Planning your next international escapade, but want to avoid any programs or companies that use unethical tourism practices, wreak havoc on natural or cultural heritage sites, or harm the local way of life? Then welcome to the new wave of travelers who have become more conscience about how their adventures impact on the community – even after they’ve left. And thanks to the United Nations, sustainable travel has become a top priority all over the world this year.
What is sustainable travel?
Sustainable travel may have a wholesome ring to it, but what does it really mean?
According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism is, “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…”
So, what does that mean for you as a traveler? It means making sure you choose travel programs and organizations that care as much as you do. They are deeply rooted in local communities. They hire local vendors and guides, they set you up with local accommodations and homestays, they don’t exploit the people or their natural resources, and (hopefully) are working to leave the world a little better than they found it.
What are the different types of sustainable travel?
Meaningful travelers are all about doing more than just skimming the surface of a new country and culture, which lends itself so nicely to sustainable adventures. While you can put in the work to make sure all your travel is deemed sustainable, here are a few of the most popular types of sustainable travel.
Volunteering abroad, as long as you’ve done your homework and picked the right project and organization, is a great way to travel sustainably. You’re having a direct, positive impact on the local community. Not only will you be contributing to the local economy as a volunteer and traveler, but your work with local projects and organizations will have lasting social and/or environmental impact on your host country.
If you’re all about outdoor adventure, you know how important is to leave this Earth in great condition for the next generation of adventurers. Sustainable adventure travel programs may sometimes include a volunteer opportunity, but more than anything it allows you to get your blood pumping and adrenaline rushing without leaving economic or environmental destruction in your wake. Look for local adventure travel programs and tours, or, if you do end up going on an organized trip with a larger company, make sure they employ local guides and provide local accommodations (no big hotel chains here!).
When you choose to embark on an adventure sans-organized program, be conscious of your impact on the local community. Look for locally owned accommodations and if you choose to do a walking tour or day tour, opt for locally owned and operated tour companies. As you go through your day-to-day, think about the impact your tourism has. Make sure you’re contributing to the local economy, taking a serious interest in the local culture, being respectful of local customs, and interacting with local people.
No matter the route you take with your adventure, make sure you’re following the principles of sustainable travel outlined below.
The principles of sustainable travel
Sustainable travel may sound like an over-complicated notion, but it can be broken down into just three simple principles: environmental, social, and economic.
Environmental. Environmental sustainability focuses on ensuring the preservation of both natural and cultural heritage sites so that future travelers – like yourself – can experience the country’s national treasures for generations to come.
Social. While travel helps promote the exchange of culture differences and ideas between strangers, it can also degrade the very cultural aspects that make the country so unique in the first place. Social sustainability encourages the idea of cultural exchange between travelers and locals while at the same times aims to preserve cultural heritage and traditions that define each country’s way of life.
Economic. Thinking about staying in an International Best Western, or even grabbing a McDouble from the McDonald's near where you’re staying? Why not instead stay at a locally based hotel or grab a bite to eat at one of the neighborhoods local restaurants. Not only will you experience more of the country’s culture, you’ll help the economic sustainability of the country by giving profits of tourism back to the local community.
Top sustainable tourism destinations
1. Costa Rica
Grab your sunscreen and sunglasses, because Costa Rica is a hallmark for sustainable tourism. With more than 20 percent of the country’s land dedicated to national parks, Costa Rica is the perfect location for those interested in volunteering with conservation programs.
Drawing in travelers from all over the world, Botswana stands out as the leader of sustainability in Africa. As of 2013, Botswana made hunting illegal which makes it the perfect place to visit if you are interested in discovering any of the country’s wildlife reserves.
From its beautiful coastline to its snow-covered peaks, it’s no wonder that Slovenia was named the world’s most sustainable country in 2016. Make sure to check out the country’s options for uber sustainable adventure travel.
Recommended program: Tracking Dolphins in Adriatic Sea in Slovenia with Earthwatch Institute
Not quite what you’re looking for? Browse all volunteer abroad programs in Slovenia.
4. New Zealand
Tourism is the backbone of New Zealand’s economy which makes it one of the world leaders in preservation through eco-tourism. Between the unique flora and fauna and 14 national parks that cover over 30 percent of the country's terrain, New Zealand is the perfect getaway for those looking for an adventure.
From the peaks of Patagonia to the miles of rocky coastline, Chile is one of the best countries in the world for sustainable adventure tourism. However, as a still-developing country, Chile is also a great place to give a helping head with numerous volunteer opportunities.
Between its breathtaking landscape and abundance of natural resources, it’s no wonder that Iceland is prominent in the world of sustainable travel. Iceland offers everything from relaxing in geothermal hot springs to hiking through the rugged fjords. Regardless of your taste, Iceland will have something for you!
Nestled in the heart of Europe, Germany has become one of Europe's top destination when it comes to sustainable travel. Between the lush green river valleys, magnificent mountain tops of the Alps, and plethora of historical monuments, Germany has committed itself to protecting its country’s national treasures.
With a record-breaking 32.59 million visitors in 2016, it’s no wonder that Thailand has stepped-up its game when it comes to sustainable tourism. As a jewel of Southeast Asia, Thailand provides ample opportunities for travelers to revel in it’s country’s treasures. Word to the wise: double check the credibility of you travel program to make sure sustainability – rather than dollar signs – is their priority.
As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Ecuador is frontrunner when it comes to sustainable travel. Jammed pack with snow-capped mountains, rainforests, and coastline, Ecuador is the perfect place to visit for anyone who loves nature and wildlife. If you have time, check out the Galapagos Island which home to some of the world's most unique wildlife.
Oh, Canada! As the second largest country in the world, it’s no surprise that Canada home to over 40 national parks and reserves. With such as large and beautiful country to take care of, Canadians have stepped up their game when it comes to creating more forms of environmentally sustainable tourism.
Read more about sustainable travel
If you just can’t get enough, keep on reading for the best sustainable travel tips!
- Green Study Abroad Made Easy Thanks to this Handy Tool
- How to Ensure You’re Being a Responsible Voluntourist
- How to Volunteer Abroad Sustainably
- How to Make Sure Your Eco-Adventure Tour is Ethical
- Search through these Eco-Adventure Tours
Why sustainable travel is important
Sustainable travel is important because it is more than just making the right choices when it comes to your future travel arrangements. Sustainability promotes the idea of having more meaningful and authentic experiences that don’t just benefit you, but also the locals who are kind enough to share their culture with you. Through sustainable travel we are able to educate ourselves and others about consequences that our behavior, purchasing habits, presences have on these popular destinations, and allows us to make positive change.