How to travel (more) responsibly: Sustainable Travel 101

tourists riding elephants

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Paul and I are passionate about travel. We love to slowly explore the world, immerse ourselves in other cultures, practise our language skills, and learn more about the world and ourselves. Travelling has countless benefits for those who travel and for those who host travellers:

  • The travel and tourism industry contributes over 10% to the global economy (according to the UNWTO). As one of the fastest-growing sectors globally, it is a key driver for socio-economic growth.
  • Travel and tourism are one of the main income sources for many developing countries, with economic and employment benefits not only in the travel industry itself but also in related sectors, such as construction, ‎agriculture and telecommunications.

But there is also a flip side to travel: According to the UNWTO, the number of visitor arrivals globally more than doubled from 674 million in 2000 to over 1.4 billion in 2019, and the growth is expected to continue at a similar rate to almost 2.2 billion by 2029.

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wto international arrivals

WTO International Arrivals Chart

wto ita vs population

WTO ITA vs Population Chart

This increase in visitors is becoming a problem as destinations are not prepared to handle the influx of tourists, often multiple times the countries’ or cities’ populations. Too many visitors at any one time have led to overcrowding, and are driving up prices, changing the socio-economic structure of destinations such as Barcelona, Amsterdam or Dubrovnik, and detrimentally impacting fragile ecosystems in Iceland, the Galápagos and elsewhere.

“It used to take years for a destination to become super popular. Now, with China on the move and with social media, a destination can go from unknown to top 10 list within two years.” – Yves Marceau, G Adventures

Fundamental issues need to be addressed at the institutional level through collaboration between governments, tourism boards and travel companies. This includes establishing accepted ways to measure and quantify the impact that tourism has and directing more funds to actual tourism management rather than just tourism marketing.

But each of us (travellers) can (and needs to) make our contribution to ensuring that travelling the world doesn’t become (more of) a burden and nuisance to others (than it already is).

tourists in street

Overtourism is becoming a problem for many popular travel destinations

As much as we enjoy exploring the world, sustainability is close to our hearts, and Paul and I try to travel sustainably.

What do sustainability and sustainable travel actually mean?

In the 1980s, the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development to develop a joint response to the conflict between economic growth on the one side, and accelerating ecological degradation and social injustice on the other. The report issued by the commission, known as the Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Short-termism is the cause of so many problems in our world today, and this definition responds to it by considering future generations.

Sustainability encompasses three elements: economic prosperity, a healthy environment and social justice, which due to their interrelated nature cannot be successfully developed in isolation.

un sustainable development goals

UN Sustainable Development Goals | Image courtesy of the UNWTO

As travellers, this means we need to

  • be aware of our travel behaviour and its environmental, economic and social impact; and
  • make conscious decisions about our travel behaviour.

“Every action counts, and travellers have a strong role to play in building a more sustainable tourism sector. Imagine the impact of one small action multiplied by millions. We want to inspire all travellers to be the change they want to see in the world.” – Taleb Rifai, former Secretary-General of the UNWTO

But what can you as an individual do to ensure your travels don’t become a burden?

Do your research and prepare

Inform yourself about your destination/s before you travel

Apart from the obvious such as things to see and do, find out what time of the year is (off) peak season, what’s the weather like during the time you intend to visit, and what are the local laws and customs. The latter will also help you to travel safely.

Travel outside of peak season

If you can visit outside of peak season. You help alleviate some of the pressure on your destination and will be able to enjoy lower airfares and accommodation rates, and fewer tourists.

Ask questions

Before you embark on an activity (such as an organised day tour), do your research and ask questions, including

  • What does the tour specifically entail?
  • What do I need to bring?
  • How large is the tour group, at a maximum?
  • How busy will it be (at the points of interest the tour includes)?
  • Are there times of the day/week that are less busy?
  • Who owns the tour company?
  • How does the local community benefit from my purchase?

Respect sacred sights

Be aware of sacred sights and (if you intend to visit them) find out what is okay (and what should be avoided).

Ayers Rock (or Uluru), for example, is a sacred place to Australia’s Aboriginal population, yet until recently many visitors climbed Uluru (out of ignorance and/or disrespect).

brochure by ewan robertson

Respecting local culture and customs is an important element of travelling sustainably | Photo by Ewan Robertson from Unsplash

Pack sensibly

Lugging ginormous trolleys around narrow cobble-stoned streets is no fun for you nor for locals trying to get past you as they go about their daily business. Check out our carry-on packing lists for men and women to travel light.

Packing sensibly also goes for your activities. Surprisingly often, local news in New Zealand report people having to be rescued by emergency services from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as they are caught in high winds and icy conditions without the appropriate clothing. While it may be a free service in New Zealand to those rescued, it costs the New Zealand taxpayer and can be avoided.

