There’s no doubt that the climate change emergency has brought the topic of sustainable travel to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and it’s vital for each of us to look at how we can be more eco-conscious when thinking about taking trips abroad.
Low-cost airlines pumping damaging CO2 emissions into our atmosphere; deforestation caused by the creation of sprawling holiday resorts; all-inclusive hotels that discourage local spending; and over-tourism of sites like Machu Picchu are all features of the travel industry that prove to be unsustainable.
Tourism accounts for around 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2018 study published in the scientific journal, Nature Climate Change, so it is essential we look at how this figure can be reduced, and other ways in which we can lessen our impact on the finite resources and natural beauty of our planet.
While some believe that there is no such thing as sustainable travel, arguing that all leisure travel is superfluous and damaging to the planet, we here at Me Time Retreats prefer to see the possibilities rather than the pessimistic.
It is unrealistic to think that the whole world will stop travelling tomorrow. So, rather than focusing on the negatives, let us think about eco-travel from a positive point of view, looking at what sustainable travel means, highlighting why it’s important, and discovering the ways in which all of us can be more sustainable before, during and after our trips abroad.
It is definitely possible to change the way you go about planning your travel experiences to ensure you have the least impact possible on the planet. All it takes is arming yourself with some knowledge and research about sustainability and eco travel best practise, and trying your hardest to implement this whenever possible.
Read on to find out how you can be a more sustainable traveller, going from commodifying the planet to caring for it instead.
What Is Sustainable Travel?
With numerous terms being used within the sphere of sustainable travel, it’s difficult to know what travel companies mean when they say ‘sustainability’, ‘responsible travel’, ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘green travel’ and which, if any, of these actually prove that travel companies are truly lessening their impact on the planet.
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.
It means putting local culture, natural resources and the environment first, rather than focusing on simply creating wealth for large corporations.
In short, it means discovering a way in which we, as travellers, can explore the world long-term without having a negative impact on nature, culture and the local economy.
Why Sustainable Travel Is So Important?
As much as we all love to travel and explore the globe, it is impossible to ignore the fact that mass tourism in its current form is wholly unsustainable. It’s predicted that 40% of the world’s carbon emissions may be generated by tourism by 2050, a possibility that we simply cannot disregard.
With the number of people travelling expected to increase to 1.8 billion by the year 2030 it is now essential that greener travel initiatives are put in place to ensure that this increase in tourism doesn’t lead to an increase in global destruction.
The 3 Verticals Of Sustainability
Researchers into sustainable travel have broken the problem down into three main sections so that we are able to better understand the issues surrounding mass tourism and work to create actionable resolutions to the problem.
While these three pillars of sustainability were initially aimed at the corporate world (encouraging big businesses to prioritise sustainable processes), they are equally relevant to anybody and everybody hoping to travel in a more eco-friendly and conscious manner.
The three verticals of sustainability are:
- The Environmental or Ecological Pillar – minimising our impact on the environment
- The Social Pillar – having a positive impact on the local community
- The Economic Pillar – supporting the local economy
It is important to keep these three pillars of sustainability in mind when you travel to ensure that each action you take falls under one of these key areas.
The Environmental Pillar
The Environmental Pillar is probably the one that receives the most press as this is the one that is in line with the worrying facts and figures presented to us about climate change on a daily basis. The principles of the Environmental Pillar involve reducing our carbon footprint, minimising our use of single-use plastics, ensuring that we have a minimal effect on wildlife and the natural world and managing water use and waste management effectively.
The Social Pillar
The Social Pillar is a little harder to measure but it is essentially about the way in which travel and tourism have an impact on local people and communities. This covers everything from fair treatment and pays of local labourers creating hotels and lodges, to appreciating local culture (without appropriating it) and supporting local social enterprises, charities and projects that have a positive effect on the community at large.
