Tours & Trips

How to Travel Responsibly in the Year of Sustainable Tourism

Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations.

Photo by Alec S., Road2Argentina Alum

2017 is moving fast; it seems like it only started yesterday! This year is the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese Zodiac, the "year of the bike" in Paris, and the long-awaited return of Twin Peaks to TV. It’s also the Year of Sustainable Tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Before we start printing any celebratory banners, though, it's worth asking: what exactly is sustainable tourism? Would you know how to pick it out of a crowd?

It's okay if not -- most other people don't really know what it is, either. That's part of the problem. Even though most of us would like to travel in a sustainable, constructive, and beneficial way, it's often hard to know how to do that, beyond bringing a Kleen Kanteen with you and trying to avoid eating at McDonald's.

In honor of making this year less terrible than the last one, let's talk about how to make travel a little more sustainable for everyone.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

With more than one billion international tourists now traveling the world each year, tourism has become a powerful and transformative force that is making a genuine difference in the lives of millions of people. The potential of tourism for sustainable development is considerable. As one of the world’s leading employment sectors, tourism provides important livelihood opportunities, helping to alleviate poverty and drive inclusive development.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Tourism Day Message, 2015

You read that right -- one billion trips per year. 2012 was actually the first year the travel industry recorded more than 1 billion international trips, and that number has only continued to grow every year. Currently, tourism creates more than $3 billion in business per day around the world and accounts for 235 million jobs. Those are a lot of big numbers.

Photo by Daan de G., Excellence Center Alum

Tourism and travel are a bigger industry than ever -- both in "traditional" destinations like Western Europe and less conventional regions like Central Asia. Countries and regions that were previously "off-limits" are suddenly topping lists of must-see destinations, while post-conflict and transitioning societies like Myanmar and Serbia are promoting tourism as a means of reconstruction and strengthening connections with the rest of the world.

There's no debate that tourism can be a powerful engine for local economies, too. When Ireland was buried in debt in the wake of the Great Recession, it used a massive tourism campaign to help climb out of that hole. In some developing countries, tourism can account for as much as 25 percent of total GDP.

According to the UNWTO, the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is "a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the public, while mobilizing all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change."

What this means is that this year is an opportunity to push for changes in policies, business practices, and consumer behavior to encourage the creation of a more sustainable global tourism sector. The idea is that this will also help contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, an agenda that aims to reduce global poverty, combat climate change, support peace, and many other idealistic goals.

The No-So-Pretty Truth About Sustainable Tourism

Photo by Ayla O., Volunteering Solutions Alum

So far this all sounds pretty good, right? Cultural values and peace (and group hugs) for everyone!

Everything has a catch, though, and tourism has plenty. Before we can start thinking about how to make travel better for the world, we need to take a hard, clear look at some of the major problems it causes.

First, there’s the issue of resources. The tourism industry uses a staggering amount of resources -- it's estimated that tourism and travel alone accounts for more than 5 percent of the world's total carbon emissions. Think of all the fuel used for airplanes and cruise ships, the water to wash all those hotel towels every day, extra food thrown away in restaurants, land cleared to build new resorts, the labor to produce all those souvenir t-shirts, endless merchandise to keep the shelves of duty-free shops stocked... the list goes on.

Then there's the question of pollution and environmental destruction. Tourists and travelers often leave trails of disposable products in their wake, since it's easier just to buy a new bottle of shampoo in the next country, rather than try to cram one into your suitcase. Travelers and visitors are responsible for widespread degradation of beaches and coral reefs around the world; meanwhile, land is increasingly being bought up and cleared to make way for tourism construction. In one awful example of this, Sri Lankans whose homes were destroyed in the devastating 2004 tsunami later tried to return to their land, only to find that developers were already planning to build resorts there.

Photo by Jade F., ISA South Africa Alum

Beyond the environmental impact, we also need to think about the human and social effect. Any influx of tourists can strain local supply chains and create shortages of important resources like food or energy, especially in rural areas and developing countries. This isn't even getting into the really nasty issues tied to the travel industry, including opportunity for corruption of local leaders, gentrification and displacement, introduction of drugs into communities, abusive and disrespectful behavior by drunk tourists, and serious crimes like human trafficking and sex tourism.

While tourism absolutely has the potential to help boost the local economy, it doesn’t necessarily do so simply by occurring. You might be shocked to learn how little of your money actually ends up in the local market. Profits might just go to international hotel chains or companies -- via the gross-sounding "tourism leakage." According to the UN Environment Program, for every US$100 spent on vacation by a tourist from a developed country, only about $5 ends up staying in the destination developing country's economy. This varies by country, but it's a good example of how little you spend stays where you spend it.

Meanwhile, the sector may create jobs, but they're often low-wage or seasonal/contract jobs with little security and few, if any, benefits. Add to that there’s little regulation across the industry, and you've got a recipe for potential disaster if people with bad intentions get involved.

The Rights and Duties of a Sustainability Tourist

Photo by Erin S., GoEcho Alum

Given all of that, should you just stay home and read National Geographic and TripAdvisor reviews of places you'd like to visit?

No, of course not! Travel is also wonderful and amazing, with plenty of potential positive effects for the traveler and communities alike -- as long as it's done safely and intentionally. This doesn't mean staying home. It just means thinking a little more strategically about how and where you travel, and where your money goes.

Here's a good way to think of it, adopted from "Overbooked," Elizabeth Becker's excellent examination of the travel industry. Rights are attached to responsibilities -- you have the right to something, and in turn, you're responsible for helping make sure that right is respected, protected, and fulfilled. Gandhi himself once said, "the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world."

