When we travel, we risk disrupting the local economy, leaving our carbon footprint, and impacting that culture’s way of life — and that’s why sustainable tourism has become so important. As the world becomes more of a global village, travelers are taking it upon themselves to leave the world as they found it, and certain destinations are catching on.
With the goal of zero impact, sustainable tourism can help preserve the world’s treasured places. Here’s what you need to know and how you can take part.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
It’s not just about going green. There are three aspects to the term “sustainable tourism”: socio-cultural, economic, and environmental. Let’s unpack what each means:
Socio-cultural sustainability focuses on the impact travelers have on a people. With more tourists comes many other things: the possibility of more traffic, bigger crowds, pidgin languages, commercialization, and perhaps even more crime. Migrant communities move in for employment opportunities, and the destination — which was perhaps once fairly homogenous — becomes a melting pot of cultures, no longer a reflection of what it once was.
Of course, diversity can be a very good thing, but like an invasive species in an ecosystem, it changes everything. Socio-cultural sustainability is needed to preserve the local community and its — often ancient — way of life. Otherwise, the destination you came to see will no longer truly be there.
Economic sustainability is, rather obviously, the impact travelers have on a location’s economy. When tourists flock to a destination, the money flocks right behind them. This all sounds well and good, but if tourists — and the community at large — aren’t careful, profits can leave the area and end up in the hands of international chains and businesses instead, leaving only the negative footprint of this booming industry behind. This focus is the main driver behind the local business, or “shop small,” movement: Keep the money in the community, and you’re doing it the biggest service you can.
You’re probably the most familiar with this concept — solar power, recycling water and plastics, and preserving nature in its untouched form. Environmental sustainability has the goal of limiting resource usage and keeping Mother Earth intact, largely separate from man’s existence. Of course, this includes our impact on wildlife, too.
This is the kind of sustainability most of us picture when we think of being a zero-impact traveler. And while a destination is not sustainable if it is not green, just being green does not make it sustainable. Each of these aspects of sustainability are needed to be truly zero impact.
How You Can Help
Travel will never truly be 100% sustainable — it’s hard to avoid the impact of your flight’s fuel consumption. But there are things we can do to bring that number as close to zero as possible, and the sooner we start, the better. As sustainable tourism becomes more and more a badge of honor — and a prerequisite for some travelers — they list of ways you can help is only growing. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Book local. Hostels, family-run hotels, and Airbnbs are the name of the sustainability game. Anything that keeps money in the hands of locals is where you should be hanging your hat.
- Shop small. The smaller the business, the more it needs your valuable tourism dollars, and the more locals are encouraged to pursue their passions.
- Travel by foot, bike, or bus. Foot and bike are your two best options, and travel by bus is the most carbon efficient means to get around, should you need to go longer distances.
- Leave no waste behind. Think of any destination as your campsite — bring out what you bring in. If that means traveling with a small sack on you at all times and eating only unpackaged goods, so be it.
- Reuse your wares. The simple act of carrying your own water bottle prevents you from buying other bottles and containers and using straws.
- Support charities and local non-profits. Often, these businesses know exactly where money needs to go in the community, giving your dollars the most bang for their literal buck.
- Attend workshops and programs put on by locals. If a local indigenous community can teach you a skill, that is infinitely more valuable (and less offensive) than a touring company taking you for a photo opp.
Things to Avoid
As with anything, what we don’t do is just as important. Any positive impact you may have is automatically negated if you leave a trace in other ways. Here’s what to avoid:
- Traveling solo, first-class, and driving. Simply put, these methods of travel have the largest impact on the environment and are not an efficient use of (limited) resources.
- Patronizing areas that disrupt nature or wildlife. Did that new beach resort force a small community to up and move? Is that zoo confining healthy animals meant to be wild? It’s not worth your money.
- Spending money at large, international chains. From restaurants to hotels, your money should be spent where you are. The comfort of recognizing a brand is nothing compared to the comfort of knowing you’re supporting a community.
- Littering. This is simple — don’t do it. In fact, if you see someone else doing it, leave a better example and pick up after them.
- Choosing large tours over local-run companies. Try not to go by the number of Yelp reviews — instead, ask around at the location for more off-the-beaten-path, locally-run experiences.
- Purchasing certain foods and souvenirs. If you’re questioning it, don’t buy it. Anything from a cool tropical fish to shark fin soup to something possibly mass-produced in not-so-ethical ways doesn’t deserve coming home with you.
Resources that Can Help
Need more information on how to travel sustainably? It’s the 21st century, and there’s an app or website for that. Here’s a few to check out:
- Green Globe. This app curates everything you could possibly need: sustainable hotels, resorts, restaurants, cruise ships, tours, you name it. Everything they deem “sustainable” has passed a rigorous checklist.
- Green Travel Choice. This app tracks your carbon emission no matter how you’re getting around (and logs it, too).
- The Goodguide. It’s hard to know what products are produced in the most sustainable ways. With the Goodguide app, you scan the barcode, and up pops a set of product details related to its sustainability.
- Glooby. This is a search engine that helps you find sustainable flights and eco-labeled hotels by giving them a rating. For example, you may end up saving $100 by having three stopovers, but your carbon emissions skyrocket, increasing your impact.
- Visit.org. It will look like you’re booking tours or excursions, but each one is focused on benefiting the local community at large. In addition to searching by location, you can also search by cause, focusing on what you truly care about.
- Impact-tourism.net. Similar to Visit.org, this website offers immersive programs into a culture — not tours — often putting you to (light!) work, helping out local businesses.
Which Destinations Are Leading the Charge?
Each year, the most sustainable and least sustainable destinations are determined by organizations like The International Ecotourism Society and the Impact Travel Alliance. More and more places are vying for their own sustainable designation. Even the United Nations is taking part!
So where should you consider jetting off to? For 2018, the Faroe Islands, Norway, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Slovenia, and Kenya have been topping lists. And falling to the bottom? Venice, Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef, Bolivia, Iceland, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China. Essentially, if it’s all the rage, odds are it’s struggling with limiting impact. The more visitors a destination has, the bigger the hurdle to zero impact.
Still, you’ll be able to find small, sustainable movements just about anywhere. You are the key factor here — not where you’re going. Book sustainable hotels and excursions, shop locally, reuse your wares, and limit your carbon emissions, and you’ll be a traveler who doesn’t leave footprints behind.
Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance travel writer and editor for kimkim.com. A competitive Scrabble player and self-professed national parks geek, she also takes a decent photograph and makes a mean chocolate cake.