What is sustainable tourism and why is it important?

Travelling has become as essential to many people as the clothes we wear! It makes us feel good, opens our minds, and gives us one or two stories to tell the grandkids (or anyone who’ll listen for long enough). But there’s one thing we’re likely to leave out of those stories: the impact our travel has on local people and environments. 

Just like the desire to wear sustainable fashion, there’s an increasing demand to make tourism more environmentally-friendly and fair. This post guides you through the ins and outs of sustainable and responsible tourism while offering 6 top tips to help make your travel more sustainable.

Let’s start with the obvious question, “what is sustainability?” Sustainability in its purest form is about whether an activity can keep going indefinitely, without causing irreparable damage to the environment and the future generations who will depend on it. In 1987 the UN defined it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

So when we talk about sustainability we’re talking about making something better for the environment and people. Clearly this is a complicated matter and requires constant improvement.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is a type of tourism that seeks to reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with traditional travel - like overcrowding and pollution - while enhancing the positive ones - such as the care of ecosystems. 

More than this, sustainable tourism will typically take a holistic approach in trying to improve the social and economic impacts of tourism too. Sustainable tourism involves respecting cultural traditions, improving community wellbeing, and elevating worker standards. What’s not to like? Well the price tag can be an obstacle. Sustainable tourism getaways are often more expensive and some companies can make misleading claims, also known as greenwashing.

Features of sustainable tourism include sustainable hotels, sustainable B&Bs, eco homes, voluntourism, and nature retreats.

Why is sustainable tourism important?

Sustainable tourism is important, for the same reason that sustainability is important: it’s a fact of preservation and protection. Businesses, countries, and tourists can bring a net positive impact to societies and habitats, rather than letting tourists run riot.

Sustainable tourists give as much as - or more than - what they take. That can create a deeper experience for the tourist too, making holidays less about lying on the beach and more about supporting the people who keep it clean.

In broader strokes: tourism produces around 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (source: Nature, 2014) and requires large amounts of water, further underlining the need to make it more sustainable.

Now you know all that, here’s how to plan a sustainable tourism trip!

6 tips to broaden your sustainable travel horizons

1. Settle on the right destination

This could be local - such as the carbon-neutral Nature Resort of Schindelbruch in Germany - or further afield - such as the pacific island of Palau, the first place in the world to create an “eco pledge” that every visitor must sign

While the most effective form of sustainable tourism is to stay local, another key facet of sustainable tourism involves developing an “off-the-beaten track” mindset that’s willing to go beyond the mass tourist destinations and root out the places that have a sustainable tourism industry up and running.

2. Embrace slow travel

When was the last time you spent hours watching the world pass by on a train, freewheeling on a bicycle tour, or indulging in a long-distance coach journey? While you might not like the idea of prolonging your time in transit, it will make a significant difference to your carbon footprint and could change the way you experience distance. Slow travel makes the journey less of a hurdle to jump over, and more of a part of the holiday itself. 

Here in Europe, van life is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, and there are eco-friendly companies that can help make this a sustainable choice too! Cut out the carbon intensive flights and boring airport lounges: take the environmental high road instead.

3. Try nature-positive tourism

Trips to natural areas that involve the funding or participation of conservation efforts can be intensely rewarding. This type of tourism, more specifically known as ecotourism, was originally defined as “travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas.” These days it typically involves a contribution to conservation projects and can even help rebuild wildlife initiatives that suffered during the pandemic. 

For ocean lovers, coastal ecotourism trips can be geared towards supporting Marine Protected Areas.

4. Dream big, think small

Travelling sustainably and with intention can often involve turning to independent businesses for help. So how do you find them? You can use tools like bookdifferent (hotels) and lokal (travel agent) to seek out alternative eco accommodation and plan day trips. With the first company, you can even find out the carbon footprint of your sustainable tourism choices.

5. Minimise waste

This can be done through a variety of ways: taking a reusable bottle or coffee cup with you, buying in bulk if self-catering and reusing towels (a move that most hotels will promote anyway). Some lodges also advertise their use of cosmetic refills, a notable sustainable tourism move.

Another indispensable tip involves taking a tote bag, to avoid creating unnecessary plastic waste. You can find many useful travel items - plus sustainable beach towels! - in our accessories section.

6. If all else fails, offset

If you have to take a plane, or you find your carbon footprint spiralling out of control, there are good and reliable offset projects for sustainable tourism enthusiasts. The point is to treat them as a last resort rather than racking up a high environmental debt and then writing it off yourself. As with all forms of sustainability, reduction of impact always beats compensation. 

Check out Our Surf Guide to Tenerife for more sustainable travel ideas.