The Economic Pillar
Last but by no means least is the Economic Pillar. While this traditionally meant sustaining profits (when the Pillars of Sustainability were created with corporations in mind), it can now be used to understand the importance of supporting local businesses and positively contributing to societies when we travel. This includes choosing smaller, family-run properties over large chain hotels, eating at local restaurants, supporting tour guides and buying souvenirs from people who are making them in person rather than purchasing mass-produced products from generic markets.
The Benefits Of Eco-Tourism
While being more sustainable can sometimes involve spending a bit more, this isn’t always the case, and anyway, we at Me Time Away believe that the benefits of ecotourism far outweigh the little extra cost. Not only do you know that you are not playing a part in the destruction of the natural world, but you also get to enjoy a more authentic travel experience.
The memories you make through travel are absolutely priceless and if these involve seeing stunning creatures in the wild, learning about local culture and traditions, eating unique meals and staying in eco-friendly lodges, then you’ll hardly be thinking about the price you paid! Ecotourism not only helps you feel enriched, but it is also extremely valuable for local communities and conservation projects that rely on tourism.
Most Popular Sustainable Travel Trends
Sustainable travel trends are popping up all the time, with so many more people wanting to combine their passion for travel with a more environmentally-conscious way of life. Here are just three trends on the rise:
Research from the 2019 Booking.com Sustainable Travel Report showed that 73% of global travellers intended to stay at least once in an eco-friendly or green accommodation during the year ahead, a figure that has increased year-on-year since 2016. In addition, 70% of global travellers said they would be more likely to book accommodation knowing it was eco-friendly, whether they were looking for a sustainable stay or not.
This shows that choosing eco-friendly accommodation is at the forefront of travellers’ minds. Not only do travellers wish to lessen their impact on the environment through their choice of accommodation, but they wish to feel as though they are having more of an authentic local experience as well as feeling peace of mind when making travel decisions.
Eco accommodation is one choice that travellers feel they have control over when planning their trip, and it is clear than an environmentally-friendly ethos and corporate transparency when it comes to sustainability is important.
Choosing a staycation rather than travel abroad is another sustainable travel trend that looks set to rise. With the devastating figures surrounding the global climate crisis, brought to light by eco-warrior Greta Thunberg, and the scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activity, many people are choosing to ditch foreign travel in favour of more sustainable getaways in their home country.
In 2018, figures reported by Travelodge showed that around 57% of Britons were planning a staycation in the UK. Add that to the Microgapping campaign by VisitBritain – a campaign to persuade Millennials to spend their gap year in the UK – and it’s no wonder that we’ve become known as the ‘staycation nation’.
Reducing Single-Use Plastic
If travellers are choosing to venture abroad, they are attempting to be more sustainable by making eco-conscious choices when it comes to single-use plastic. With figures showing that there may be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the year 2050, many of us are choosing to use reusable products such as water bottles, coffee cups, tote bags and straws instead of single-use versions that have become commonplace in our throwaway society.
Airlines have been receiving pressure from travellers for years to reduce their use of non-recyclable plastic on planes, and 2018 saw Portuguese company, Hi Fly, become the first to introduce a completely single-use plastic-free flight.
Infamous low-cost airline Ryanair has even pledged to remove all non-recyclable plastic from their head office, bases and planes by 2020, an initiative which may come as a surprise after hearing Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary’s comments that he “does not accept climate change is real”. These introductions are music to their ears of environmentalists who have been campaigning for a reduction of single-use plastic in the travel industry and show an ever-increasing need to listen to the worrying statistics surrounding climate change.
Top 5 Sustainable Travel Destinations
If you want to be a more responsible traveller but are wondering which are the best destinations for sustainable travel, our top five are a good place to start!
Costa Rica has long been a frontrunner when it comes to sustainable travel, with the country offering a plethora of eco-lodges and a strong focus on responsible tourism and wildlife protection. Many of the activities offered by travel companies in Costa Rica place an emphasis on enjoying the natural world without negatively impacting it in any way. This includes hiking, surfing, wildlife safaris and ziplining as well as building lodges into and around natural environments so that guests can soak up the outstanding natural beauty of the country.
