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The Ultimate Guide on How to Travel Sustainably

The Ultimate Guide on How to Travel Sustainably

Behind the picture perfect veil of tourism often lies a dark road.

Porters slave on mountainous terrain for barely any pay, lugging cooking equipment, tents, and luggage on their backs, just so we can cross Machu Picchu off our bucket lists. Tigers are captured, abused, and drugged so that we can satisfy our Instagram feeds and show all our friends just how “cool” our trip to Thailand was. All around the world, white sand beaches get littered with trash, lush, green trails become degraded, and vibrant cultures all too often become commercialized. The allure of overtourism has its price, and it’s not the traveler who pays its due.

But does tourism need to be this way?

Well, that’s where sustainable tourism comes in.

peruvian woman weaving while a tourist watches closely

What is Sustainable Tourism?

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism is "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.”

Sustainable tourism is the delicate balance between host communities and travellers, where both parties have opportunities for enriching experiences. The problem, though, is that many tourist industries have normalized an imbalance, where travellers and big corporations exploit resources and reap the majority of benefits, while local communities are left scavenging for scraps. Sustainable tourism is about recognizing these inequities, and working to re-establish a healthy balance.

Why is Sustainable Travel Important?

Travelling is so important for enriching the human experience and spirit. Without travelling, we would never get to explore the different perspectives, cultures, and landmarks around the world.

The only way that we can truly appreciate the diversity in the world is if we can understand our differences, and there is no better way to get to know those differences than through travel. But if we keep taking bits and pieces from these places in order to satisfy our own needs and desires, eventually the life and soul of these places will become drained. The magic of these places will become relics of the past, and then no one, not the locals nor new travelers, will get to experience the beauty that these places once had. And that reality is just sad.

So, we have to find ways to make our travels more sustainable. If we want to keep the magic of travel alive for future generations to enjoy, we need to be better at taking care of our planet and the many local communities that reside within it. We need to see our role, not just as passing visitors, but as guests, giving our hosts the same respect that we give our own homes. In this way, we can ensure that wherever we travel to and wherever we go, we truly only leave footprints behind.

What is the Most Sustainable Way to Travel?

Speaking of footprints, one important footprint that we are sure to leave behind is our carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas that one consumes. When we travel, our carbon footprint is likely to increase a lot.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Carbon-wise, traveling is really expensive. Planes, cars, ships, and trains all release greenhouse emissions that contribute to air pollution and climate change. As for which mode of transportation is the “worst,” that discussion is extremely complex and requires an article on its own to do it any justice.

To keep things simple, here are some general guidelines for sustainable transportation. The top five most common sustainable modes of transportation are walking, biking, electric bikes/streetcars, buses, and trains. Local/domestic travel produces less carbon emissions than international travel. When looking at the same category of travel (road travel vs. air travel vs. water travel), public transportation is typically more environmentally friendly than private transportation. But, as for whether cars are more environmentally friendly than planes, there are many different opinions on that, and there isn’t really one perfect answer. 

If all of this has gotten you confused, don’t worry. Here’s the key takeaway: Travel in a way that makes the most sense to you and your values. When you are happy and healthy, you are more likely to make decisions that are aligned with your values. However, if you are drenched in sweat, have blisters on your toes, and have lost your way at least three times because you decided to walk five thousand miles, you are probably not going to make the best choices that honour yourself, others, or the environment around you.

When it comes down to it, the most sustainable way to travel is mindfully. 

a man with tattoos sits on a motorbike on the beach

What’s Going on in the Sustainable Travel Industry?

Countries are starting to recognize the need for sustainable tourism. In over-populated tourist destinations like Barcelona and Venice, the sheer populations of visitors have significantly impacted the quality of life of local people and the environment. As a result, over the years, these countries have implemented sustainable tourism strategies to reduce the social and environmental impact of over-tourism.

Other destinations, like Cape Town, have realized the value of sustainable tourism as a marketing tool. In 2018, Cape Town suffered large droughts that significantly impacted their tourism rates. As a result, they were forced to innovate solutions for their water crisis. While they are no longer suffering from drought, they have since integrated water conservation into the travel industry, and they use this fact to market themselves competitively in the sustainable tourism world.

Another thing that is changing in the world of sustainable travel is the prevalence of ecotourism. Ecotourism is the branch of tourism which is concerned with the appreciation of nature and the local cultures which surround it. It prioritizes supporting local communities and implementing sustainable environmental practices that work to conserve local wildlife.

The rise of ecotourism is great news. Green is the new black, and green travel is here to stay. But, be weary of greenwashing. Many companies will hide behind the pseudonym of ecotourism when in fact, they aren’t doing much to benefit the environment or local people at all. Tricia Barnett, the Director of Tourism Concern, warns that ecotourism marketing can be “used by anyone at anytime for anything from a small-scale locally-run rainforest lodge where the money goes to support a local community, to a large, luxury, foreign-owned resort which has little community involvement and uses masses of natural resources.”

So how do we navigate this? The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is an accreditation body that works to bring global standards to sustainable travel and tourism. The GSTC provides industry criteria which members must follow in order to be certified and accredited as sustainable. The website shows recognized standards for hotels, tour operators, and destinations that align with the GSTC standards. You can use these standards to see if a company is recognized as sustainable. You can also search for a specific tour company to see if they are a GSTC member.

Keep in mind, not every single sustainable company will be on this list. Some smaller, local, or remote companies might not have these official certifications. It’s up to you to do the research and decide what makes sense to you.

woman in utah hiking surrounded by red rocks

What are Some of the Best Sustainable Vacations??

