You love traveling, but you also believe protecting the environment is vital. Is it possible to pursue your love for travel without doing great harm to the environment?
It’s true that tourism can make a positive impact on a local economy. But in some cases, increased tourism can hurt a community more than it helps. Can this be avoided?
Absolutely! Through proper planning and attention paid to preserving the local culture, environment, and businesses, you can make a positive impact. And conscientious travelers like you can make a big difference by practicing sustainable travel habits like the tips below!
Sustainable travel is becoming an increasingly popular concept, but it can be difficult to actually put into practice. As a travel lover who truly cares about preserving the places I visit, I want to offer you some practical, sustainable travel tips to help you leave your vacation destination better than you found it.
But, first… why is sustainable travel so important?
When Tourism Hurts
Before sharing the sustainable travel tips, I want to reiterate why sustainable travel is so important.
If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably witnessed the natural beauty and serenity of a favorite vacation spot become overcrowded by massive resorts and attractions. Your scenic views are replaced by steel and concrete.
Additionally, traffic becomes unbearable, and it’s no longer a quiet getaway. You’re disappointed by how the increased commercialization and congestion ruins your vacation.
However, you may not realize the heavy toll tourism has taken on the community. If not managed carefully, tourism can do more harm than good.
Tourism can potentially lower the quality of life in local communities in a variety of ways. It can divert resources away from people who need them, disrespect the people, impact their health, harm the native wildlife, and cause unnatural soil erosion.
Large tourism construction development projects often displace local businesses and residences. Their financial resources often bring them prime locations. Shortages of land and housing, or high-priced vacation rentals, can lead to higher housing costs which makes them unaffordable to the local people.
Luxury hotels consume a very large amount of water, which can dry up wells or create water shortages for farmers. Sadly, much of the tourism spending is often diverted to large companies that are headquartered elsewhere, which removes money from the local economy. The same thing can happen when too much of government spending is directed toward incentives to outside companies instead of meeting the needs of the local people.
These things can do great damage to the local environment and people. Which is why it’s important to know the sustainable travel tips below.
Loss of Respect
Sometimes local people are disrespected by tourists. The people may be looked down upon by tourists and have their historical monuments defaced. I’ve heard about tourists, called beg packers, who travel without money and beg local people for money or jobs to fund their trip.
Another disrespectful form of tourism is called poverty tourism or slum tourism. This is where people from wealthy countries use a tour operator to visit impoverished areas so they can experience poverty. Too often these tourists are merely romanticizing poverty and turning less privileged people into showcases.
If not managed properly, major tourist developments can increase air, water, and hard waste pollution. This harms the overall health of the local people over time. Of course, the impact of these developments on the environment can be reduced if the proper steps are followed.
Native wildlife are also often hurt by pollution. Littering and solid waste disposal can harm marine life, native plants, and animals.
For instance, most people probably don’t realize that cruise ships release high amounts of raw sewage and waste of passengers directly into the water. They are also responsible for noise pollution that affects the migration routes of aquatic animals. Noise pollution from recreational vehicles, such as jet skis and snowmobiles, can disturb wildlife as well.
Even light pollution can harm wildlife. For instance, newly hatched sea turtle babies have become confused because of artificial lights installed along the coastlines. They have a strong instinct to follow the light to guide them to the sea, but the artificial lights confuse the turtles to head in the wrong direction. Tragically, many of them lose their lives because of that.
Unfortunately, sometimes animals are made into an attraction and are victims of illegal hunting, mistreatment, or cruelty.
In some places, increased tourism leads to unnatural soil erosion. Construction projects often begin by removing vegetation, which affects the ability of the ground to absorb water.
Roads and parking lots increase surface runoff. Tourist traffic tramples vegetation around trails, which decreases soil permeability and causes more surface runoff. The combination of these factors results in progressively eroding trails and surrounding areas.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
As you travel, you can prevent harm to locals by following helpful sustainable travel tips. But, what can local communities do to avoid being damaged by tourism? The answer is something called sustainable tourism, which ensures that tourism benefits the destination for generations to come.
Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future of other generations to meet theirs. The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future, economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of its visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.
The World Tourism Organization describes three pillars of sustainability:
Economic: Helping local businesses make a sustainable profit. Encouraging tourism to support local businesses so tourism spending is funneled directly into the local economy.
Environmental: Minimizing the negative impact of tourism on the planet and wildlife. Promoting tourism that conserves energy and reduces waste.
Social: Showing care for the impact of tourism on the local community. This includes respecting the local culture. And avoiding businesses that might contribute to human rights abuses such as human trafficking and modern slavery. Instead, supporting businesses that employ local people and treat them fairly.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) developed criteria to serve as the global standards for sustainability in travel and tourism. The GSTC Criteria are used for education, policymaking, measurement/evaluation, and as a basis for certification. They were built on decades of prior work from industry experts around the world.
Benefits of Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable tourism offers many benefits to the local community, including:
- Protects livelihoods and brings economic benefits
- Reduces pollution and protects natural resources
- Protects landscapes and marine reserves under threat
- Protects endangered animals
- Promotes health
- Shares knowledge
- Develops independence
Sustainable tourism enables the travel industry to attract customers who want to travel sustainably. People are more conscious these days about the food they eat, the products they buy, and the way they travel. Research shows that consumers would rather buy from socially responsible businesses, even if it means paying more.
Sustainable tourism development allows those in the travel industry to become a force for good. It also creates a dialogue between local businesses and residents, resulting in a greater sense of pride and a mutually beneficial relationship.
What is the Difference Between Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism?
Ecotourism is defined by the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved.”