The Costa Rica Tourist Institute (ICT) has had a Sustainability Certification Program in place since 1997 (long before the climate crisis was the buzzword that it is today), to ensure that businesses complied with a sustainable model of the natural, cultural and communal reserve management. Their manifesto states that the tourist industry should show a “balanced intention to use appropriately our natural and cultural resources, to improve the quality of life of local communities and to obtain economic success in the activity, which will also contribute to the national development”.
This eco-friendly country has been a beacon of hope and inspiration for other countries wishing to implement sustainable strategies and they continue to push forward with actions to help reduce climate change.
If you’re looking for a country with incredible sustainable travel options, then Costa Rica may well be the one for you!
Similarly to Costa Rica, New Zealand has had sustainable tourism at the forefront of its mind for years. This dedication to the sustainable travel industry in the country can be seen through the Sustainable Tourism Goals and Commitments which include pledges like ‘championing ecological restoration initiatives’ and ‘measuring, managing and minimising their environmental footprint’.
Thanks to New Zealand’s natural beauty and booming outdoor activity industry, travellers can enjoy a whole host of adventures without remotely damaging the environment. These activities include luging (gravity-powered go-karts), bungee-jumping, hiking and kayaking, all of which are favourites among locals and tourists alike.
New Zealand’s sustainable commitments also include the notion of education by encouraging businesses to actively engage with their visitors and communities on the importance of restoring, protecting and enhancing New Zealand’s natural environment.
Slovenia is now well and truly on the sustainability map and it should be top of your list if you’re seeking an eco-friendly destination in Europe. Ever since Slovenia was declared the world’s most sustainable country back in 2016, ticking off a whopping 96 out of 100 sustainability indicators, it has become a firm favourite for those searching for outstanding natural world experiences.
The Ministry of Economic Development and Technology in Slovenia said that the development of sustainable tourism was a key commitment in the development strategy for 2012-2016 and they most definitely proved that it was possible.
Ljubljana, the country’s capital, has made leaps and bounds towards being more sustainable over the past decade, with the introduction of the Bicike (LJ) system (free bicycle-sharing) and making the city centre a car-free zone. Not only does this make the city more environmentally friendly but it becomes a safer and more appealing travel destination too.
Visitors wishing to discover some of Slovenia’s spectacular scenery should plan to combine a trip to Ljubljana with time exploring Lake Bled, the stunning Soča Valley and the remote Kočevje region where you can witness brown bears in the wild.
Tourism in Iceland has exploded over the last few years not least thanks to budget-airline Wow Air operating cheap services between Iceland, Europe, Asia, and North America. While this popularity has mainly been because people want to experience the magic of the natural world (think: glaciers, waterfalls and the Northern Lights), this increase in footfall has led to pressure being put on the local infrastructure and natural environment.
In response to this increased demand and subsequent environmental impact, over 300 Icelandic tourism companies have declared a country-wide responsible tourism initiative that aims to enable tourism to thrive while at the same time lessening the impact on the environment. The harmony between the two is the key here and it shows that the answer to the climate crisis doesn’t necessarily have to mean stopping travel altogether, rather that it is about travelling responsibly and taking conscious action towards a better future.
St. Kitts and Nevis
Despite being a small island destination, St. Kitts and Nevis have made significant steps towards managing sustainable tourism growth and raising local awareness of the importance of sustainable tourism practices. In 2012 the St. Kitts Ministry of Tourism partnered with Sustainable Travel International to evaluate their current practices and see where improvements could be made. Throughout this process, the island aimed to ensure tourism development preserved and benefitted the environment, culture, heritage, and community livelihoods through campaigns, waste management and sustainable business initiatives.
The awareness of sustainable tourism has grown massively in the years since the introduction of these development initiatives and it’s fantastic to see local groups putting sustainable action into place. Examples of this include converting the old sugar railway into a hiking and biking trail, implementing a recycling programme and organising regular beach clean-ups.
What Type Of Resorts And Trips Are Available For Sustainable Travellers?