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Many of Costa Rica’s tourist attractions involve nature and the enjoyment of nature. Sustainable Costa Rican companies use the Certificate of Tourism Sustainability (CST) stamp. The CST is a Costa Rican government accreditation body for sustainable travel and is equivalent to the GSTC guidelines. To gain more insight about this country, be sure to check out the blog post, A Traveler's Diary: Costa Rica.

Amazon Rainforest

From forest fires to deforestation to unsustainable harvesting processes, the Amazon rainforest is in need of serious help. Ecotourism presents a solution to help preserve this precious natural resource. Sustainable travel companies dedicate portions of their profits to conservation efforts, so everytime you put your money into these companies, you are also helping this cause. But be very careful of greenwashing. Many companies are just looking to make a quick buck, so look for recognized stamps and do your research. Find a genuine tour company that actually wants to make a difference. 

Local trips

As mentioned earlier, local/domestic trips are more environmentally friendly than international ones. Local road trips can be a great way for you to discover your home and appreciate local cultures which you previously may not have known about. For example, in Canada, many people are disconnected from Indigenious culture. In certain metropolitan areas of Canada, people are also very disconnected from nature. A local trip can help facilitate a sense of connection to the land which we reside on and help highlight the importance of sustainable practices in our own backyard.

What Are The Top Sustainable Travel Tips?

Supporting ecotourism is great, but there are also small things that we can do on an individual basis that can help us become more sustainable.

  1. Reduce single-use plastics. By reducing plastic waste, you reduce your environmental impact on the planet. Simple things like swapping a single-use plastic water bottle for a reusable water bottle or using a tote bag or reusable shopping bag instead of a plastic bag can make a huge difference to the environment. To read more on this, head to 30+ Ways To Reduce Your Waste.
  2. Carbon offset your flight. Many flights offer the option to offset the flight. This means that the passenger pays an additional fee to fund an environmental project that will compensate for the emissions produced during the flight.
  3. Pack light. The idea is that reducing the weight of luggage on a plane will reduce the amount of carbon emissions the plane produces. The UN’s Environment Programme states that reducing luggage weight by 15kg can reduce carbon emissions by 50-100kg during a four and a half hour flight. We put together a comprehensive backpacking check list if you’d like to learn more.
  4. Do travel responsibly. When you can, try to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases you consume through transportation. Take public transport or rent a bike. Don’t fly unless you have to and explore fuel-less ways to see the world like hiking or canoeing.
  5. Eat plant-based. At least some of the time. The amount of resources that go into producing meat is ridiculous. From a strictly environmental standpoint, eating a lot of vegan meals is the more environmentally friendly way to go. 
  6. Choose local guides. Local guides tend to have a better understanding of the culture, local attractions, and useful travel tips. Another huge plus is that when you use a local guide, you know that you are directly supporting the local economy.
  7. Choose sustainable accommodations. Choose accommodations that value sustainable tourism. This way, you know that your money is going to feed back into the local community or environment in some way.
  8. Choose biodegradable products. This includes toiletries like toothpaste, creams, deodorant, and soaps. Everything that goes down the drain when we shower or wash our hands is still considered waste. It’s best to try to keep these items biodegradable so that they are not polluting waterways. The best biodegradable products also come in biodegradable/compostable containers. If possible, avoid plastic bottles and opt for paper boxes or biodegradable plastics instead.
  9. Choose mineral-based sunscreen. Speaking of toiletry items, sunscreen requires special attention. A number of chemicals commonly found in sunscreens are extremely harmful to aquatic life, such as coral reefs, mussels, sea urchin, fish and dolphins. The problem is that many people who enter the ocean are likely to use these chemically damaging sunscreens. Once they enter the water, these chemicals absorb into the ecosystem and cause devastating effects like coral reef bleaching. The solution? Use mineral-based (zinc oxide or titanium oxide) sunscreens or reef-safe sunscreens. Unfortunately, even these sunscreens are likely to have some ingredients in them that may be damaging to the environment. But they will at least reduce the environmental impact of chemical damage compared to conventional sunscreens. The best and totally toxic-free sunscreen we’ve found is SurfDurt. It’s seriously incredible.
  10. Slow travel. Enjoy the landscapes, experience the cultural heritage, meet locals, and appreciate your travels. When you slow down, you give yourself a chance to be mindful. When you’re mindful, that’s when all this talk about sustainability really starts to come together and make sense.
  11. Have something with you that reminds you to travel sustainably. A great example of this would be the Mindful Travel Journal. Not only can you use it to plan, document and remember all of your amazing experiences, but it's also filled with Wakeful Travel tips and best practices to follow to travel sustainably.

a pop-top van on a rocky beach with blue sky

How Can I Learn More About Being a Sustainable Traveler?

The Wakeful Travel Blog has a ton of resources that can supplement your understanding of how to best be a sustainable traveler. “What is Ecotourism,” “30+ Ways to Reduce your Waste,” and “The Ultimate Guide to Transformative Travel” are great starting points. While the topics are not necessarily directly related, they will help enrich your understanding of what it means to experience sustainable and environmentally friendly travel. You can also follow Wakeful Travel on social media or subscribe to the mailing list to get updates when new articles come out.

We can’t ignore the dark side of tourism. We can’t deny that it’s there. But instead of shying away from it, we need to allow ourselves to look past the veil and unpack the areas that need to be improved. Sustainable travelling is about peaking through this veil, and making the firm stance to say, “no.”

To answer the first question of “does tourism need to be this way?”

The answer is, no, it needs to be better. Way better.


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