Be respectful towards locals and fellow travellers

Dress appropriately

This is even more important at places of worship and when visiting a less liberal country than your own. Entering a church in spaghetti tops and shorts that show your butt cheeks, as Paul and I saw a bunch of Western teenagers do in Guatemala, is way out of line, even in our (non-religious) eyes.

Do you know if what you wear is sustainably and ethically made? Not sure? Learn how to find out more about your stuff. It’s eye-opening.

You are a guest

Remember, as a traveller you are a guest in someone’s home (town/country). Paying for something doesn’t entitle you to behave disrespectfully and inconsiderate. If you like to party while on holiday, do so sensibly. This includes keeping the noise down after dark, especially in residential areas, and not drinking more than you can handle.

Respect the signs

Don’t climb over ancient ruins or barriers at waterfalls, canyons and the like. The signs are there to protect the sights (and visitors from their stupidity).

be careful of bears

Signs are there for a reason

Respect others

Ask before taking photos of locals. Treat (tourism industry) staff with respect: Your hotel maid is not your servant. And respect other visitors – they have the same right to be there and enjoy the experience as you do. This includes being considerate of others when taking selfies.

Support local communities

Travel like a local

Choose travel means and activities that support the local community (for example, by using companies that are locally owned / family businesses).

When we visited the Galápagos Islands, one of the reasons why we decided not to join a cruise (besides the price) was that only 6% of the money you pay, actually goes to the local community. 94% end up in the pockets of overseas cruise ship companies and the airlines servicing the Galápagos (only one of them is Ecuadorian owned).

Learn the local language

Learn the local language (at least some keywords and phrases). You will leave a better impression on the people you meet than if you repeat s-l-o-w-l-y in English. Why not use your time in the country to study at a language school?

Stay with locals

Ideally choose homestays, and locally owned hostels or B and Bs over anonymous, big-brand hotels. This not only allows you to interact with your host/s and fellow guests, and thus learn more about the country and culture but also combats the property speculation and gentrification issues brought about by big hotel developments and misuse of short-term rental accommodation platforms.

Asking your host/s for recommendations regarding activities, sights and eateries will most likely also help you discover some gems off the beaten tourist track.

Eat at local eateries

Travellers often avoid hawker stalls and small neighbourhood restaurants because they are scared they might get sick. In our experience though, it’s usually the expensive tourist restaurants that cause you problems.

In Ecuador, we had all our lunches at small family restaurants, often not more than a few tables in someone’s courtyard or garage. You get a soup, main and often also a dessert plus a drink for USD2.50-3.50. We loved some home cooking so much that we returned many times and became friends with the family. If you see locals eating somewhere, go in and take your seat. Chances are you won’t regret it.

honduras market by aaron burden

Support the local community by shopping at local markets | Photo by Aaron Burden

Buy at local markets

We love buying our fruit and veggies at local markets. It’s always fresher and usually cheaper than in a supermarket, and you have a chance to practise your language skills: My Spanish teacher took me to a market in Quito one afternoon to learn about the different fruit and veggies – one of the best ways to learn and practice a language.

If you buy souvenirs for your loved ones at home (or yourself), support local artisans rather than shop at cookie-cutter souvenir shops. The souvenirs sold in those shops are often ‘Made in China’ (even though you might be in Peru). Look for arts and crafts that are unique to an area. Buy from a place where you can see the items being made in front of you. This way, you not only support the artisan and their family (financially) but also ensure cultural traditions live on (like the weaving and wood carving in Guatemala, for example).

In many countries, bargaining is part of the culture, for example in the Middle East. Inform yourself whether bargaining is appropriate (and even expected) and bargain keeping the local average income in mind.

Do not give money to begging children

We have seen countless children on the streets begging when they should be at school. Talking to local charities has made us realize that it is more lucrative for families to send their children on the streets. The same charities focus their efforts on teaching families that education is important to break the cycle of poverty (and on providing free schooling for the children). So, instead of giving in to these children and hoping your money will make a difference, support local NGOs and/or schools.

vietnamese children by larm rmah

Support local NGOs focused on education rather than giving money to begging children | Photo by Larm Rmah

Respect and protect Mother Nature

Be mindful of animals

Avoid sights and activities that exploit or distress animals. Paul and I purposely did not visit a turtle sanctuary on Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines or swam with whale sharks off Cancún in Mexico after a bit of investigation unveiled questionable research methods and inappropriate living conditions (in the case of the turtle sanctuary), and animal distress due to overcrowding (in the case of the whale shark experience). Seeing animals in their natural habitat, unencumbered by us humans, is a million times more rewarding than seeing dolphins jump through hoops or a polar bear in a zoo enclosure.