When looking into where to stay and what resorts and trips are available to sustainable travellers, there are a number of things you might want to consider. Firstly, you’ll want to look at the environmental ethos of a company or hotel, checking out whether they used sustainable materials when building the property and how this impacted the local surroundings. Secondly, you’ll want to look at their consideration of single-use plastics, water usage and respect for local culture, and lastly their preservation of natural resources, contribution to the economic well-being of the community and employment of the local people. All of these things play crucial roles in ensuring that resorts are not only environmentally friendly but are also sustainable in line with the social and economic pillars.
In addition to the type of resort you stay in, you may want to look into the different styles of travel available such as slow travel, mindfulness retreats, responsible wildlife holidays and voluntourism to see where you can lessen your impact on the planet while also having a positive effect on the local community.
We here at Me Time Away aim to create getaways that allow guests to be conscious both of themselves and the environment, by choosing eco-friendly accommodation options, using locally-sourced fresh produce and always remembering to keep the relationship between humanity and the natural environment at the forefront of our actions.
20 Ways To Travel More Sustainably
So now you have more of an understanding about what sustainability is and why it is important, you may be wondering what steps you can take towards becoming a more sustainable traveller. Well, we’re here to tell you that is easier than you might think to make green choices.
Before You Go:
1. Use Ecosia When Searching
The quickest and easiest way that you can be more sustainable when thinking about planning your next adventure is to use an eco-friendly search engine such as Ecosia. Ecosia is the search engine that uses the profits made by our searches to plant trees. This is at absolutely no expense to the searcher and yet they, and everyone else get to benefit from the increased carbon-dioxide-gobbling, oxygen-providing goodness of trees! You can easily make Ecosia your default search engine, or pin it to your start screen so that you know you are doing your little bit for the planet each time you surf the web.
2. Look For Companies Who Focus On Sustainable Practices
The next thing that you can do to ensure you are a more sustainable traveller is to do your research about travel companies and airlines to see what they are doing to tackle climate change and work towards a more responsible and sustainable travel industry. It can sometimes be hard to understand some of the jargon surrounding sustainable tourism (as we’ll touch on next), but hopefully, this article has helped you have a better idea of what you want to be looking out for when planning a holiday.
One simple thing you can do to check a company’s ethos is to look out for accreditations from governing bodies such as GSTC, Rainforest Alliance, EarthCheck and Green Tourism Business Scheme (UK). If you’re struggling to find the information you need or feel that the content isn’t clear enough, don’t hesitate to contact a company directly to ask about their sustainable practices and credentials.
3. Watch Out For Greenwashing
Greenwashing is a form of PR or marketing in which a company tries to persuade the public that their products, policies or practices are environmentally friendly, or “green”, by using unsubstantiated claims or language framing to their advantage. This is something that happens in a variety of industries from fast fashion to beauty products, and the travel industry is no stranger to a bit of greenwashing either!
Greenwashing can be difficult to identify and police and therefore it is vital that you check the facts before believing what you read on a company website. You can find out whether a hotel or tour operator is accredited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (an independent body that manages sustainable tourism certification) or check out country-specific criteria and certification around sustainability.
4. Try To Book Direct Flights (If At All)
Another thing to consider when planning your trip is the mode of transport required to get to your chosen destination. It may be that you do not actually need to fly to get to your destination and that taking other forms of public transport would be much greener and perhaps even cheaper! If you do need to fly, try to seek out the most direct route possible, avoiding extra changes or layovers wherever possible. According to NASA, take-off and landing are thought to produce as much as 25% of the total carbon emissions for flights, with taxiing taking up the majority of that, so reducing the number of times you take off and land during any one trip will help to lessen your impact on the planet.
5. Plan Slow Travel
With the rise of low-cost travel and the gig economy making the Digital Nomad life both possible and appealing, there has been a rise in what is called ‘Binge Flying’- travelling more than is necessary simply because it’s available.
