This post may contain affiliate links, which means at no extra cost to you I may make a small commission on products and services purchased through this blog. Thank you for supporting A Travellers Footsteps.
Travel in itself may not be the most sustainable way of life, but there are things you can do while you travel to reduce your footprint and in fact improve the communities and places that you travel to.
What is sustainable tourism?
The core focus of sustainable tourism is to reduce the environmental, economic and social impact associated with mass tourism models. Ideally, sustainable tourism should minimise all negative impacts on the local environment, and even benefit communities.
The concept of sustainable tourism is increasingly popular as countries and individuals realise that the mass tourism model can have severe impacts on the environment and communities visited.
Certain countries are now taking extreme measure to protect local environments, for example, Thailand’s Maya Bay is currently closed to the public to allow the damaged ecosystem to recover. This is just one of many examples of local governments taking action to protect the community from the effects of mass tourism.
But it isn’t just the responsibility of the local government or community to take action. You have a responsibility too.
This article explains the basic principles of sustainable travel and what you can do to reduce your environmental, social and economic footprint.
Before we get started, it is important to understand that sustainable tourism rests on three main pillars:
• Environmental – conserving the natural environment of the destination you visit
• Economic – supporting local businesses
• Social – supporting local/cultural projects
Below are the things you can do to help!
Don’t do things that you wouldn’t do at home
At home, you would never leave the air conditioning and lights running all day, even if you weren’t home. You wouldn’t run a bath bigger than you can fit in and you wouldn’t waste as much as you do when travelling.
If you wouldn’t do this at home, why would you do this overseas, often in a country that suffers from more pollution and poverty than yours?
Yes, you are on a holiday, but you don’t need to be an inconsiderate global citizen.
Avoid Airplane Travel
You can help to mitigate the negative impact of air travel by flying less often and staying longer in destinations. Many long-term travellers can opt to travel through neighbouring countries instead of flying between countries that are far away.
Walk where possible
Once in a destination, walk or bike whenever possible, and use public transport and car shares to get around instead of private cars.
Minimise use of plastics
Do you really need to buy 2-6 plastic water bottles a day? Carry a reusable water bottle and take the time to find water stations. Most airports have water stations and so do many restaurants and hotels.
In Bali, for example, the restaurants have a gallon of filtered water. When this runs out, they exchange the gallon for a new one, with the old plastic gallon being reused. Instead of using 3 plastics bottled a day you can look for and seek out opportunities to refill your sustainable water bottle and help the environment. Every single plastic bottle does count, and if we all believe it, it counts for a lot. Not only is this practice good for the environment, but it can also save you money.
In addition, always say no to plastic bags and straws. You can easily carry your own reusables so there really is no excuse.
Stop and pick up rubbish – and always take your rubbish home with you
Don’t just walk past rubbish and think about how sad it is. Stop and pick it up. Picking up a few pieces of rubbish may feel insignificant, but if we all do it, the impact is huge.
And if you aren’t already taking your rubbish home with you, you should be ashamed.
In many destinations, you will see locals littering, but this does not make it okay.
Minimise the use of beauty products – use eco friendly sunscreen
If you are carrying 3 types of shampoos, 4 soaps and 2 face washes, it’s time to cut back. We really don’t need all the beauty products we are sold into buying.
I use Dr Bronners as my body wash, face wash and shampoo.
When choosing a sunscreen, be sure to get an eco-friendly product, especially if you are travelling to tropical reef destinations. Also opt for non-toxic insect repellant. See my backpacking essentials.
Be proactive in sustainable travel – lend a hand
If you’re taking a 10-day trip, why not spare one of those days to clean up a local village, ocean or river? It may not be as relaxing as drinking mojitos by the pool, but it will certainly be way more rewarding.
In Samoa, I spent hours cleaning up a rock pool that was filled with plastic. At the end of the hour, I looked around and I could see more plastic. It was upsetting. But I had to believe that the time I spent cleaning the ocean did make a difference. And if everyone spent an hour doing the same, the difference would change the world.
Stay in environmentally friendly hotels and hostels
These are becoming more and more common. All it takes is a little research and you can reduce your environmental impact simply by staying at an eco-conscious hotel, and it doesn’t, at all, mean that it will be more expensive.
