3 Ways to Travel Sustainably

By Daphne Stanford

What does it mean to travel sustainably?  Beyond government and civic initiatives such as the Paris Agreement and tax rebates for green retrofitting, how can we, as individuals, give back to the planet while traveling — an activity that is reserved for the privileged, developed world? The “three pillars” of sustainability — environmental, economic and social — are commonly referenced when discussing sustainable travel.  So, that’s a start.

However, today’s climate crisis has necessitated a solution beyond the 1970s vision of sustainability that “involved things such as organic farming and solar panels on homes. That still might be how many people picture sustainability today.  But those solutions are no longer enough,” futurist Alex Steffen told Fast Company

Instead, Fast Co.Exist staffer Adele Peters suggests one solution may eventually involve the abandonment of the personal car model that we all adopted as a carryover of a 1950s American vision that is outdated and utopian in nature. Because if we all keep driving our own vehicles around, the environment may not have a chance to recover from the brink.

So, without further ado, here are three ideas on how to support sustainability through travel.

1. Demonstrate sustainable values and behave respectfully while traveling

Ultimately, sustainable tourism boils down to respect: respect for local people who live in the place you’re visiting, acknowledgement of their economic needs, and awareness of the ecosystem in which they live, where you are a temporary guest and an outsider.  

As such, you should act as if you are a guest in somebody’s home: You should make an effort to observe their customs and traditions, and you should be respectful of local customs and taboos.  In order to accomplish this camouflage-effect, it will probably help to do some research on the specific location you plan to visit in order to more fully understand the ins and outs of the culture.  

Moreover, once you’re on the ground, make an effort to get out of your hotel or hostel room and get to know the neighborhood where you’re staying.  Don’t fall prey to the temptation of staying in and ordering room service.  Mingling with the locals will give you a chance to practice your language skills, and it also shows that you regard the people who live in that location as human beings and individuals, rather than anonymous subjects to be photographed and shared via social media.  Making an effort to ditch the guidebooks, at least for a day, will make for a more spontaneous and exciting adventure.  You may also make some new friends, in the process.

2. Seek out sustainable travel destinations and activities

Yes, some locations are more eco-friendly than others! This means there is an abundance of carbon-neutral hotels and accommodation spots for tourists, as well as eco-friendly activities.  

It may be surprising to realize that your financial support can really make an impact in contributing to the economy and well-being of the people in certain regions who rely on income from tourism to support their livelihood.  Matador Network compiled a list of 10 ethical travel spots for 2016, and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council offers a a map of sustainable destinations that have made commitments to work toward implementing the GSTC Criteria for Destinations.

Some of the criteria include using only renewable resources for energy, holding high standards for local political and civil rights, protecting natural lands and classifying them as national parks, defending basic human rights, and working politically to fight climate change and animal extinction.

 There are some truly impressive countries among these lists, including Uruguay, which is sourcing an amazing 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and Samoa, which plans to fully rely on renewable energy sources by next year.

3. Contribute to sustainable tourism by joining the industry

One last way to support the sustainable tourism movement while visiting a sunny locale is through getting involved — by making it into your career!  Apparently, recent recessions haven’t affected the tourism industry, so there’s ample energy and opportunity for people interested in helping to ensure that abundant options are available to ecologically-conscious travelers.  If you’re interested in both traveling and helping preserve natural resources and global eco-systems, a career in sustainable tourism may be of interest to you.

Of course, there are potential caveats to living in the tropics or abroad in Africa, Asia or Europe, including homesickness and potential health risks — which come standard with any travel to foreign countries.  However, if you’re up for an adventure, and you can handle being away from your family and friends for extended periods of time, it’s a career worthy of your consideration.  Realistically speaking, tourism is one of the only sources of income for many developing countries.  Because of this, we all have a responsibility to help ensure travel-related development is undertaken as responsibly and sustainably as possible.

To that end, there have been impressive developments in carbon-neutral lodging, from simple to resort-style, that make ecologically-responsible accommodations relatively easy to find in many tourist destinations — especially those located where there is an abundance of sun.  This last factor facilitates the use of solar energy, which explains the numerous countries in the Southern hemisphere with neutral carbon footprints.  The latter factor certainly makes sustainable tourism a not-at-all-unappealing industry to enter into, should you be in search of a career path.

The future of green technology is here now, so we should take advantage of the many opportunities it offers us by seeking out places where it is alive and well, being utilized to facilitate one of the only stable industries out there: the travel industry.  Because people aren’t going to cease needing to escape to a faraway land of beaches and tropical fruit trees, anytime soon — so we may as well help facilitate ways to help them escape, ethically!  What a pleasant way to save the planet, eh?

Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Daphne Stanford ​writes poetry & nonfiction, and she believes in the power of ​art, education, and community ​radio to change the world.  S​ince 2012, she’s​ been the host of​ “The Poetry Show!” Sundays at 5 p.m.​ on Radio Boise.  F​ollow​ her on Twitter @daphne_stanford.