If you are lucky enough to encounter wildlife in their natural habitat observe the animals from a distance. Do not disturb wildlife or alter their behaviour (which includes picking them up or feeding them) to get that perfect selfie shot. Be especially mindful of wildlife during mating, breeding and rearing season.

sleuth by kleber varejao filho

Respect and protect Mother Nature | Photo by Kleber Varejao Filho

Keep your dog on a leash

Through our house sitting engagements, we have visited countless parks in New Zealand and overseas. While many dogs are well-behaved off-leash, if they see a bird or other animal their first reaction is to chase them. Dogs are a key culprit in the threat faced by New Zealand’s native bird, the Kiwi. So, if you’re walking with your dog through a wildlife habitat (no matter where) keep it on a leash.

Leave nothing but footprints

A while ago, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation reported that the popularity of Blue Lake / Rotomairewhenua [Google Maps location] among hikers was putting this iconic sight at risk. With a visibility of up to 80 metres, Blue Lake is considered the cleanest lake in the world. Unfortunately, not only is it now way more crowded around the lake each season, but hikers have been found to bathe, and wash their clothes and equipment in it.

If you need to wash yourself or your equipment fill a bucket and do it at a safe distance away from lakes and streams, using biodegradable soap.

If you are an avid hiker like Paul and I, chances are you already adhere to the following. If you are a novice, here are some tips that ensure those who hike the trail after you will have the same awesome experience you do:

  • Stay on marked trails.
  • Don’t pick flowers, collect stones (or build cairns) or any other souvenirs.
  • Take your rubbish with you.
  • If you need to go to the bathroom in nature dig a hole (a safe distance away from any streams and lakes) and cover up your business (and any tissues) with soil.
  • Only light a fire where it is safe to do so (for example, in designated areas) and do not light one if a fire ban is in place.
sandra hiking kumano kodo

Leave nothing but footprints when you enjoy the Great Outdoors

Reduce waste

On our travels, we have seen great and very poor examples when it comes to recycling and treating waste. Seeing the rubbish on lakes and roadsides in the Caribbean and in Central America hurts (not only our eyes).

Our presence as travellers adds waste to our destination/s, so the very least we can (and must) do is limit our impact. How can we do that? Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid packaging. This is just one of many benefits of buying at local markets: Your fruit and vegetables won’t be wrapped in plastic; you can just place them into your shopping bag (see below).
  • Another source of packaging are toiletries. Since Paul and I travel with carry-on luggage, our toiletries need to stay within the 100ml limit for fluids. Instead of creating lots of plastic waste by buying travel-sized bottles more frequently, we travel with solid bars (of soap, shampoo, conditioner etc), plastic-free deodorant and toothpaste tablets.
  • Avoid plastic bags. Paul and I travel with a silk bag which we take with us wherever we go shopping for groceries. It is super strong, can be washed with our normal laundry and folds down to handkerchief size when not in use.
  • Avoid straws. Bring your own (reusable) one, drink out of the bottle or just ask for a glass.
  • Share meals or bring your own (reusable) container or plate for leftovers.
  • Recycle (where possible).
  • Do not litter – even if you see others do it.
  • Call out bad behaviour. We marked a Savannah Motel down in a review because they use styrofoam cups, and plastic crockery and cutlery.
  • Leave information material of your destination at your destination for the next one to use. Paul and I scan it/take a picture for future reference. This also helps keep our luggage within carry-on limits.
rubbish dump by hermes rivera

Being mindful about your waste is also important when you travel | Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Conserve scarce resources

Several islands in the Caribbean and some islands of the Galápagos archipelago do not have any fresh water source… Water is caught in the rainy season, stored in large tanks, and needs to last through the dry season. When it doesn’t rain enough (thanks to Climate Change), water runs out before the rainy season arrives.

Whether your destination experiences water scarcity or not, be mindful of your water usage. An easy but effective way to do this is to take shorter showers, which is actually not that difficult if the water is cold (as is often the case in developing countries) and it’s hot outside.

Speaking of water (and waste just earlier): Travel with a reusable water bottle and boil water rather than buy water bottles all the time. The oceans and your wallet will thank you for it.

Use local/public transport or better yet walk, rather than drive everywhere in a rental car. Not only is fuel expensive in most countries. Travelling as the locals do gives you the chance to immerse yourself in local life and will be better for your waste line.

Finally: Turn off appliances when you don’t need them – such as lights, fans, and especially heaters or air conditioners. Air conditioners are THE biggest energy wasters out there. If there is a good cross-breeze, open windows instead. And unless it’s raining or freezing outside hang your washing out to dry (rather than in the dryer). BTW, this also reduces your energy costs at home.

“Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.” – Pico Iyer, British-American Travel Writer

water tap by luis tosta

Conserve water | Photo by Luis Tosta

A lot of what we suggest above is common sense. Yet, it’s astonishing how many people forget their manners when they are somewhere else.

Interested in further readings? Here are some links we have come across during our research:

What are your best sustainable travel tips?

I wrote this sustainable travel guide based on my own experience. If you have travel with a sustainable mindset have something to add, please feel free to contact me. If you liked our sustainable travel tips and found them helpful, I would appreciate if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.

Author: <a href="" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.