Most resorts and all-inclusive hotels are run from abroad, so keep this in mind when booking. Opt for a local, eco-friendly hotel instead of a big name hotel chain.
Eat less meat while travelling
And at home. Intensive livestock farming is still the number one cause of CO2 emissions.
Eat Local and avoid fast food chains
Eat locally grown food from local producers. Avoid imported foods and international food chains where food has had to be transported from far away causing carbon emissions. I mean, you didn’t come all the way around the world to eat Macdonalds did you?
Always be aware of your surroundings
Be aware of your environment and respectful of the surroundings. If you’re snorkelling be careful not to tread on the coral as this can damage the fragile ecosystem, and make sure you wear eco-friendly sunscreen. Avoid wildlife tours unless you are certain that they are ethical. Be warned, many, especially in South East Asia, are not! Don’t be that tourist who posts a photo riding elephants in Thailand.
Don’t feed wild animals
Both at home and while travelling, you should never feed wild animals.
Social and economical
Be careful who you give your money to
It absolutely breaks my heart walking past children begging on the streets. When I started travelling I wanted to give them all my money. But I have come to realise that this is what creates the problem. Tourists hand out money to children on the street, so parents send their children out, every day and night to beg. This takes them away from school, friends and a good night sleep.
Try researching reputable local organisations to make a donation instead of giving to individuals.
Support local tour companies
Seek out small, hard-working local businesses and use them. Don’t just go for the first one that pops up on google. $100 is nothing for a large corporation, but for a local family run business, that $100 can make a world of difference.
When choosing a tour company, ask – What are some of your company’s environmentally friendly practices? Can you give me an example of how your trips help to protect and support wildlife or cultural heritage? Do you employ local guides on your trips?
Always avoid tours such as:
- Riding Elephants
- Taking Tiger Selfies
- Walking with Lions
- Visiting Bear Parks
- Holding Sea Turtles
- Performing Dolphins
- Dancing Monkeys
- Touring Civet Cat Coffee Plantations
- Charming Snakes and Kissing Cobras
- Farming Crocodiles
Buy locally crafted souvenirs (and never buy animal products)
Sometimes the hard working locals do have to charge more for souvenirs that were handcrafted with local supplies, as opposed to those imported from China. Be aware of this and be willing to pay the difference. It makes a big difference to the local community.
In many countries, haggling is common, but it should be done respectfully. Know the fair price and be willing to pay it. If you aren’t, walk away. I have seen other traveller haggling over 50cents and I can’t help but think, OMG just pay the 50 cents you dick.
Respect Local cultures and traditions
It is important to be aware of the cultural traditions of the place you’re travelling too. Be respectful towards the people there, recognise cultural differences and avoid criticism. Remember, you are entering their country.
Don’t show off expensive technology
As a travel photographer, I always have my camera with me, but I make a point to keep it away in a bag until I need it. You too should avoid walking around with a camera around your neck and an iPhone in hand. Not only can showing off your first world technology negatively impact the community, but it can also make you a target for theft. See my tips for keeping safe as a solo traveller.
Always ask for permission before taking photos
It is not okay to start photographing locals without permission. Be sure to ask and if it isn’t welcomed, don’t do it.
Support Social Projects in a meaningful way
If you would like to contribute to a community project, make sure you do your research. Find a reputable organisation and find a way that you can help. It is important to be cautious as not all projects are good for the community, so be aware of what you are signing up to.
Overall, minimise. Minimise the number of flights you take, the amount you drive, the amount of plastic you consume and so on. `
The responsibility to travel the world in a sustainable way starts with us. Only we can make a difference right now, for a better tomorrow. Airlines, host countries, local governments, and business owners are also responsible, and with increased talk of sustainable tourism, we will see increased action. Speak up, share your knowledge on sustainable tourism and do your part. Every little action does make a change.
And don’t forget, the actions of sustainable tourism can also be implemented at home!
I actually have a degree in sustainable tourism! Despite the fact that I have a degree in it, I have to admit that I have never used it. Much like most graduates don’t use their degrees (sadly).
One day I hope I can make a major difference in the world of sustainable tourism, but for now, I will start with my own actions and inspiring change in other travellers.
If you found this guide on sustainable tourism helpful, pin it for later!