What Is Sustainable Tourism?: A Guide

When I mention to fellow travelers that I am involved in sustainable tourism, many look at me with a confused expression. While sustainable travel has been a buzzword among many bloggers and those in the travel industry, it has yet to reach the mainstream. The thing is, sustainable tourism can really make our world a better place—the whole idea is that as a traveler you leave things better than when you found them.

Sounds great? It is. But it definitely requires that you change your travel habits a bit when visiting a new country. The good news is that you’re making a location a place that can be returned to for future generations.

Okay, but what is sustainable tourism?

Chances are, you are already doing good things for the planet. You’re recycling, picking up trash, and doing your part toward making the world better. Think of sustainable tourism as doing these things on steroids—you’re trying to lessen your impact on the world as a traveler. Journeying to your favorite destinations takes a lot of resources like:

  • The jet fuel to get to your destination
  • The fuel to take a taxi to your hotel
  • The rewashing of sheets and towels in your hotel room
  • The transportation you take to get to various activities
  • And so on…

These things would not be used if we decided to sit at home and watch television. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel, in fact, tourism can have a positive impact on communities by giving people jobs and increasing the local economy. Sustainable tourism is taking the positives and helping them to outweigh the negatives.

What are the pillars of sustainable tourism?

An easy way to remember the tenants of sustainable tourism is to look at its pillars. In the 80s, the president of Norway created some guidelines for tourism companies to follow when they wanted to create new programs devoted to making the world better. Here is what he and his Commission came up with:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

These included two main points:

  • The concept of ‘needs,’ in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given
  • The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs

The main focus of these were to emphasize how are needs can be met while not hurting the environment. Development meant that several factors had to be kept in mind so that it did not cause irrevocable harm in the future.

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Pillars of Sustainability were actually created. These are three main areas that need to be considered when any sort of development occurs. They include:

  • Environmental protection
  • Social sustainability (including how cultural differences are approached)
  • Economic sustainability

Why should I be interested in sustainable tourism as a traveler?

Traveling is all about making connections with other cultures and feeling as though we have a place in this big-ass world of ours. While it might be cool to post things on social media and brag that you’ve been to a certain location, the truth is that we’re all looking for something a little bit deeper when we head off to a new spot.

These connections make travel worthwhile, and sustainable tourism allows travelers to help the local people and environment and to help those connections grow. Hoards of tourists can cause a lot of damage to communities—especially if they are having negative interactions with locals, harming the flora and fauna, and frequenting businesses that don’t help local people.

Sustainable tourism sounds hard

That’s the great thing! It’s really not. Sustainable travel is one of those things that looks daunting on paper, but is actually very easy to implement on your adventures. Here are some small examples that show how easy it is to be a bit more aware about sustainable tourism:

  • Ask permission before taking photographs
  • Look to eating and buying souvenirs at local businesses
  • Adopt a “leave no trace” philosophy to nature
  • Pick tours that have sustainability as a goal

Like any impactful change, it often just takes recognizing what you are doing wrong and what you can be doing better. These changes build up over time if everyone learns to adopt them, and we make progress.

what is sustainable travel

What is the difference between ecotourism, ethical tourism, responsible tourism, and sustainable tourism?

Many of these different types of tourisms overlap in a number of different ways. All are created to help the planet in the future, and all are meant to keep systems more or less in place so locals can continue to live at and enjoy their homes. Here are some quick definitions to help you get an idea of the differences between these:

Ecotourism: tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. (Oxford Dictionary)

Ecotourism is mostly in relation to natural systems and maintaining environments. This might include volunteering to plant trees in the rainforest, working toward education local people about wildlife, and choosing tour companies that promote a healthy relationship with the environment.

Ethical and responsible tourism: thinking about the consequences of your actions as a tourist on the environment, local people, and local economy. (Young Scot)

Ethical tourism and responsible tourism mean very much the same thing. It’s the idea that before and while you are at a destination, you make the effort to recognize the differences between your culture, natural environment, and politics. It means being aware that other people might do things differently from you, while also understanding that your presence affects how they live their daily lives. Think about when you buy a meal from a local restaurant. A responsible tourist should:

  • Be aware that the meal will taste different than what you are used to
  • That the meal holds personal and cultural meaning
  • Know that it took local resources to make the meal
  • That your choice in restaurant determines who receives financial benefit

Sustainable tourism: the concept of visiting somewhere as a tourist and trying to make a positive impact on the environment, society, and economy. (Wikipedia)

The main difference between sustainable tourism and the other types listed is that sustainable tourism makes the active effort to help the environment, people, and economy of a destination. This might mean choosing local tour operators, businesses, and restaurants, or choosing to volunteer. As a sustainable tourist, you are actively trying to leave a place better than you found it rather than just being aware of the consequences of your actions as a tourist, or choosing only to focus on the environment rather than other aspects of of visiting a location.

