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What Is Sustainable Tourism, Why Does it Matter, and Where Should You Go as a Sustainable Tourist?

Woman hiker watching through binoculars wild birds in the rainforest.
Written by Mandy Voisin

My mom was a forest ranger for years before having a family, spending her summers at Capitol Reef National Park, ensconced in red rock and majestic canyons. We visited many national parks growing up, and she was adamant that we take care of the land, often collecting trash our fellow hikers left on the trails in a bag as she climbed. I always thought it was a weird quirk of hers. Cute, and mom-ish. How could her small efforts make any difference? But in hindsight as an environmentally conscious adult, I now realize that she was a part of the sustainable tourism mindset before the term was even coined. Blazing the trail with the mindset that every individual’s choices matter. That all of us must cooperate to keep our planet beautiful.

If you have set your heart on being an sustainable tourist, then these are the important points to remember and take into consideration.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

It’s easy to plan a trip with your needs alone in mind. After all, working within your budget and planning an adventure is no small task — even without a care to the environment. But a sustainable tourist is someone who decides to travel in a way that shows respect to nature and at the least — does not contribute to its degradation.
Sustainable tourism is an attitude as well as a practice. It’s about minimizing your footprint — both physically, socially, and behaviorally. And it begins with every decision you make. Where you stay, how you get there, what you eat, the tours you take, the souvenirs you buy. It’s building environmental and cultural awareness and respect by the way you act and how you spend money. It’s any form of tourism that focuses on travel to natural environments with the intent to learn about, and ultimately, help protect those environments. In other words, it’s travel armed with a plastic bag in hand.

Why Does Sustainable Tourism Matter?

woman with the harvest basket in a tea plantation - ecotourism in Asia

Statistics show that, yes, it matters because of the correlation between tourism and the world’s carbon emissions. Climate change occurs when greenhouse gases (GHG) are emitted into the atmosphere. This generally happens when burning fossil fuels. And carbon dioxide CO2 accounts for more than 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The main culprit for GHG emissions during travel is transport, which accounts for 75% of all emissions by the tourism industry. Aviation, road transport, and other forms are all factors. Clearly, all of this travel is affecting the environment. But is the answer for people to just stop looking for cheap flight deals for their next holiday?

Well, no. When sustainable tourism is done correctly, there is the possibility for the environment of the destination to actually improve rather than diminish. But that’s not possible unless all tourists are willing to do their part. Here are a few things you can do when planning your next trip to be a better ecotourist:

Stay at eco-friendly resorts or hotels

Large hotels have more emissions than campgrounds, rental properties, and hostels. Do your homework and make sure your property cares about the environment. If you’re going to stay in a hotel, look for one that has an officer in charge of sustainability, has eco-initiatives, clearly states their sustainability practices on their website, and are certified as sustainable.

Support local people and businesses

Whenever you can, especially when traveling abroad, support local people and their businesses. This may mean venturing out instead of eating at your hotel. It may mean booking a tour through an individual or small tour company instead of paying a national brand. This also extends to souvenirs. Buy them from people who often distribute their earnings throughout their villages and families rather than cheaply made, often imported souvenirs from gift shops.

Donate money to conservation efforts

You know how when you visit a national park or landmark there is often a voluntary donation box? Consider donating.

Book an eco-friendly tour

Just as you would do your research before booking a hotel, look into a tour company’s sustainable tourism practices. Take Intrepid Travel, for example. They detail on their responsibility page what their eco-practices are, providing information about their carbon-neutral policy, their animal-rights policies, and their non-profit organization. The smaller tour group Roar Africa also details their conservation efforts to preserve the Sahara for animals.

Pack light

Yes, there are more than just financial benefits to packing light. You’ll also increase plane fuel-efficiency. And if you pack items that can be washed in the sink or worn multiple times during your trip, it will save water as well.

Save water

You may want your towels washed daily or feel you need that extra long shower. But these statistics might change your mind: the average Canadian household uses 326 liters of water per day. A village of 700 in a developing country uses an average of 500 liters of water per month. And a luxury hotel room guest uses 1,800 liters of water per person per night!

You may also like: Understanding Sustainable Tourism & How to Travel Green!

What Are Some Sustainable Tourism Destinations?

Few tourists dressing cold clothes seeing the amazing sunset at the Jokulsarlon, iceberg lagoon in Iceland

The truth is, almost any location can be eco-friendly if you make the right decisions. You, as a tourist, are responsible for your own carbon/social footprint, which means that by choosing how and where you spend your money and time, you are being a sustainable tourist. However, some locations have built-in eco-friendly practices that make them even more sustainable than others. Here are a few we recommend:

Cape Town, South Africa

This capital city provides easy access to beaches, mountains, and forests. There are hundreds of locally-sourced restaurants and services like the carbon-neutral Green Cabs, who make it easy and eco-friendly to get around town.

Tobago

This island in the Caribbean houses one of the world’s oldest legally protected rain forests. Many of the island’s plants and wildlife have been damaged due to hurricanes but the Forest Reserve’s World Heritage Status protects them and is also working to repair the damage to coral reefs.

Sundance Resort, Utah

Robert Redford’s 5,000-acre resort in the Wasatch Mountain range offsets 100% of its power through wind energy — so you don’t have to feel guilt about the electricity used to power the ski-lifts and snow machines. It also uses only green cleaning supplies in lodge rooms, and utilizes an on-property kiln to recycle discarded glass into art and housewares.

Iceland

Iceland is one of the most environmentally-conscious countries in the world. It utilizes natural geothermal resources for heat and electricity production, and instills sustainable fishing practices.

New Zealand

New Zealand has a goal to be completely free from fossil fuels by 2025. The country as a whole is working to utilize its geothermal energy sources instead. There are many ways to support locals there as well, since large hotels are only found in large cities.

Sustainable tourism begins with your travel booking, from the exact moment you look for cheap flights to treat yourself with a getaway to remember. But it extends to the daily choices you make as a tourist as well. Sustainability may not always be the easiest route. But if everyone decided to carry the proverbial bag of trash up the mountain? The world would be a cleaner, more beautiful place…for generations to come.

About the author

Mandy Voisin

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet.

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