Sustainable travel is the future of travel. As the world population grows and gets increasingly richer and globalized, tourism will continue to increase, putting even more pressure on the world’s resources and treasures. Imagine Paris and Rome with millions more tourists than are already squeezed in there…or tiny, sinking Venice with many more tourists descending upon it every day.
Travel is a time for us to do what we love, whether having a fun adventure or a relaxing getaway, but we have to travel responsibly. When we visit other places, we have the responsibility to treat them with respect and kindness because if we don’t, we risk damaging culture, heritage, and the environment. The key is creating positive relationships between local people/culture and tourists. The good news is that this practicing such responsibility makes for a richer, more rewarding travel experience (see my other Quality Travel posts). Here are 31 tips for sustainable travel that we all should keep in mind the next time we travel.
1. Learn about the history before going
Learning about the history of the place we visit results in a richer experience with greater appreciation for what we see. I can’t imagine seeing the dome of Florence or the architecture of Venice without understanding at least a bit of the history because they would be just beautiful buildings with no context. Fortunately, it’s easy to do this now–documentaries on Youtube or books set in our destinations can provide a foundation of understanding. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the world’s new tourists are traveling with little to no background knowledge (this is being said loud and clear in Italy, for example).
2. Stay in a vacation rental
Renting an apartment or house can give travelers an authentic stay. It allows travelers to get to know neighbors, see what life is like for local residents, and frequent neighborhood shops and cafes. It’s also nice for local people because it gives them an additional source of income. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have an authentic stay in a hotel–hotels can allow you to get to know locals through the staff there, and you can still visit neighborhood shops and markets while staying in a hotel, but I think that vacation rentals give you a better sense of real life in your destination.
3. Stay in hotels that work toward responsible, sustainable business
From eco-resorts to luxury hotels that give back to the local community and boutique hotels that capture an authentic sense of place, there are hotels doing positive work all around the world. We just have to look for them when we make travel plans.
4. Learn about local artisanry and buy gifts from local artisans
Artisans are a link between the past and the present–they use traditional artisan’s techniques and tools to make products for today’s market. Learning about their trade and supporting them by buying their products directly helps keep this important part of culture alive.
5. Visit markets where the locals go
Skip the markets geared toward tourists and look for flea markets, often held in public spaces on the weekends. Here you can usually find goods made by local people, antiques, and fresh food. Flea markets also allow you to observe local people gathering together.
6. Become a lover of your hometown
We can lighten our impact on the globe by traveling locally, and what better place to start than your own hometown? Travel often involves dreaming about far away places, but traveling locally gives us a better understanding of where we live and why it’s special. I recently got to know my hometown much better, as you can see in these 35 highlights of Sacramento on AFAR.com.
7. Support organic and sustainable
Look for businesses that use organic and sustainable methods. Restaurants using organic ingredients, sustainable wineries, organic ice cream shops, shops that promote sustainable farming or fair trade products, organic bakeries, and many other businesses are the leaders in the global movement toward greater consciousness about our environment, but they need our support to continue.
8. Get educated about the treatment of animals
When you plan your travels, check into the conditions at zoos, elephant parks, and sanctuaries. If you’re not sure, don’t support them, and if you see something that bothers you, let others know. In general, I avoid zoos that are not focused on conservation, and I refuse to visit Sea World, circuses, elephant rides using platforms, or tiger petting places, all of which use animals in unnatural or harmful ways.
Volunteering abroad takes travel to another level. It allows you to get to know local people and use your skills to help others. You might even learn new skills in the process.
10. Make responsible food choices
As I discussed in my post “Quality Travel: Making Responsible Food Choices,” the choices we make about food when we’re traveling have the power to help make positive change (or, conversely, contribute to the world’s food problems). By supporting local markets, organic and locally-focused restaurants, and cutting down on meat, we can promote sustainability.
11. Support good causes
Be on the lookout for organizations that work for the greater good–as we travel, we can support these places and spread the word about their good work.
12. Take a class in language, cooking, or another aspect of local culture
One of my most rewarding travel experiences was taking a two-week intensive course in German at the Goethe Institut in Munich. I stayed with a German family, learned about German language and culture, and made international friends. Best of all, I had a purpose for being in the city and left loving Munich and its people.
Rewarding experiences can be found no matter where you are traveling to. Look for classes of just a few hours to a few days in cooking, wine making, coffee roasting, art, and much more.
13. Visit food markets
I love learning about food customs and talking with local people about food. Visiting the markets gives travelers the chance to see how local people shop for food, what is grown or made in that area, and what people like. The above market in São Paulo is a cultural experience full of sights and smells and proud vendors who enjoy showing off their products, including the famous bacalhao, or salted cod.
14. Visit only the main sights that you really want to see
The most common way of traveling is to make a list of the “top” sights and hit them one by one because, well, most people feel that if they’ve traveled all that way, they’d better see those sights. While famous places are famous for a reason, not all of them may be worth seeing for you. Filling up your days with visiting that famous grave and wandering the rooms of that must-see museum might not give you time to enjoy the city and experience local life.
My approach is to make a list of the sights that I really want to see based on my interests and practical considerations like location, time, etc.