It seems fairly obvious to state that multi-stop journeys have more of an environmental impact than single destination trips, but many of us are guilty of hopping on a plane without even thinking about the consequences.
Instead of planning an adventure where you flit from place-to-place, why not organise a single stop trip with minimal travel to ensure that your getaway is as sustainable as possible? Wellness and mindfulness retreats allow you to be still and connect with nature, making the most of your environment by taking part in activities that do not have a negative impact on the planet such as walking, meditation, local cooking classes and yoga in wonderful natural shalas.
6. Pack Light
The more you pack, the more a plane, train or car has to carry and the more fuel that is consumed and pumped out into the atmosphere. It, therefore, goes without saying that packing light is good for the environment.
You can save on space and weight by taking eco-friendly toiletries such as shampoo bars or deodorant blocks in place of bottles, or why not tick off two sustainable boxes by waiting until you’re in-country to buy products from local shops? This allows you to give back to the local economy while also saving weight and fuel consumption in your luggage.
7. Fly Economy
When you think about the fact that a business or first-class seat takes up around three-to-five times as much space as an economy flight, it’s not surprising the learn that those flying in these premium classes have a much higher carbon footprint than those flying economy. Add to this the carbon footprint of the exotic food and wine flown in for business and first-class flyers as well as lounges, creature comforts and additional extra perks and you have a whole lot more environmental impact than you do when travelling in economy.
Many airlines have already reduced their offering of throwaway freebies such as headphones, toiletries and face cloths, and with more pressure from the public about the environment it is likely that their single-use plastic policies will change too.
8. Travel Overland (And On Public Transport Where Possible)
If you do have to travel between destinations when you’re away, try to consider the greenest form of transport possible. While taking a private car or plane may save you a little time, it is no doubt doing more damage to the environment than a local bus, shared minibus or train.
Time away from home can be a great opportunity to think about your health – while you’re free from day-to-day routines and pressures – so why not choose to walk or cycle shorter distances instead of hopping in a taxi or tuk-tuk?
9. Avoid Large Resorts And All-Inclusives
When choosing where to stay while you’re away, try to remember the three pillars of sustainability (as mentioned above). Choosing small, local guest houses and hotels is nearly always a more sustainable option both in terms of the environment (large swathes of natural land haven’t been taken up to build new resorts) and in terms of the local economy (you’re putting money into the country and local community rather than to a faceless global corporation).
Unfortunately, all-inclusive are a fairly unsustainable way to go too. While all-inclusive resorts may seem better on the budget, they very rarely put money back into the local community (buying wholesale, Westernised food and discouraging you from eating out locally) and they are known for their extreme waste (often providing way more food than is necessary which is subsequently thrown away).
10. Go Camping
Arguably the most sustainable form of accommodation is camping, providing you bring all the gear you need and take everything with you when you finish. Camping leaves no carbon footprint at all and really allows you to make the most of the great outdoors. There’s something special about sitting around a campfire with friends before listening to the sounds of the forest while you drift off to sleep!
11. Eat Locally
One of the best tips for following all three of the pillars of sustainability is to eat locally. Not only is your food likely to have been sourced from nearby (local and seasonal), but you are getting a taste of local culture while also putting back into the economy.
Stepping into restaurants or street food markets where there are locals eating is the very best way to enjoy an authentic travel experience. Either try your hand at asking what the vendor recommends (bonus points if you try in the native language!) or pick something that someone else is eating and see what comes out!
12. Leave No Trace
The “leave no trace” mantra should really apply to your daily life wherever you are in the world and it’s just as important when you’re in holiday mode. Littering is a sure-fire way to have a negative impact on the planet, whether that be because your rubbish ends up in the ocean, goes to landfill or worse, is eaten by some poor unsuspecting creature who may be injured or poisoned in the process!
If you can try to remember the motto “take only photographs, leave only footprints” while travelling then you’ll be well on your way to a greener, more eco-friendly travel experience.
