What is sustainable travel and why should you care?

Sustainable travel is arguably the biggest buzz term in travel right now, but there are still loads of travellers out there scratching their heads about what this actually means. So I’m going to have a crack at breaking it down for you. Here goes!

There's more to Jamaica than cruise ports and all-inclusive resorts © Sarah Reid
There’s more to Jamaica than cruise ports and all-inclusive resorts, like this waterfall I discovered in the nation’s lush Blue Mountains © Sarah Reid

Sustainable travel in a nutshell

One of the most confusing things about sustainable tourism (and other catchphrases on the green travel spectrum) is that there isn’t a singular accepted definition to rule them all. The World Tourism Organization, however, does a pretty good job of summing up sustainable tourism as ‘tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.’ In other words, sustainable tourism isn’t just about preserving the natural environment so future tourists can benefit, but preserving the environment so it meets the current and future needs of the local community, while also funding conservation. Sustainable tourism also requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, from visitors to tour companies to local people. The economics of this kind of tourism shouldn’t cause friction with local culture and traditions.

Pristine beaches like this one in Timor-Leste could be exploited if they aren't managed sustainably © Sarah Reid
Development of any kind is banned on Jaco Island in Timor-Leste. Cool huh? © Sarah Reid

Is sustainable travel the same as ecotourism, green travel, ethical tourism and responsible tourism?

Essentially yes, with some shades of difference. It also depends on how these terms are defined. The International Ecotourism Society, for example, defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the wellbeing of the local people, and involves interpretation and education,’ which is very similar to the WTO’s definition of sustainable tourism. However, ecotourism is also commonly used to refer to any type of tourism to natural areas. An unsustainable tourism activity such as an elephant ride, for example, might be described as an ‘ecotour’ simply because the elephant treks through the jungle during the tour. This is known as ‘greenwashing’, when green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that a product (in this case a tourism product) is environmentally friendly. Keep an eye out for this! In many cases, however, the tour operator (especially those in developing nations) isn’t even aware that the activity they are selling is unsustainable. One of my reasons for naming this website ecotravelist.com was to reclaim the prefix ‘eco’ to promote legitimate ecotourism destinations, experiences and initiatives.

Green travel is a little more broad. This term typically refers to travel that is enviro-conscious and low-impact. However, some definitions of green travel incorporate other aspects of sustainable travel and ecotourism, as mentioned above.

Ethical tourism is more commonly used to describe tourism in a destination where ethical issues are the key driver – human rights, animal welfare, the environment, for example. Ethical tourism is geared towards encouraging both the consumer and industry to avoid participation in activities that contribute to or support negative ethical issues.

Responsible tourism is pretty much what it says on the tin, but travelling responsibly can differ a little from destination to destination. The folks at Responsible Travel do an excellent job of pointing travellers towards responsible tour options around the world.

It's much easier to travel sustainably in ecoconscious countries like Slovenia © Sarah Reid
It’s easier to travel sustainably in eco-conscious countries like Slovenia  © Sarah Reid

So how does one actually travel sustainably?

Travelling sustainably (and more responsibly, ethically etc) is easy once you know how to do it, but it takes a bit of research. I compiled this article as a handy starting point, but it’s also important to research specific destination offerings and the business practices of those offerings to ensure you are making the best choices wherever you travel.

A key aspect of sustainable travel is to choose your destination wisely. Many popular destinations are known for the negative effects travel has on the local culture and environment (Venice, Bali, Egypt’s Great Pyramids…). There may be a handful of businesses offering sustainable options in these destinations, but does choosing to take up those options make it OK to go there? That’s a question you have to answer for yourself. I personally travel to a lot of destinations with sustainability issues, as visiting them helps me to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by these destinations, and communicate more effectively to fellow travellers about how to minimise their impact should they wish to visit themselves. But each to their own. When I do visit these destinations, I am more conscious of my impact than ever.

EcoCamp Patagonia in Chine is one of the world's most sustainable hotels © Cascada Expediciones
Sleep easy at EcoCamp Patagonia, one of the world’s most sustainable hotels © Cascada Expediciones

Accommodation is another big consideration. Does your intended hotel or guesthouse operate in harmony with the local environment and community? Or is it run by an faceless conglomerate more concerned with the bottom line? Again, this can take a little digging beyond the information provided on the hotel website. One of my biggest bugbears is hotels that display those little cards in your bathroom prompting you to help the hotel to care for the environment by hanging up your towels if you want to use them again. So you do, but the hotel staff wash them anyway! Promoting an enviro policy that they don’t stick to just makes them look like jerks.

Sleeping green doesn’t always have to cost a fortune, either. While a five-day W-Trek tour lodging at ultra-sustainable EcoCamp Patagonia in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park will set you back nearly US$2,000 (which is actually pretty reasonable for what you get), you can bed down at Hostel Celica, the world’s first eco-certified hostel, in Ljubljana (Slovenia’s capital) for as little as €27 per night.

Then there’s tourist attractions. I’d be suspicious, for example, of a wildlife attraction that bills itself as a ‘conservation’ facility, yet allows tourists to ride or cuddle its captive wildlife, or watch it perform. Again, in some cases operators might not even be aware that there are animal welfare issues associated with these activities, so don’t always take the company’s eco-friendly claims at face value.

Foreign iguanas imported as pets almost wiped out the Cayman Islands' endemic blue iguanas, which can be viewed at the QEII Botanic Park © Sarah Reid
Foreign iguanas imported as pets almost wiped out the Cayman Islands’ endemic blue iguanas, which are now being sustainably bred and released into the grounds of the QEII Botanic Park © Sarah Reid

And the clincher – what’s in it for you?

Ever hear someone describe a travel destination or experience as being ‘ruined’? That’s typically the result of a destination or experience that is not managed sustainably – travellers blindly lap it up until the destination or experience becomes so crowded/dirty/commercialised etc that it loses its appeal. If tourists keep coming regardless, they make more of a mess. If they stop, and there’s no support available to locals who rely on this sort of tourism, it makes a mess of the economy. By choosing to travel to destinations equipped to manage tourism sustainably, and actively trying to minimise your own impact on every destination you visit, you can play a key role in preventing the Ko Phangan’s and Costa del Sol’s of the world from losing the natural beauty and/or rich local culture that first prompted travellers to visit these places by helping to preserve them for years to come. Pretty sweet incentive, no?

Sustainable travel also equates to more meaningful travel, simply by the nature of it. Will taking a selfie with a ‘pet’ toucan on a Mexican beach linger in your memory for as long as the experience of spotting a wild one flap through the treetops during a jungle hike? Will staying at an all-inclusive chain hotel in a Thai beach resort feel as special as the time you dined on amazing local produce prepared by the friendly owner of a characterful family-run guesthouse in the mountains? I doubt it.

Even in destinations where it might feel too late to make much of an impact, a little bit of effort can still go a long way. While exploring the Indonesian island of Bali, for example, it might not seem like you can make a difference by refusing a plastic bag with your next purchase. But around 10,000 people visit Bali every day. And less than five per cent of plastic bags in Bali are recycled. Around 75 per cent of garbage on the island isn’t collected by an official service, so that’s around 7,500 plastic bags that are buried, burned, or dumped into the ocean in Bali every day. And that’s if each tourist only uses one plastic bag, and Bali’s four million-odd locals don’t use any! Food for thought, aint it?