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What is Sustainable Travel? (And how to do it right)

What is Sustainable Travel? (And how to do it right)

Written by Sabrina Wu.

With glaciers melting, forest fires raging, and more and more species becoming extinct, there has never been a more urgent time to think about sustainability. The effects of climate change is rearing its ugly head, and while the sustainability of the earth and its resources is very important, it’s not the only type of sustainability to think about. Culture, livelihood, ethics, health, and wealth are just some of the other aspects of sustainability, and when it comes to travel, all of these things come into play.

What is Sustainable Travel?

First Let’s Start With The Meaning of “Sustainable”

When it comes down to it, sustainability is about energy in and energy out. By definition, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain something at a certain level or rate. 

If all things are in a constant state of motion, then maintaining anything is really the maintenance of motion. In order to keep motion in an open system constant, there needs to be a balance between things moving in and out of the system.

So, by that definition then, sustainability is not necessarily about drinking out of paper straws and ditching plastic water bottles per se, (though that is a good start) but rather, it has more to do with partaking in the delicate dance between moving energy into a system and taking it out. When this is done correctly, that is what leads to sustainability.

Now, when we talk about sustainable travel, the definition is not any different. Sustainable travel is the delicate dance between the visitor and the host, where both parties must give and take in order to achieve a state of equilibrium within the system. When both parties are giving and taking at a balanced level, sustainability occurs and both parties gain mutual benefit. However, more often than not, this is not the reality.

girl sitting on top of a cabin in the forest

Which leads us to the next question: Why is Sustainable Travel Important?

Many times, the host ends up giving up a great deal of their resources for unequal return. Land is taken for development, local cultures are westernized, and ethics are often pushed off to the side to pave the way for the cash-crop path of the tourism industry. This is not always the fault of the traveler. It is also common for many local people to choose to sell out their culture and land for this pursuit.

Regardless of whose “fault” it is, when resources are not proportionally exchanged for, whether through money or other means, it leads to an under-valuing of the resource. When a resource is devalued, it means that there is an imbalance in the transaction of the resource. Since sustainability is all about the balance of energy in and out, this imbalance means that the contract of sustainability can no longer be withheld, and if the system is not replenished of what has been taken from it, it will eventually lead to its collapse. This can lead to the homogenization of cultures, mass tourism, unethical working conditions, degraded landscapes, and a compromised local economy and wealth.

So then, in order to maintain the same level of value in each destination we go to, for future experiences and beyond, to truly appreciate the destination, its culture, and the people within it, it is crucial to keep in mind the contract of sustainability.

How Can You Be Sustainable While Traveling?

The good news is that being a sustainable traveler is not difficult at all. 

Here are a few different ways you can be sustainable:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint: This means reducing the amount of CO2 emissions your travels produce. Consider travelling locally instead of internationally when you can, take public transport or walk, and choose eco-lodges rather than conventional accommodations. You can carbon offset your flights and choose locally-owned restaurants over westerner-owned restaurants or giant chain restaurants.
  • Support ecotourism: Support companies that value green travel and giving back to local communities. Find out what ecotourism seals to look for and how to avoid greenwashing Plus, find out what the benefits of Ecotourism are in our other blog posts.
  • Reduce your waste: Reduce the use of single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles and single-use toiletries. The Wakeful Travel blog has a comprehensive article on 30+ Easy Ways to Reduce your Waste
  • Respect local culture: Observe and appreciate differences in cultural heritage. Get involved with local communities and get curious about the places you are visiting and the people who live in them.
  • Support local communities: Instead of putting your money into large corporations who direct their funds into international accounts, why not put your money in a local family’s pocket? Visit local restaurants, stay in local airbnb accommodations, and use local tour operators.
  • Stay mindful: Keep a travel journal like the Mindful Travel Journal while you travel so that you can stay grounded in the moment and make decisions that are rooted in your values.

a hand holds a camera with a photo of a campfire on it

How Can I Travel Sustainably During COVID?

COVID has definitely thrown a curveball for the world of travel. 

With flight restrictions amidst us and discussion of new variants in the air, international travel is off the table for many.

However, that does not mean travelling needs to stop. In fact, many peoples’ livelihood depends on it. Local travel, recreation, and hospitality industries are suffering, and travelling sustainably during COVID means supporting those small businesses while still maintaining safety precautions. 

Gone are the days of throwing parties in your airbnb, or squishing between strangers at concerts. Sustainable travel during COVID means responsible travel. It means having a tight bubble and respecting the local communities in the places you travel. You might need to change your itineraries to include more outdoor activities where the risk of transmission is lower. Some examples of low-risk activities include skiing and snowboarding, hiking/camping at national parks, fishing, or sight-seeing. 


