Let’s face it, the green travel market can be difficult to navigate. With so many terms thrown around — from green hotels to ecofriendly tours, how is a conscientious traveler supposed to decipher between marketing ploys and truly sustainable establishments?
First, let’s dismantle the myth that all sustainability directly relates to the environment. Your carbon footprint is important, but sustainable tourism goes beyond conservation to include social development and impact on local economies, too.
Hyper focusing on the negative environmental impacts of the tourism industry can cloud the big picture. Prior to the pandemic, at least 20 of the world’s least developed countries rely on tourism as their first or second source of export earnings. Tourism directly boosts local economies, improving livelihoods and alleviating poverty.
So, what does authentic sustainability look like in travel? The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has put forth criterion as a means of standardizing the language around sustainable tourism. The criteria are comprised of four pillars:
- Sustainable management
- Socioeconomic impacts
- Cultural impacts
- Environmental impacts, including consumption of resources, reducing pollution, and conserving biodiversity and landscapes
Truly sustainable accommodations will be evaluated against the criteria annually and certified where applicable. And there’s no need to give up your own creature comforts – everything from all-inclusive resorts to private villas and true eco-lodges are certified sustainable by the GSTC.
Certification is earned by businesses that employ locals with fair wages and decent working conditions, engage in energy and water saving programs, conserve biodiversity, recycle, utilize sustainable food sources including locally grown produce, among other initiatives.
The key to truly having an impact is taking a well-rounded approach. Sustainability is about evaluating – and managing — the socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental impact of your travel. Read on for our tips for truly sustainable travel – wherever your journey takes you.
Do your research.
Whether its learning more about the GSTC criteria, diving deeper into the meanings behind the trendy “green” phrases or researching about the initiatives employed by the companies you’ll be traveling with, understanding is key. Look for companies that demonstrate their efforts, not just pledge to them.
Spend a little time reading up on the social and environmental issues, history, and any other unique facts of the destination you are going to visit, too. Gaining a better understanding of the customs, people, and environmental problems facing a destination will go a long way in improving your ability to interact locally in a positive way.
Purchase souvenirs from local artisans or shops.
Forego the mass-produced magnet or t-shirt and opt for something handmade. Home décor, artwork, linens, and even preserves or coffee make for a much more worthwhile souvenir for your or your loved ones. Forego the airport giftshop and look for authentic keepsakes at local art galleries, markets, and shops. From a sustainability perspective, you’ll supporting local businesses as opposed to fast-fashion or larger companies.
Use local tour operators and visit local businesses.
Get out there! There is a big difference between being a tourist and a traveler. To be a traveler is to immerse yourself in local customs, traditions, and ways of life. Traveling is about the experience, so even if your hotel is a sustainable paradise, visit the local attractions and museums, shop the street stalls or markets, and discover rescue centers and national parks.
There is no better way to do this than enjoying local and authentic experiences. Skip the bland, touristy activities and experience what the place really offers. Your travel consultant knows great operators around the world who have developed authentic, off-the- beaten-path activities. Choose tours provided by local entrepreneurs with an eco-friendly mode of transportation. You’ll enjoy an authentic experience, while making a positive socio-economic impact on the destination. It’s a win-win.
Skip the tourist destinations and opt to journey off the beaten path.
Prior to the pandemic, travelers were literally loving destinations to destruction. Ancient cities, popular beaches, and antique landmarks became victims of their own popularity as tourism reached historic heights. Degradation has led to places like Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu, and Barcelona taking steps to limit tourists or impose special taxes for visitors
If you’re flexible – consider alternate options to a region’s most popular spots, you’ll likely get a more authentic experience and a greater appreciation for the culture. And if a popular destination is on your bucket list, remember it’s easy to be swept up in the beauty of a place, but it’s important to pay attention to how your actions affect the surroundings. Always stay on the designated paths, never touch the animals unless instructed to by a guide and try to skip the large tourist buses for smaller, exclusive trips.
Offset your carbon footprint.
Your carbon footprint, especially when flying, is still a critical demerit to living and traveling sustainably. Transportation accounts for nearly 75% of all tourism-related emissions, which as a whole are responsible for about five percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. The good news is you can purchase carbon offsets for flights – which are surprisingly affordable donations to projects aimed at counteracting greenhouse gases.
Be conscious of your transportation.
Unfortunately, there is no getting around the fact that air travel is not good for the environment. If you can avoid taking the friendly skies, traveling by land can be a wonderful part of your experience. Opt for a train when traveling to multiple destinations in Europe or Asia or choose to carpool in a rented electric vehicle. Either way, you’ll see more of the destination and have more opportunities to meet and support the locals!
When there is no way to eliminate flying for long-haul trips, book non-stop flights whenever possible to offset unneeded emissions and make traveling easier in the process. Look out for flights operated with renewable biofuels, such as plant oils or agricultural waste. A number of airlines, including American, Qantas and KLM, have introduced such fuels to select flights, for which carbon emissions are reduced by up to 80%.
Eat locally and bring your own water bottle.
The best way to support the local economy while traveling is to eat and shop at local, family-owned restaurants and shops. Not only is the food generally better than what you’ll find at chain restaurants and tourist traps, but you are supporting people’s livelihoods and culture. You can also support the community and decrease your carbon footprint by shopping at local famer’s markets or street stalls, which limit the distance your food needs to travel. When looking for restaurants, search for ones that source their ingredients from local gardens, farms, and markets. The food will taste better, and you’ll be reinforcing community growth.
Simply by avoiding use of plastic water bottles, you can make an impact while you travel. Traveling to a place with unsafe water? Invest in a water-filtration bottle for drinkable water wherever you are!
Keep up at-home habits.
Many of us practice living sustainably at home and being on the road should be no different. Recycle. Turn the lights off when you leave a room. Keep showers short and reuse towels by hanging them up. Bring your own toiletries – and be conscious of the environment they may affect!
Hotel guests generate an average of two pounds of waste per night – by keeping up with our daily habits, we can do our part to help lessen the environmental impact of our accommodations in the destination we’re visiting.
Wherever your travels take you, do your best to conserve the natural resources and reduce pollution, protect the plants and wildlife, and contribute to the local community. Remember, one of the best parts of traveling to a new destination is getting an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Whether it’s new food, new music or new customs, traveling is a great way to expand your cultural understanding and positive impact on the world.