What is Sustainable Travel?

Sustainable travel can mean many things to different people.  As someone who tries to be conscious of my environmental footprint, I think that everyone should try to travel sustainably.  Should you cut out all the fancy resorts?  Do you avoid taking planes as much as possible?  Do you stick to public transportation?

The complicated answer is…Maybe.  There are many different aspects to travel that can impact your footprint.  There are also broader impact of some of the tours and activities.  For me, it basically boils down into a few broad categories: How, What, and Why.

The How

Planes, trains, and automobiles.  Unless you are travelling locally, your trip will likely involve an airplane. Although there is some progress, renewables have yet to make lage inroads in the aviation industry.  This most flights will have the same baseline; however, that doesn’t mean they are all equal.

Alaska Airlines recently made the commitment to stop using plastic straws and stir sticks on all its flights starting this summer.  Factors like these tend to influence my decision on who I will choose to fly (given their ticket prices are within the same range).

Alaska Airlines is getting rid of straws

Alaska also offers these tips on how to be a greener flyer:

  • Don’t put wrappers, napkins or other garbage into cans or bottles.
  • Don’t forget to recycle your magazines.
  • Bring your own empty water bottle and fill it up once you’ve passed through security.
  • Keep recycling and garbage separate until it’s collected.

Most airlines will also offer you a chance to purchase carbon credits to help you offset your footprint when you travel.  To be honest, I don’t purchase these because I don’t feel I have enough information on where the money ends up going.  I’m sure some, if not all, is directed towards sustainability initiatives, so if you want to add them on to your flight, go for it!

Taking the train around Europe

Trains and automobiles are frequent modes of transportation once your plane lands.  If you have a choice, the train is the better option.  Many cities now have rapid transit or direct public transportation to the airport, which should make it fairly easy to get to your final destination.  Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll have no choice due to schedule or remoteness of your destination.

For travel in and around your destination, the best mode you can use is the option you bring with you: walking.  If you’re not up for getting your 20,000 steps in, look at taking public transportation.  Cities will sometimes have a tourist or day pass which will also help keep costs down.

The What

Many activities are promoted to tourists as sustainable, natural, or eco-friendly.  But are they?  Here are a few simple things to look for when choosing excursions with less impact:

  • Avoid “swimming” with dolphins/wildlife programs.  Generally, if you’re offered the chance to get an up close and personal visit with the dolphins, they’re likely captive.
  • No elephant riding.  In many places the term “sanctuary” is not a legally protected term, leading to many misleading experiences.  Basic rule of thumb, if you can ride the elephants, it’s not a true sanctuary.
  • Properly paid staff. For example, if you head out on any kind of hiking expedition, make sure that that staff and porters are paid an appropriate wage.  I’m currently researching climbing Kilimanjaro and it’s surprising how many companies take advantage of the people they employ.
  • You don’t really need the animal sefie.  We’ve all seen the cute koala photos, but even though they only “work” a few hours a week, it’s still incredibly stressful on them.  It’s better if you avoid those kinds of experiences all together.
All expeditions to Antarctica have to agree to follow strict environmental policies.

Some other tips to consider while exploring your destination include carrying reusable bags, bringing your own water bottle (collapsable ones are super handy), and shopping at local markets.

Choosing a location to stay is another tricky point.  I love having the local feel, and really like vacation rentals.  In some places, the local economy benefits from Airbnb, while others see it as a hinderance as it prices locals out of the renters’ market.  Although it’s tough to know all the details in a particular location, it’s something to think about.

Another option is to search out eco-friendly accommodations.  There is a variety of types, such as eco resorts or hotels with sustainable programs and practices.  And even if you can’t find any of these options, there are still things you can do at any hotel in order to make a little less impact: reuse your towels, keep the do not disturb sign on the door, and unplug any appliances you’re not using, like the coffee maker.

The Why

You could make the argument that the most sustainable travel is to not travel at all.  However, I think, at the end of the day, exposure to different cultures and ways of life is a highly valuable experience.  It helps to create understanding and expand your views.  I travel to broaden my horizons and explore the world, not to destroy it.

With that being said, it’s important to vote with your dollars.  The more people demand sustainable, eco-friendly options, the more they will be developed.  It’s also important to support these initiatives on the local levels.  Not only does this ensure there are environmentally sustainable industries, but economically sustainable ones as well.

It’s important to respect both the landscape and the people when you travel.  There will always be some impact (quantum theory anyone?), but limiting it so the destination is still there for people to discover for years to come is imperative.

Sustainability is Important

When it comes down to it, Sustainable Travel is trying to make an overall positive impact, usually thought of as an environmental standard.  In today’s society, I think it’s something we should all be considering when we travel.  Every little bit will help.  So next time you’re packing your suitcase, remember to pack your reusable bag and water bottle.


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