What IS Sustainable Travel? We Break It Down

what is sustainable travel

Wondering how to travel more sustainably? Not sure what sustainable travel even means, really? We break it down for you

By Marina Sergeeva

We all love a good escape from time to time, sure. But more of us are beginning to understand the potentially negative impact our holidays can have, and are seeking more sustainable ways to see the world. But what is sustainable travel, really? And how is it different from ecotourism or ethical travel, if at all?

The short answer is that it’s not. These three terms are pretty much interchangeable, though ethical travel usually refers to how we interact with local people and cultures, more than the environment.

Actual definitions of what sustainable travel is

According to the Word Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable travel is defined as: ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘. Hmm…ok. But a bit vague! I guess all that means is that our current generation should preserve the resources and environment for the young ‘uns.

The World Tourism Organisation gives a slightly better definition of what sustainable travel is. They say it’s the ‘management of all resources in such  way that economic social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems.’

This is pretty much the criteria we use here at Eluxe to determine if a hotel is sustainable. For example, we ask:

  • Are they managing their water, energy and materials in a sustainable way?
  • Is the staff comprised of well-paid, well-trained locals?
  • Are they supporting the local environment with organic farming, anti-plastic, rubbish recycling or other eco schemes?
  • Does the hotel use local materials for construction, and local businesses for its operations?

Luckily, quite a few (of the usually smaller) hotels tick all of those boxes.

It’s about us, too

But sustainable travel isn’t just about the hotel or plane offsets – it’s about us, too. When asking ourselves what sustainable travel really is, we need to consider:

  • How are we travelling? Are we using public transport as much as possible?
  • Are we throwing money around huge hotel chains and shops, ensuring no locals will benefit from our spend when we arrive to our destination?
  • Does the hotel we’re staying in behave sustainably? Or do they consider plastic-wrapped, disposable slippers, daily laundry and unasked for ‘extras’ to be ‘luxurious’?
  • Are we ruining local cultures by ignoring their norms and demanding that our own ways be followed, even in a foreign country? At the end of the day, the definition of sustainable travel starts with us.

I’ve come up with 10 suggestions on how to travel more sustainably that are easy to apply no matter where you choose to go.

How To Travel More Sustainably

how to travel sustainably

1. Use Eco Travel Agencies

You can start with finding eco-travel agencies to help you plan your holiday. They will advise you on all the essentials and find you the best deals available, which have the least impact on the environment.

For example, Responsible Tourism focuses on helping you plan your holiday whilst treating local people well, and protecting wildlife environments in that region. They acknowledge that modern travellers prefer to fly to faraway destinations, but they work towards creating a positive impact on local cultures. They go by the mantra, ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’. Atlas Unbound is another operator focused on all-eco adventure tourism.

There are plenty more responsible operators and advisors such as NOW travel, who offer travellers advice and hard questions to ask hoteliers about sustainability. Nature Travels donate 2% of their profits to conservation efforts in Sweden. They also offer a donation of £4.15 per person to Climate Care to offset the impact of your travel.

2. Offset Your Travels

And speaking of offsetting, if you insist on travelling across the world and back numerous times a year, do be kind to the planet and offset the damage. It’s easy to do! At Atmosfair, for example, you can research your route to find out your individual CO2 impact, and the cost to offset those emissions. You can even pay right there and then online. Alternatively, you can contribute to an environmental project, plant a free as a means offsetting your travel.

And don’t think that flying is the only culprit. While a single flight from New York City to Los Angeles produces the same amount of carbon emissions as a car would have emitted throughout an entire year, it takes a whopping 200 million cars to produce the same amount of CO2 as a few cruise ships do!

3. Embrace public transport

So, now that we’ve got you to your destination, it’s time to think about how you can carry on your sustainable travels. All it takes is a bit of pre-planning and working out the public transport systems.

Trust me, it’s not all that hard and will most likely save you some Uber bills or getting ripped off by local taxis. Plan your travel through trams, trains, walking and cycling, where possible, your bank account will appreciate it at least!

