What is sustainable travel?

Published 11/05/2023

What is sustainable travel?

Published 11/05/2023

Sustainable travel, it’s what this whole blog is about. But I never actually explained what I mean by that. It’s definitely so much more than just taking a train instead of a plane. It doesn’t even mean that if you do take a plane, your chance of travelling sustainable is lost. It’s not black and white and everybody can make their trips more sustainable. It doesn’t have to be perfect. So what does “sustainable travel” mean? I’ll explain the different effects of sustainable travel and responsible tourism, and how these 2 are intertwined in different definitions of sustainable travel.

Sustainability and sustainable travel

I already dedicated an article about what sustainability is. So if you want to read into the technical side of it, you can find it here. But to give a summary: in short, sustainability encourages us to think about how we can reduce our impact on the environment, the people we meet and the places we visit. Sustainable travel, also known as eco travel or green travel, is:

“a type of travel that aims to minimise its environmental and cultural impact while at the same time maximising its positive effects on nature, local communities and the local economy.”

It’s a way of travelling that respects the local environment and culture, and takes into account the local impact of our actions on the environment ánd on the people living there. It’s a way of travelling that reduces our carbon footprint and doesn’t exploit resources that locals also have to live off.

This shows that sustainability is more than just paying attention to your CO2 emissions. It’s also about local communities and the local economy. You can do lots of things during your trip that will attribute to your destination, in a sustainable way. We also call this responsible tourism. Taking responsibility for your own travel impact. Both for nature and the local people. 

Environmental effects of travel

Of course, travel has a big impact on the environment and in the base sustainable travel will reduce that impact. The biggest pollution is in the gas emissions, the CO2. This is why you always hear about flying being bad for the environment. And yes, it is. An airplane causes most emissions and because it’s closer to the ozone layer, it causes even more harm than a car, for example.

But travel can also contribute to other forms of pollution, such as noise pollution, water pollution, and waste. For example, cruise ships can release sewage, chemicals, and other pollutants into the ocean. Hotels and resorts can generate large amounts of waste, particularly in areas with limited waste management infrastructure. And we, as travellers, can cause a whole lot of noise pollution and waste pollution by simply not paying attention to our environment.

Finally, travel can also contribute to resource depletion. Popular tourist destinations may face water shortages, deforestation, and other environmental problems as a result of increased demand for resources. Imagine a new hotel being built and trees having to make way for it. This destroys the biodiversity, if nothing is done to compensate. The same goes for tourist activities, such as skiing, where trees are cut down, and the ground gets polluted by using fake snow. 

So, not taking a plane, definitely isn’t the only way we can reduce our environmental impact while we travel.

2 Examples of negative travel impacts

Let me give you 2 examples of the impact of travel, that has 0 to do with flying but caused a lot of damage anyway. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about both, but you might not have realized that this is also a part of travel pollution and how green travel can help prevent situations like this. Both are great examples of the effects of mass tourism in the long run, and how the way we currently travel isn’t sustainable for the future.

1. Maya Beach in Thailand

Do you know that pretty beach on Phi Phi island where they filmed the movie “the beach”? I’m sure when you see photos, you do. Did you also know it was closed from June 2018 until January 2022? Obviously, with the pandemic in between, it didn’t impact travel as much as it would have in other years, but I’m sure it disappointed a lot of people. The reason? It was so damaged by over tourism, that this was the only way to give it the time it needed to recover. The coral at the beach was severely damaged, which led to wildlife disappearing and dying because of a lack of food. This was all caused by travellers who weren’t careful with the environment. They’d touch the coral, causing it to die. Or they’d throw their trash on the beach, causing it to land in the ocean and killing lots of wildlife.

If people would’ve been more cautious about the environment, this might have been prevented. Thailand is now working on multiple similar projects. They prioritize the environment over tourism, even though tourism is important for the country’s livelihood. They will close more places if needed, and they are working on spreading tourism. Meaning, instead of loads of tourists at the same popular spots, day in, and day out, they try to promote more undiscovered places. They also try to stimulate people to travel during the week instead of the weekends and in off-season instead of high season. With the spreading of tourists, the impact on these places can be limited.