13. Save Water
While it can be tempting to slip into holiday mode and treat ourselves to extravagant, long showers while we’re away, it is important to consider that clean running water takes a lot of energy to produce. It is also worth pointing out that not everywhere in the world is lucky enough to have a constant, clean water supply, with countries like South Africa struggling massively with water shortages, even in 2019!
Therefore, being present and mindful about the water we consume, is an easy way to be a more environmentally-friendly traveller.
14. Take And Use Reusables
While packing light is important, it’s a good idea to make space for your travel reusables such as a water bottle, metal straw, bamboo cutlery or KeepCup. You’ll be surprised how much these come in handy while on the road and you’ll feel much better about picking up a tasty snack to-go if it doesn’t have to come hand-in-hand with polystyrene packaging and plastic knives and forks!
Water filter bottles such as WaterWell and LifeStraw are also fantastic options for those travelling to countries where you can drink the tap water. These bottles are designed to filter out over 99% of waterborne parasites and bacteria so you can ensure you have fresh, drinkable water wherever you are without having to rely on buying hundreds of plastic bottles!
15. Buy Local And Handmade Souvenirs
Just like eating locally, shopping local is a much more sustainable way to purchase gifts and souvenirs while travelling. Although some markets will try to flog cheap, mass-produced products that have been made in China, if you look a little harder, you’re bound to come across some wonderful, unique items that are being hand-made in-country. These may be hand-whittled wooden crafts, beaded jewellery, hand-dyed fabrics or pieces of art and will serve as a much more authentic reminder of your trip than some generic keyring or magnet.
16. Avoid Items Made Using Animal Products
When shopping locally, it is important to check what items are made from before purchasing, as in some countries it is still common to see products made from ivory or turtle shell, materials that are often unsustainably sourced by harming or killing animals in the process. It is, therefore, best to avoid these products entirely to ensure that you are playing no role in the supply-and-demand chain for these unethical materials.
17. Only Choose Responsible Wildlife Tourism Operators
Wildlife, by its very nature, is unpredictable which is part of the thrill and excitement of safaris or wildlife-focused trips. Therefore, if any tour operator promises up-close encounters or interactive experiences this should come as a bit of a red flag. You shouldn’t want to feed, touch or alter the behaviour of animals in any way, rather witness them in their natural environment and learn about how you can help conserve and protect them to ensure the longevity of the species.
This also goes for snorkelling and diving, doing your best to avoid touching fish or coral when underwater and trying to wear marine-friendly sunscreen (not containing titanium dioxide) wherever possible.
18. Spread The Sustainable Message
After you’ve taken your first mindfully sustainable trip abroad (and seen how easily you can make a difference), you’ll no doubt want to start spreading the message far and wide to enable others to make little changes that can help make a big difference to the planet. Sharing your experiences with friends and family is a good way to get people talking and thinking about sustainable travel.
19. Put Pressure On Businesses And Governments
While all the little things you do personally can add up to great things, the real way to make impactful changes to the planet in terms of sustainability is to get businesses and governments on board with your way of thinking. While it may seem obvious that green initiatives and responsible travel should be top of the list of priorities right now (hello climate change!) the only way that the government and businesses are going to change is if we put pressure on them to do so. The more they know that consumers want sustainable options, the more likely they are to put their money where their mouth is.
20. Off-Set Your Carbon Emissions
Last but not least is carbon offsetting. The average carbon footprint of a person in the UK is 6.5 tonnes and 11 tonnes per person in other industrialised countries. Offsetting your carbon is, therefore, an important part of being an environmentally-friendly traveller. You can do this by simply planting trees (if you have some land spare yourself), or by choosing a responsible carbon offsetting company. CarbonFootprint.Com allows you to calculate the carbon footprint of your recent trip and then pay to offset the carbon emissions via worldwide projects that work to plant trees and increase biodiversity.
Hopefully, by now, you have a greater understanding of what sustainable travel is all about and how you can make small changes that will have a big impact on the planet. Let us know your thoughts about climate change and sustainable travel in the comments below.
We always love to hear people’s top green travel tips, so please let us know!