4. Check in Somewhere Green

As for where you’re staying, why not try an AirBnB or privately owned B&B to contribute to the local economy? Alternatively, search for any eco-retreats or hotels with great sustainability policies in the area. Not sure where to look? These 7 eco-luxury retreats are a good place to start.

If you miss the luxury of hotels, but hate all the waste they generate, try a stay in a private villa. With agencies like Villa Pads, you can choose when to wash your towels and sheets, when to put the heating or air conditioning on and how much energy you use per day, for example.

5. Be Respectful To The Locals

As suggested earlier, it’s not so much sustainable travel, but responsible tourism that is key to making a difference. So adopt new travelling habits like  buying local goods from artisans learning local etiquette and basic local language phrases. It’s also about being considerate of locals when taking photos; make sure you ask before you snap a local. I mean, how would you like it if someone just walked up to you and took a pic?

Also, remember to respectful in your bargaining if that’s part of the culture. There’s nothing uglier than a Westerner haggling over a few dollars or even pennies for a good – it makes hardly any difference to us, but for a small market holder, it could be the difference between having dinner that night or not.

what is sustainable travel

6. Be Kind To The Local Flora And Fauna

Take care to protect the wildlife and the environment at your destination or throughout travels. Whether that means not picking wildflowers or killing small creatures that happen to get into your room (in fact, you’d better just expect some lizards or frogs to get into even 5 star rooms in some tropical places!), or maybe not dumping rubbish in forests or parks, being respectful in your habits to the wildlife outside of your window makes you a better – and better liked – traveller.

what is sustainable travel

7. Shun All Animal Attractions

Loads of people think it’s cool to swim with dolphins, ride elephants or feed baby tigers. Sure, it’s love to be up close and personal with the natural world, but remember: these animals are wild! To ‘tame’ them to do what they do involves immense suffering. And please think about how they got there. They were likely stolen from their mothers. So think of how traumatising that was, and how miserable their current lives really are.

Dolphins are not meant to exist in small pools or aquariums, full stop. Elephants are tortured to ‘tame’ them to accept tourists on their backs. Tigers and lions are bred in horrid conditions so tourists can pet their babies. Often, the adults are slaughtered for their body parts for Chinese medicine. Do NOT contribute to these heartbreaking practices; ignorance is no excuse. Animal tourism is not sustainable travel!

what is sustainable travel

8. Say NO to Natural Souvenirs

Coral, mammoth ivory, bear claws, tortoise shells…there are so, so many natural products offered to tourists that are not only unethical to buy, but in many cases, illegal, too. Resist your urge for any animal artefacts and products, as great that they would look on your mantlepiece: the reality is that they are slowly diminishing the local wildlife and possibly even contributing to extinction.

coral necklace

9. Learn A Little Before Going

Sustainable means ethical, right? And there’s nothing ethical about assuming everyone speaks English. Sure, it’s an international language, but how would you feel if someone came up to you and asked the time in Swahili, then rolled their eyes like ‘jeez, learn some Swahili already’ when you gave them a blank stare? Just get the basics down – even if you learn one phrase, it should be ‘do you speak English’?

But it’s not only the lingo we need to learn: ensure you’re up on the tipping practices. No one likes to get stiffed, but it’s also as problematic when you overtip in some cultures: the Japanese, for example, find it embarrassing. And North Americans who over tip (or even give a tip when one is not needed) set the bar for locals starting to demand money from foreigners.


10. Refuse To Cruise

CruMany people mistakenly believe that cruise ships are better for the planet than flying, but that’s completely wrong. As mentioned above, cruise ships actually pollute more than flying in some cases. But that’s not the only ecological damage cruise ships do. They also pollute the oceans immensely with garbage and sewage, kill and injure countless sea animals and more. Click here to see why you should never, ever take a cruise if you want to be a sustainable traveller.

cruise ship

Got any other tips for sustainable travel? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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