What Is Sustainable Travel? + Why It Matters

(Last Updated On: 23/11/2021)

Let’s take a show of hands as to who is currently overwhelmed with the current state of our planet?! Ah hah, it’s not just me, and it’s not just you either. With all things climate change and buzzwords like sustainability, green, and eco-friendly going around, it’s hard to know what each of them means since most of the time they’re all put into one category. As a fellow traveler and Earth lover, traveling in a sustainable way is what I strive for every time I book a trip. It can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people, so I have made this small guide to help you get a general overview, with free resources, that will help you get your foot in the door of being a more sustainable traveler: it does affect more than just ourselves, after all.

I first want to thank you for taking interest in this topic: taking action and pursuing resources to lead a more sustainable life is huge, and it’s going to change the lives of many locals that you meet in your journey. So, without further ado, what is sustainable travel?



Sustainable Travel: What It Is + What It Is Not

To break it down into simpler terms, sustainable travel, or sustainable tourism, embodies creating a positive influence and/or change in the environment, culture, and people when we choose to book a trip or volunteer our time in the countries that we travel to. It sounds like a lot at first, but really, it’s ensuring that you’re not causing a negative impact on the destination you’re visiting. With the recent boom in social media influencers and seas of sponsored trips to exotic destinations, a lot of fingers have been pointed at content creators since air travel is considered one of the largest carbon emission contributors on the travel spectrum and geo-tagging has caused some destinations to go viral and some to even shut down entirely.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just stayed home? Actually, no.

In many developing countries, like many in Southeast Asia, their main source of income is in the tourism industry. With over 1.8 billion people traveling internationally and domestically each year, that is a lot of cheddar to go around, so cutting off that viable source of income isn’t exactly the answer to all of our problems. It’s what we do with that money that is going to make the biggest change. One of my favorite quotes (see below) describes perfectly why this issue matters and the number one way that we can influence positive change.


“Every dollar you spend… or don’t spend, is a vote you cast for the world you want.”


I feel like money has become this taboo topic that not a lot of people talk about, but it has shaped our world into what it is today, literally. Our money can change many issues that have risen from unethical tourism practices: plastic pollution, animal exploitation, and cultural degradation, and more. That’s why it is so important that we support companies and brands that are promoting a positive impact on the Earth, even if it does cost a little bit extra: It’s worth it.

Another big issue with cutting off tourism (it’ll never happen as a whole, but bear with me), is that you’re also cutting off the opportunity to exchange knowledge, cultural understanding, strong friendships, and undergo personal growth through exploration.  So what all of this boils down to is that we all want to travel, see beautiful landscapes, eat local foods, and connect with fellow travelers from all over the world while simultaneously wanting to care about our impact on the planet. This is where sustainable tourism swoops in and gives us the best of both worlds: exploring this beautiful planet and taking care of it at the same time.



Green vs. “Green”

When we see the word green we automatically associate that color with a positive impact on the environment and many brands and companies have used that to their advantage with a little thing called ‘greenwashing’. Which is basically a term used for companies and agencies that market themselves as being eco-friendly, when in fact, they’re not green at all. Sometimes we can go into a tour or interaction where we feel that we are doing a great service to the country or local community we are in, when in fact, we may be doing them a great disservice by not doing our research and supporting a company that portrays an ethical experience solely to make people think that they’re supporting something good. I think a lot of people have accidentally fallen into some of these by accident, myself included, years ago, and we leave the experience wishing that we would have put our money elsewhere. Mistakes happen and we’re all human, but doing research and digging into what these companies stand for is going to help you rule out surface-level sustainability “practices”.

In the article I listed above, they share seven sins for greenwashing and how they can help you choose the right companies:

  • Hidden Trade-Off

  • No Proof

  • Vagueness

  • Irrelevance

  • Lesser Of Two Evils

  • Fibbing

  • Worshipping False Labels

They have a great guide for avoiding greenwashing for products, but I have found that a lot of their tips can be applied to tourism.



what is sustainable tourism? - palm leaf stock image


‘Eco-Conscious’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Green’, … Isn’t It All The Same?

With all these buzzwords swirling around it’s easy to get overwhelmed and bundle them all under the same umbrella, but they are actually similar words that mean pretty different things when compared side by side. Some of the most common keywords you’ll see around travel are eco-conscious travel, responsible travel, sustainable travel, and green travel, so I am going to go through each one so they make a little more sense and show you why I choose the term sustainable travel.



Green Travel

Green travel is recognizing the impact that companies and consumers have on the environment and doing our part to minimize that footprint. In this case, it can be coupled with ‘ecotourism’ which focuses primarily on the environmental impacts of travel. Not to say that it’s not important, however, I consider green travel to be the big umbrella on this list since I feel that the term ‘green’ can be used and abused in a variety of different ways. Since the umbrella has a far reach in this instance, green travel can mean a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people which can make the term a bit inconsistent. However, I do believe that greener travel can make us all a little more environmentally aware (which is important), but I think we can dig a little deeper to find a term that embodies all aspects of traveling.



Eco-Conscious (Eco) Travel

Similar to green travel, eco-conscious travel is focusing on the impact we have on the environment and doing as much as we can to reduce that footprint. So essentially you’ll want to focus on minimizing impact, have environmental and cultural respect, support local environmental and conservation movements, and provide support and sustainable benefits to the local communities.