2. Venice, Italy

I’m sure you’re aware of the situation in Venice. If not, is there a spot under your rock? I’d love to close off from the world sometimes. However, to fill you in, Venice is sinking. It has been for decennia. It’s caused by a combination of natural and human factors, including sea level rise, and the extraction of groundwater. According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2018, Venice is sinking at a rate of about 1 to 2 millimetres per year. And with that, Venice is also threatened by rising sea levels. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global sea levels could rise by up to 1 meter by the end of the century due to climate change. This would put Venice at risk of flooding more frequently and severely than it already does.

If you’ve visited recently, you know that at high thigh, parts of the city are flooding, and they put up walking boards, so you can cross with dry feet. Venice is a popular tourist destination, with millions of visitors flocking the city each year. While tourism can bring economic benefits to the city, it can also put a strain on its infrastructure and resources. For example, large cruise ships that dock in the Venetian harbour can contribute to pollution and erosion. But it’s also becoming a highly unliveable city, with locals moving away and the government coming up with all sorts of ideas to get people to stay. Because without locals living in the city, who’s paying for the buildings? And who’d run all the shops and restaurants?

So what can we do to travel more sustainably?

As you can see, sustainable travel is a very layered subject. This obviously also means that there are multiple things you can do to reduce your negative local impact. Responsible tourism also helps to create jobs in local communities and can help to boost local economies and reduce poverty. It also helps to protect local cultures and to ensure that the places we visit aren’t over-exploited by tourists. How? With the following tips:

1. Sustainable transport

This is of course the obvious one. Planes are the worst, but especially short flights. So if it’s possible to travel over land, choose to do that. Choose public transport, cycling or walking to get around. This will help to reduce your carbon footprint and has the added bonus of allowing you to get a better idea of the place you’re visiting.

2. Support local businesses

Choose to stay in locally-run accommodations and eat in locally-owned restaurants. This will help to support the local economy and ensure that the money you spend goes to the people that live there, instead of the rich owner of a hotel chain.

3. Respect local customs

Respect the local culture and customs of the places you visit, and be mindful of how you act and dress in public. This will help to ensure that the people of the place you visit feel respected and appreciated.

Read more about local impact here.

4. Reduce, reuse, recycle

Reduce the amount of waste you produce by reusing items where possible and recycling as much as you can. This will help to minimise the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and oceans. This includes reusable products like a water bottle, coffee cup and refillable travel minis instead of buying the tiny plastic ones every time. And using plastic-free items over plastic ones, that end up on the waste pile of the country you’re travelling in. And, of course, throw your trash in the bin instead of in nature.

5. Energy and water use

Be mindful of how much energy and water you are using and try to reduce where possible. This could mean choosing to stay in accommodation with solar panels, turning off the lights when you leave the room and taking shorter showers. This way, you don’t use up the energy and water supplies that the locals use as well. This is especially important in countries where water shortage is a big issue.

6. Sustainable accommodation

Many accommodations are making bigger efforts towards sustainability. This includes the solar panels I already mentioned, but also the use of local and seasonal products for breakfast, plastic-free cosmetics in the bathroom or reducing energy and water usage by cleaning less or at least giving you the option to decline cleaning. Staying at sustainable accommodations makes it a lot easier for you to make your trip more sustainable since they do most of the work for you already.

Trip plan stress - Me struggling with multiple Lonely Planets to plan my next trip

Book your sustainable trip

So, I’ll say it again. Taking a plane to another continent doesn’t automatically mean your trip can’t be sustainable. There are many ways to still reduce your impact on the environment and the country you’re visiting.

Do you need help planning a more sustainable trip? I now offer my services as a sustainable travel agent and I can plan your trip for you, or walk you through the process.