If we feel that travel is a right -- or at least a privilege to which we'd like most of us to have access -- then we should also be thinking about the responsibilities that come with it, like respecting a country's culture, people, and environment.

Too often, we're not asking these questions, either because we don't know to ask or because we're too dazzled by photos of pyramids or the appeal of colorful cocktails with little umbrellas in them.

Photo by Megan S., Volunteer Africa Alum

If we want to help construct a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable way of traveling, though, this is exactly what we need to be asking -- not just ourselves, but the hosts, companies, and providers also need to be held accountable. Everyone involved in the sector should be thinking about how to help contribute to and develop rules and practices that will put sustainability at the top of the tourism agenda

Obviously, plenty of people in the industry are thinking about this already. In Overbooked, Becker quotes Luigi Cabrini, UNWTO expert on sustainability and chairman of the board of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, who explains,

We have to get away from the idea that sustainability is just ecotourism with five people alone walking in a forest. We need models of good practices. …we need ethics codes, guidelines, statistics, and data that helps the industry, and to work with business, education, governments. That mean also looking at pollution; environmental degradation; the corporate cultural monotony of tourist establishments; international tourism that undermines local economies and dealing with the sheer number of tourists. In the end, tourism plays an important role alleviating poverty, widening appreciation of different cultures, as informal diplomacy and exchanging wealth from the rich to poor nations.

This is where you, the traveler, come in.

Tourism and travel, like any marketing-dependent industry, cares intensely about your experience and what you want (unfortunately, often more than what the locals want, but that's what we're trying to fix here). This makes sense if you think about it -- how do you make most of your travel decisions? It's usually through recommendations, either from friends, friends of friends, or review sites and resources like TripAdvisor or an online travel guide forum.

Providers and tourism-dependent businesses pay a lot of attention to what travelers want, and they adapt to fit those demands -- that's how marketing works. This means that, as travelers, we have a lot of power to shape and affect the industry. If we all start demanding more sustainable practices, and supporting local businesses, communities and regions that are on the cutting edge of this movement, the rest of the industry will have to respond if they don't want to lose your money.

"Where Should I Go?"

The easy answer is: anywhere if you look hard enough! This is mostly (though not entirely) true, but there are some countries, regions, and modes of travel that are more conducive to sustainable practices. Unsurprisingly, developing countries are often some of the farthest ahead of the curve when it comes to promoting sustainable travel structures since they're also some of the places most affected by issues like climate change.

Photo by Shannon A., ISV Costa Rica Alum

For example, Bhutan has a "high value, low impact" policy that limits the number of foreign tourists allowed to enter the country at a given time, to keep from placing an impossible strain on local infrastructure and resources. Meanwhile, in Colombia, the indigenous communities that maintain stewardship over the popular Tayrona National Park requested the park close for a whole month to allow them to engage in environmental and spiritual repairs -- and the government actually agreed to it!

Countries like Thailand, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Peru, Cambodia, and South Africa offer some of the leading examples of sustainable tourism practices. Meanwhile, other countries like New Zealand and Pacific Island nations, which are on the front lines of climate change, have adopted sustainable structures to help preserve their territory and natural resources.

It also depends on what kind of sustainability you’re going for.

Cities aren’t necessarily the most sustainable locations -- but you're having less of a destructive environmental impact biking around Copenhagen than taking a moto-taxi ride through the pristine Guatemalan cloud forest. Volunteering on a local farm through a program like WWOOF seems as low-impact and sustainable as it gets (you’re helping harvest organic grapes, for crying out loud!) -- but is that a job that might otherwise go to a local person if there weren’t an endless supply of short-term foreigners to fill it instead? That cute vegetarian restaurant sure has a fun name -- but what if they import most of their ingredients, while the hole-in-the-wall spot down the block gets all its vegetables from a nearby farm?

Committing to sustainable travel and tourism requires asking these types of tough questions, and being prepared to get answers you may not like.

How to Spot Sustainable Tourism Experiences

Generally, sustainable travel and tourism are going to require a little more work on your part. It’s not the most convenient way to plan a vacation, but there’s a reason for that. Many travel packages and deals are built around exactly that -- convenience for you -- rather than how they fit into the local context. By definition, all-inclusive resorts and tours don't really serve or benefit locals. If you really want to commit to being a sustainable traveler, you’re going to have to take back responsibility and give up convenience.

Photo by Julia F., GoEco Alum

The best way to learn more about sustainable practices is to ask lots of questions. Like many other sectors, travel and tourism are guilty of "greenwashing" -- slapping on a label that says "Environmentally Friendly" without necessarily doing much to back it up. Don't just stay at a hostel because the name says "ecolodge" -- they can call themselves whatever they want, but it doesn't mean they're any more sustainable than the other hostel down the street that's named after the owner's favorite bird.

Instead, ask the tough questions, including but not limited to:

  • Where does their food come from?

  • Are the employees locals or all backpackers just passing through?

  • Can they recommend any local restaurants, businesses, or tour guides that you can support?

  • Who owns the hotel -- a multinational corporate chain or an independent owner?

  • How many people are allowed to visit this religious site each day?

  • Does the "authentic" workshop take place in the community or in a space designed to be accessible to tourists?

Think about the issues that matter most to you, whether it's climate change, impact on indigenous communities, habitat conservation, women's rights, food security, all of the above, or an entirely different issue. You can easily come up with your own questions or checklist that will help you make more informed decisions about where you choose to spend your money.

Here's an example of some more basic questions to get you started working on this, and UK-based Tourism Concern has some helpful guidelines for identifying and seeking out ethical tourism providers and opportunities. Now get out there and start making the travel world a better place for everyone!

Read Next: How to Lower Your Carbon Footprint through Sustainable Travel