasonality in many places where people are only able to work part of the year.

With tourism, also comes foreign investment. Especially in poorer countries, many of the businesses that you find are not owned by locals. And the locals who do work in these establishments, generally don’t make much money.

Begging is also a big problem in many countries, especially among children. It can be difficult to break the cycle when tourists keep giving children money. I realize that sounds horrible, but when children are able to obtain money from begging, their parents aren’t going to send them to school, or seek out the many programs that exist to help them. Our experience with children begging was by far the worst in Cambodia on our travels, but it is a global issue with very complex solutions.  

Crime tends to increase in heavily touristed areas as well, and that does not just impact the tourists, it changes the entire quality of life for the residents.


  • Rethink those cheap plane tickets.
    Is there a more eco-friendly way to get where you’re going? Or, if not, consider offsetting your emissions from your flight by using this climate calculator: http://climatecare.org/calculator/ When you do fly, fly direct when possible. The take-off and landing release the most carbon from air travel.
  • Do some research on tour companies and hotels
    Because Ecotourism is becoming a more regulated prospect, you can find hotels with a “green” rating, and tour companies that pay their local employees a livable wage.  Companies like Green Globe and the USGBC are great resources for finding green hotels. Do your research on tour companies. Reading reviews can also be a great way to see if the tour company actually practices what they preach.
  • Find and buy local products
    Many of the products you see in souvenir shops may say “local”, but may have a darker side to them than you can see. See if you can find crafts or art made by someone you can see making them, or find a local organization that pays fair wages and even helps locals through school for making these crafts. Lonely Planet will try to include shops that treat their workers ethically and are a great resource to go to.
  • Rent a hybrid car or electric car
    If available, ask your car rental shop if they have a hybrid or electric car. Remember, even if they cost more per day, you won’t be filling up that gas tank as often.
  • Bring reusable bags with you
    There are so many collapsible bags that are easy to bring traveling. Have one on you when you are out and about and offer it up instead of plastics when you make any purchases.

And lastly:

  • Don’t wait for your next vacation
    There are things you can be doing at home right now
    - Say no to plastics. Bring your own bags to the grocery store
    - Say no to straws when you go out
    - Buy local where you can
    - Join a local organization dedicated to sustainable travel
    - Carpool or take public transportation whenever possible

    Tourism is a way where both natives and travelers have an amazing opportunity to learn from one another.

    There is so, so much GOOD that also goes along with traveling. Our purpose here at Travel Greener is never to guilt anyone about actions in their past. It’s all about making better choices in the future. One step at a time.