Sustainble travel that supports communities, local economies, and the environment is not as difficult as you may think. Although global corporations spend massive advertising dollars pitching claims about “net zero emissions” (an arguably meaningless phrase) and carbon footprints, when it comes to individual travelers sustainable travel usually starts with an ethos rather than mathematical calculations of environmental accountability.
In other words, there is relatively little you can do to reduce emissions related to your travel, but a way that you can mindfully engage in sustainable travel is through economic, cultural, and micro-environmental (i.e. not littering and recycling) changes. While “voluntourism” and mission projects may appear, on the surface to serve communities, it’s a fundamentally exploitative way to travel (see this PubMed journal article for more information on how sociologists measure the impact of short-term missions and service-based travel). How then, do we travel well?
8 Tips for Economically and Environmentally Sustainable Travel
Recently, I had the chance to discuss this topic with a few of my traveling friends and companions. Challenged to name ways that travelers can have a positive impact on the places they visit, we came up with this list:
1. Spend money locally
Whenever possible, book hotels are hostels directly through that business’s website or phone number. Similarly, avoid booking tours through websites managed by corporations rather than small businesses. All of these booking websites charge local vendors a hefty fee. By booking directly you can usually get a better rate- and more of it goes to the small business.
2. Get off the beaten path.
One of my favorite travel memories ditching Dublin to explore lesser known Wexford, Ireland – what made it special wasn’t, particularly, what that location offered but it was the hospitality of that lesser touristed area. Leaving the popular, Instagram famous destinations in favor of less common, rural, or niche travel locations nearby is a way that individual travelers can counter overtourism, spread tourism income to less prosperous regions, and curate more authentic connections with the people and communities they visit.
Need ideas? Next time to plan a trip to Croatia, plan a few days to explore Bosnia and Hertzegovenia. Headed to Macchu Pichu? Take a side trip to stay in a floating village made by the Uros people on Lake Titicaca.
3. Buy your souvenirs from local artists and craftspeople
If you love a good souvenir as much as I do, learn to find the real stuff. Sustainable travel rejects the commodification of poor quality, imported, or souvenirs made by undercompensated workers. Instead, invest in fewer souvenirs or smaller souvenirs created by local artists and craftspeople, which can often be found in local markets.
An even more environmentally friendly and low-budget travel way to get souvenirs for friends and family back home is to find charity shops are thrift stores in your destination. Often, authentic folk art and local specialty goods (like lace in Croatia, woven blankets in South America, clocks in germany) can be found secondhand in these shops, and while your purchase will go directly to craftspeople it usually does go at least in part to support community programs- with all the good feelings of recycling!
4. Reduce, Reuse, & Recycle- Even when it isn’t Convenient
An easy way to move towards sustainable travel is through the 3Rs: reducing consumption, reusing whenever possible, and recycling items instead of throwing them away.
During travel both domestic and international, reducing consumption and choosing to recycle can be a challenge. In many locations, finding recycling bins can be a challenge- you may need to mindfully take the time to rinse out recyclables, dry them, and seek out a recycling bin. Travelers dedicated to leave no trace travel may even pack out their recyclable waste with them (while extreme, this kind of goal can be an incentive for reducing consumption)
5. Never Litter
Tourism is a messy business and popular tourist destinations and travel hubs are constantly littered. Despite the best efforts of janitorial staff, a portion of this trash inevitably makes it into the surrounding environment. In fact, at the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, the pristine landscape has been so damaged by trash (which is irretrievable from the glacier) that white plastic trash bags are now provided to every visitor (theoretically to make proper disposal easier, but realistically, to make the waste reaching the glacier less of an eyesore).
6. Clean up litter!
While “mission work” and “voluntourism” often problematic, doing a little something to leave the world better than you found it is appreciated across cultures. Packing a few plastic bags and a pair of gloves makes it easy to spend a few minutes cleaning up a beach or trail so the folks behind you get to experience a bit more beauty during their visit. Even nature-preserves like Lokrum Island in Croatia and Sea Caves in Chile can be soiled with trash- and every traveler’s hands can help or hurt.
7. Leave positive reviews
Human psychology is skewed to leave negative reviews after negative experiences, but sustainable travel helps support local communities by intentionally promoting positive experiences. A simple five-star review after a decent meal or a raving review when you find a treasure can have a meaningful impact on a small local business that typically doesn’t get much tourist traffic.
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to find restaurants that are crowded with locals but don’t have any reviews on popular sites used by international tourists, try them, and if I like them, leaving reviews in English advising other English speaking travelers to check out that spot.
8. Don’t take photographs of humans without consent
Sustainable travel is a way of traveling that is mindful of our impact on other people. When travelers take photographs of locals without asking permission, it can feel violating and contribute to a general dislike or distrust of travelers. Before taking someone’s photograph to use for your travel scrapbook, blog, travel social media account, or even just for your own memory, ask permission. Read more about consent in travel photography here.
FYI: In many locations, socioeconomically disadvantaged or disabled individuals may dress in traditional clothing and/or bring an animal to a popular tourist location. This is a service provided in exchange for payment: never photograph these small business owners without consent.
[Images of indigenous people shown in this post were taken with enthusiastic consent and appropriate compensation.]
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com