It is intended to be low-impact, non-consumptive, and locally oriented, and should contribute to the conservation or preservation of those areas. Ecotourism is specific to nature-related travel, while Sustainable Tourism can pertain to all types of vacations (i.e. travel to cities, man-made attractions, etc.).
Make an Impact: 10 Sustainable Travel Tips
Travelers can have a positive impact on their destinations by traveling responsibly. Responsible travel, or sustainable travel, is traveling in a way that minimizes our negative impact on the planet.
Being a sustainable traveler helps us to continue exploring and taking enjoyment from the planet while preserving its untouched beauty, health ecosystems, and diverse communities. Here are some practical sustainable travel tips:
Vacation Planning: When planning your vacation, consider trips to less popular destinations rather than major tourist attractions. Travel to natural destinations, smaller cities and towns, and rural areas.
Travel in the slow lane and take time to get to know a destination rather than racing from place to place. Become familiar with your surroundings and support local businesses. If possible, try to travel outside of the busiest tourist season so you’re not contributing to overcrowding and excessive congestion.
Sustainable travel avoids vacations that are major polluters and don’t help the local economy, such as cruises. Island cruises are massive polluters. It’s not only cruise ships that are environmentally harmful, but they often build ports on environmentally fragile and culturally relevant places.
For instance, there is a petition underway (#stopdisney) to prevent Disney from building a port in a marine protected area in the Bahamas. In addition, cruises often create large crowds of tourists in the towns they visit but leave very little money to the local economy.
Packing: Sustiainable travel tip number two is to pack eco-friendly items, such as solid toiletries, instead of mini bottles and other single-use plastics. A report by WWF found that tourists cause a 40% surge in waste entering the Mediterranean each year. And 95% of it is plastic! In place of plastics, use thin cloth bags, bring a high-quality water filter bottle, and bring reusable cups and cutlery.
Pack a mineral-based water-resistant reef-safe sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, which can damage the ecosystem. Safe sunscreens usually contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which are both approved as effective sunscreen ingredients by the FDA.
Lodging: If possible, stay in locally owned accommodations instead of the big chain resorts. This is a guaranteed way to make sure that your money goes directly into the local economy, keeping small businesses alive and strengthening the community.
If you must stay in a big chain hotel, look for one with a green certification, such as the Green Key award, or one of the other 140 green certifications worldwide (GSTC, Rainforest Alliance, Green Globe, EarthCheck, etc.). If they are available at your destination, there may be non-traditional forms of lodging such as eco-hotels and ecolodges that take sustainability to another level.
Asking your hotel not to replace your sheets and towels every day can be helpful. Just be sensitive to certain cultures, like South Korea or Japan, where they take pride in their hospitality and may be offended by your request. A gentle explanation might ease their concern.
Transportation: Try to use the most sustainable forms of transportation available at your destination. Use public transportation, such as trains, buses, or ride-shares, instead of taxis or rental cars. Explore on foot or rent a bike if you can. This may be the most difficult sustainable travel tip, but it can make the biggest difference.
Dining: Dine at locally owned restaurants to get locally sourced ingredients, which are better for the environment. When you’re not dining out, make use of the farmer’s markets where the food is locally grown. Instead of shopping at the big supermarket chains where most of the food is likely shipped in.
Shopping: Buy clothing, accessories, and other souvenirs made by local artisans to support their cultural heritage and keep tourist money in their community. Avoid imported souvenirs that are flown in from who knows where. If you’re buying cultural artifacts, make sure they are legal, properly documented, and allowed to be exported.
Respect the people: It may not seem like it, but respecting the culture and traditions of the local people could be one of the most important sustainable travel tips. You can make an impact by simply learning a few words of their language and by treating the people with dignity.
Ask permission before taking photos of people, especially if you plan to make them public. In many countries (such as France), it is illegal to take or sell photos of people or use them for promotional purposes.
Don’t pollute areas you visit and clean them up before you leave. Learn about their recycling policy and abide by it.
Tours: Book tours with people who live in the community and preferably manage their own tour company. If possible, choose a tour operator who is passionate about protecting and preserving their community. You can look for green accreditations for tour guides from the same organizations that certified your lodging.
Wildlife: Research the wildlife attractions you plan to visit to find out if animals might be harmed in any way. Avoid animal attractions that advertise close encounters with animals as they may be unethical. Instead, choose wildlife attractions that allow you to observe the animal in its natural habitat at a safe and respectful distance. Be careful not to feed animals as they could become reliant on humans providing food. Human food is generally not appropriate for animals anyway.
If you go snorkeling or scuba diving, be careful not to touch or tread on the coral. Coral reefs are disappearing twice as fast as rainforests. Touching them could damage the ecosystem.
It’s best to go in smaller groups to avoid overcrowding. Also be sure not to feed or touch the fish.
Buy Travel Insurance: The final sustainable travel tip is the most important. Before you leave for your vacation, be sure to purchase travel health insurance to protect yourself in case the unexpected occurs. Being properly insured definitely protects you. But it also is a way to travel sustainably.
It ensures you have sufficient means to pay for unexpected healthcare costs, property damage or any other expenses that may keep you from becoming a burden to the community you are visiting. It’s another way to avoid harming your vacation destination.
Let’s Travel Sustainably!
We know that sometimes tourism can hurt a community more than it helps, but sustainable tourism can minimize the damage. We also know there are ways responsible travelers with sustainability in mind can leave a vacation destination better than they find it. My hope is that these sustainable travel tips will enable and encourage you to travel in ways that preserve the health and beauty of this wonderful planet.