How does sustainable tourism help local people?

It might not appear so from travelers’ eyes, but the people who often suffer the most from bad traveling are the locals. While tourism can be beneficial by providing jobs and economic stability to the region, it can also cause damage to wildlife populations, religious structures, and local businesses.

These are often the very things that bring tourists in to begin with, so once these parts of a culture are ruined, then people might stop coming. Travelers are always looking for a “pure” or “untouched” destination, forgetting that the busiest tourist spots were once untouched too.

By being aware and careful not ruin attractions, choosing local businesses over chains, and being kind to the nearby wildlife, sustainable tourism helps to keep a place alive and thriving well long after a traveler leaves.

So what are some of the things I should avoid as a sustainable traveler?

This is the best question we can all ask ourselves as we travel. While sustainable habits can be learned, there are always new situations that can test what you know and how you know you should act. It’s not simple all of the time to react in a positive way—especially when you are dealing with local people who are just looking to make a living and don’t understand why you wouldn’t use their services.

Here’s a quick list of easy things to avoid when trying to follow sustainable tourism values:

  • Giving money to begging children in impoverished countries
  • Volunteering at orphanages
  • Choosing tours that involve animal cruelty
  • Causing damage to religious sites and not respecting cultural values
  • Taking a flight when you can take a bus

Again, these are often easy changes and many travelers are already doing many of these things. It just involves being aware of the footprint you are leaving behind. If you have done some of these in the past without knowing, it’s okay (it happens!), but sustainable travel involves acknowledging the mistakes you’ve made and making an effort not to repeat them in the future.

What if I don’t agree with a certain culture’s attitude?

This is a difficulty that many travelers run into. Many times, Western tourists find themselves in places where their values don’t align with the local culture. This can mean the suppression of women in Middle Eastern countries, elephant riding in Southeast Asia, or attitudes that can be perceived as racist in Latin America. Whether you agree with the culture or not, fighting with locals is probably not going to cause any positive change.

The best way to do this is to not take part in these activities, and find tour options and things to do that align more with your morals. When it comes down to it, you are a visitor in a new country, and things are going to be different than you would expect.

How do I know if a tour company is sustainable?

Most sustainable tour companies are proud to share that they have these values. While they might have been harder to find in the past, it is definitely much easier to find companies who are involved in eco-tourism and helping local people than it was in the past. Here is a list of some of my favorite businesses that are working hard to promote sustainable tourism:

These companies also work with local communities to educate them on providing more sustainable options to travelers, how they can recycle and keep their nature pristine, and encouraging the education of children.

What about voluntourism?

Voluntourism has become a huge industry, and many companies have created tours around the idea that travelers are helping a location during a holiday. Tourists pay several thousands of dollars to stay in impoverished areas and volunteer in local communities. While some of these tours and companies do good, many encourage the exploitation of the local people and can cause more harm than the positive things they do.

One example of this is volunteering at orphanages. While it might seem like a great way to help some children, the truth is that there is often a seedy underside of parents selling their children to these establishments to bring in money. The best way to give back to those who need it is by helping the local economy, choosing sustainable tour options, and donating extra cash to organizations that encourage education for children.

The truth is that you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to do good.

How can I encourage sustainable tourism for others?

We as travelers have a lot of power, and real change starts with people who are promoting it. When you hear that a friend is headed to a location you’ve been to, make sure to pass along names of companies with sustainable missions and encourage him or her to use sustainable travel practices. You might want to warn him or her of some of the challenges of traveling to that particular destination and how he or she can help the local communities.

On social media, make sure to call out the tour companies you might have used and include information about how others can travel sustainably.

Knowing the basics of sustainable tourism can be the start of a better world. By following some of these principles, you can help to ensure that the next generations can visit a locale and enjoy it, as well.

How have your travels changed by using sustainable tourism practices?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander

22 thoughts on “What Is Sustainable Tourism?: A Guide

  1. Sophie B. says:

    This is such an important topic and I really like your article and your ideas! Thank you for sharing this! 😊

    1. Alex Schnee says:

      I’m glad that this helps! Thanks for your comment and stopping by. 🙂


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