15. Ask the locals where to eat
This is one of my favorite tips. Get away from the overpriced tourist center restaurants, ask locals where to eat, and seek out restaurants that serve authentic, high-quality local cuisine not catered to tourists.
16. Get on the locals’ good side
Being friendly and inquisitive–without being needy–goes a long way. Besides enlightening conversations with locals in all the places I’ve traveled, getting on their good side has also helped me out in tense situations, like when I almost missed my train in Kutná Hora and was promptly driven to the station by a local who overheard my concern.
17. Travel more when you fly so you can fly less
Airplane travel is bad for the environment, so when we do fly, we should get as much out of that flying as possible. For instance, try staying for longer periods of time to maximize your airplane travel. Use stopovers as a way to visit more places on the way (like stopping in Japan for a few days on the way to the rest of Asia, or stopping in NYC or Iceland on the way to Europe). Often a “multicity” ticket can be booked for the same price, just slightly more, or even less than a regular one.
18. Buy carbon offset
As a way of making up for the environmental impact of your travels, you can purchase carbon offset when you book your tickets. The money is put toward advancing environmental protection.
19. Try the off season
I love to travel in the off season. I started doing this when I went to Italy the first three times, always in the winter. Traveling in the off season means that you deal with much smaller crowds while having more chance for authentic experiences. Visiting then allows you to see what the place is really like and how locals go about their lives without the huge crush of tourists, especially in the world’s most visited destinations.
20. Have a local hangout
Find a cafe, bar, restaurant, piazza, park, or somewhere where you can go every day and have some downtime. I prefer to have this kind of downtime away from my accommodations so that I can still be around the people, observe daily life, and give a local establishment some business. Twice when I spent a month in Florence, I went to a cafe every single day to write postcards, do research, and relax with coffee, and the routine made me feel like I had a connection to the neighborhood.
21. Be a smart traveler
Recently I heard Rick Steves give advice over and over that people need to be responsible, use their guidebooks, and do their research. He said something like if you have to wait in long lines in Italy, that’s your fault. I agree. While it’s not always practical to spend a lot of time doing research, it really improves the travel experience–know more about the destination and its culture, ask questions, get city cards or museum passes, be prepared and unafraid, and just dig in!
22. Support responsible travel companies, such as responsible cruises
Even though cruises are definitely not high on my travel list, I like cruises (although I’ve been on just one), and I think they can be a convenient travel option for families. But the reality is that they are generally not examples of sustainable travel. They don’t allow travelers much time in the destinations and aren’t good for the environment. However, there are smaller cruises such as Lindblad-National Geographic Alliance Expeditions, which focus on learning about the environment and support conservation, and Paul Gauguin Cruises, which use small cruise ships and support sustainable development on land.
23. Use the local language as much as you can
Learn the basic phrases and get a phrasebook to help you use the language for basic daily tasks. I honestly struggled with this the last time I was in Italy because everyone spoke such good English, but making the effort shows respect for the local people and helps you make connections with the people.
24. Take advantage of long-term placement programs like the Peace Corps
Possibly the best example of sustainable travel is living in one place for a while (and being able to travel to many nearby places), learning the language, and helping the local community with something important, like building medical facilities or improving education.
25. Support small local shops and find unique souvenirs
Get away from the city center where shops are often full of tacky souvenirs and look for small shops selling unique items. Not only do these shops make for fun browsing, but buying gifts or souvenirs here contributes to the strength of the local economy and supports small shop owners that sell quality products.
26. Teach your kids to be good travelers
Our children are the future, so we must teach them good traveling values and the importance of traveling responsibly. The example we show them when they’re children will be their norm.
27. Get off the beaten track and make your own discoveries
“Off the beaten track” may be tired words (so often used), but they are essential to good travel, in my opinion. I purposely look for places that are far away from crowds, not only because I prefer experiencing places where I won’t feel like one of a crowd, but also because we need to do this so that the most famous sights don’t become degraded from over-tourism.
28. Ask questions and learn from locals, not just from guidebooks or our limited assumptions
Approach travel as a learning experience. Ask questions, be curious and open to learning, and seek out the advice of local people.
29. Look for community events to attend
No matter where you are, seek out events in the community–museum events, gallery openings, festivals, free movie nights, etc. These are not just fun but are also a reflection of what local residents like and support. They also give you the opportunity to meet some locals and maybe even make new friends.
30. Observe local daily life
Traveling is so much more than sightseeing–it’s also a way to learn about a culture and lifestyle. Find out if there is a time of day when locals like to gather outside (such as the evening passeggiata in Italy) and become part of it. Visit town squares and outdoor markets and watch the people socialize. Get up early and observe the locals setting up their shops and market stalls before the rest of the city is out. Visit a small town for one day and watch local life play out without the rush of tourists.
31. Travel slowly
This is the tip that summarizes all of the above. Travel is something we do for many reasons–fun, pleasure, escape, adventure–but when we do it slowly, we give ourselves the opportunity to do it carefully. Traveling carefully, with time and attention, means that we can have the travel experience we want while having a positive impact on the places we visit.
Which of these tips are your favorites? What tips do you have for sustainable travel?
For more tips, see Easy Eco-tourism: 10 Simple Steps to More Sustainable Travel from Green Global Travel