How Can I Support Sustainable Travel after COVID?

COVID will always be around, but after the restrictions are lifted. It's essential to keep supporting local businesses. When restrictions do lift, it can be tempting to book the first flight out to the Carribean, and that’s fine, but the first and most important community you want to sustain is your own. It’s the same concept of filling your cup before filling others. Build up your own community before giving to others. When you sustain your own local economy, this means more money can go into your pockets, which means you and your local community can have more money to visit places abroad and share with people internationally. 

And if you do decide to hop on that flight to the Carribean, try to spend your money in a way that will benefit the local’s economy, meaning a 5-star resort is probably not your best bet. 

someone cross country skiing through the snow beside tall trees

What Does it Mean to Support Sustainable Travel Internationally?

When it comes to sustainable international travel, the environmental impact from air travel is definitely a concern. It’s no secret that air travel is a contributor to carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Whether air travel is the worst source of travel emissions is up for debate, but regardless, it is undeniable that when we travel internationally, we generally produce more emissions than when we travel locally.

Because of this, one opinion on the matter is that international travel should even be avoided. On the other hand, carbon offsets are available for many flights and international travel can bring many positive impacts to both the travelers and host communities, including economical, environmental, and societal impacts. As mentioned earlier, sustainability is not necessarily about following hard, rigid rules, but it’s about the balance of the eb and flow of give and take, and this is a great example of playing with that balance.

In addition to following the travel tips listed above, one way to decide whether international travel is sustainable is by making sure that your travels are impactful and purposeful. You don’t necessarily need to dedicate 6 months to saving turtles in Costa Rica, but you want to make sure that the experiences that you gain from your travels can’t just be gained in your own home town. In other words, you want to make sure that your travels are transformative, either for yourself or for others. Learn more about what transformative travel is here.

Why Is It Important, Now More Than Ever to Support Sustainable Tourism?

There’s a lot going on in the world.

With COVID, more and more businesses, particularly in the travel sector, are suffering. If we want to sustain the system of travel and tourism, it's important to put resources into these systems so that they can stay afloat and sustain the infrastructure to remain operative in the future.

At the same time, climate change is brewing, and we need to get picky about which businesses we choose to support. Supporting businesses that value environmental sustainability and contribution to local communities is the key to directing the tourism industry to more environmentally conscious and ethically-based standards.

These choices may seem small and insignificant, but the more we can make these choices, the more we express to the world and to others the importance of these values, and the larger these values have the potential to grow in the industry.

a red headed girl standing by the ocean and a lighthouse

What’s Happening to the Sustainable Travel Industry?

The World Tourism Organization states that emissions from tourism are expected to increase 25% by 2030. According to them, “the cost of inaction with regards to climate will be in the long run larger than the cost of any other crisis.” The time to act is now.

Awareness of the environmental crisis in sustainable travel is a huge and important part of this movement, but it's only one half of the solution. The other half has to do with finding ways to get existing tourism companies on board with sustainable travel. While getting companies to change their policies to reflect a more sustainable mindset is definitely a challenge, it's an extremely important obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to move towards more sustainable travel practices.

And that's where Wakeful Travel comes in.

How Can I Be a Wakeful Traveler and Do Sustainable Travel Right?

Believe it or not, by reading and being part of the Wakeful Travel community, you are making the right steps towards "doing sustainable travel right."

In a world of likes, shares, and social media, it is important to understand that your actions on the world wide web are tracked in an algorithm that is used by business owners to market and pivot their businesses. So, whenever you click on, like, share, and purchase items, this information gets compiled into market trends and research that businesses use to create their products and services.

The more trends move towards materialism, the more likely businesses will pivot towards methods that involve exploitation of resources. That works the same in the opposite direction. The more trends move towards sustainability, the more likely businesses will pivot towards methods of environmental consideration and ethical practice. We can already see this trend happening.

That's why it's important to be wise about the things we choose to engage in. The more we continue to strategically influence the market in this way, and the more people we can influence to do the same, the larger the effect will be on the market, and the harder it will be for companies to ignore it.

So, yes, being a sustainable traveler involves all of those tips that have been included in this article. But, it also involves ensuring that your opinion and voice in everyday life matches these values. This involves being selective about how you choose to express yourself in this world and the things that you choose to support.

Sustainable travel is not just something that you turn on and off when you board the plane or pack your bags. It’s something that needs to stick with you as you make choices in your everyday life.

That's what it means to be a Wakeful Traveler, and that is how you do sustainable travel "right."


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