Responsible Travel

Responsible travel ties right into sustainable travel, in my opinion. I think that responsible travel is more surrounded around us holding ourselves accountable (or responsible in this case) for making the right choices while abroad. I consider responsible and sustainable travel equal in comparison since they both revolve around all things involved in traveling: flying, tours, destination choices, etc., rather than just the environment (although that is a huge one).



Sustainable Travel

According to the UNWTO, sustainable travel 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”. To me, sustainable travel is traveling in a way that doesn’t come at the expense to the environment, local culture, or people of a country or destination. It’s quite literally what the word ‘sustainable’ means, “of, relating to, or a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged”.

It embodies all aspects of traveling, as it should, and that is why I choose sustainability over eco, green, and eco-friendly.



How Tourism Changes Locations


Whether we like it or not, tourism changes a place. Those changes can be hope for developing countries or devastation to the natural environment, but undoubtedly, change is inevitable. Chances are if you have traveled to a place and thought to yourself, ‘why are there so many people here?” or “it would have been better if they left this place alone and didn’t add a parking lot, concrete stairway, and new regulations’ then you’ve experienced changes from tourism, and these changes are still being made to previously secret locations.

Negative Change

  • Souvenir shops with mass-produced items drown out local artisans and create huge amounts of environmental waste.

  • Western eateries like Starbucks and McDonald’s are implemented and local mom and pop shops are put in the shadows.

  • A massive influx of people in a small destination can bring pollution and destruction to the natural environment.

  • Tourism booms can cause a dependency where the locals rely solely on tourism for wealth.

Positive Change

  • It creates jobs in both developed and underdeveloped areas.

  • The income from tourism can be used to improve infrastructure and breath life back into a once struggling economy.

  • It can raise awareness for environmental issues like rainforest deforestation, coral bleaching, and our plastic pollution issue.

  • Culture can be preserved rather than drown out through supporting local business, artisans, and sustainable tour companies.



what is sustainable tourism - greenery stock image


What We Can Do To Make Positive Change


Do Our Research

We can do a whole lotta’ good simply by doing our research. Yes, it will add some time to the planning of your trip, and it may even cost a little bit more, but the payout is worth its value ten-fold. It’s important that we stand behind our values and support the companies that we believe in and the companies that believe in the future of our planet. It’s easy to be complacent, give them the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes things are not what they seem. Some of my personal favorite responsible and ethical travel blogs are Every Steph, Soul Travel Blog, and Two Wandering Soles. You can also find a ton of inspiration for destinations on Pinterest and other sustainable travel tips on one of my favorite boards!



Pack Eco-Friendly / Zero Waste Travel Items

This is more centered around being prepared while traveling: bringing your own straw, utensils, takeaway containers, and more. It is so much easier to avoid creating waste when you have the best items on-hand right in your pack. I have a whole blog post for my zero waste travel essentials that will change the way you travel, help you kickstart your journey to creating less waste, and save you a ton of money in the long run!




Support Sustainable + Ethical Companies / Tours

This goes hand in hand with doing research, but most of the time an ethical and/or sustainable company is going to have their values plastered all over their website and social media pages. I have found that to be a consistent trend in most, if not all, of the brands and companies that I have supported over the years. Seeking out sustainable practices is another great way to support growing businesses and the planet, so make sure to do your research and make sure the company you choose to support aligns with your personal values and the values that you want your world to reflect.



Reduce Our Single-Use Plastic Consumption / Waste

This is singlehandedly one of the largest things that we can do to make a huge change in the world. I don’t think anyone is perfect in regards to making little to no waste, but I think if we all collectively made an effort to make small changes, we could be living in a lot more cleaner earth. In living in America, I feel that a lot of the issues with plastic pollution are masked since we can just throw away our trash and never see it again – it becomes out of sight out of mind, but after traveling around Asia, I discovered that we are simply passing off our waste elsewhere. One of my biggest goals for 2019 was to go zero waste, something I am still working on, but I truly want to start upholding that message more and being better about being complacent; because I can be. We all can be.



Offset Our Carbon Emissions

What does it mean to offset our carbon emissions? In a nutshell, it means compensating for your emissions made while traveling by supporting/funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving company, group, or activity. I love how you’re able to select different projects to support different regions around the world whether it be reforestation in Kenya or contributing to climate protection projects in the Swiss Alps. If you’re unsure of how many emissions you are contributing by traveling, Carbon Fund, My Climate, and The Gold Standard are three websites that allow you to calculate your emissions and then offset it through a project all in one place! Offsetting my carbon emissions is now going to be implemented into all of my travel budgets so that I can help support developing communities and projects.



Support Local Restaurants, Stores, and Products

I am a huge advocate for supporting local even off the road, and this is one of my biggest priorities while traveling. I love stumbling into old bookstores, mom and pop shops, and purchasing products that are giving back to the people rather than ‘the man’. In doing these things, it helps me indulge in the culture a bit more and often times try new things that I hadn’t heard of prior to my trip. You can find some of the coolest souvenirs solely by avoiding the retail stores in major cities and choosing to support local artisans; often times it’ll truly be one of a kind. Oh, and the food? You will have an explosion of local spices and flavors that will blow your mind!




Spread Awareness

Spread awareness. Spread love. Spread the movement.

One of the many tiers of What Do You Sea stems into sustainability because I knew that I wanted a platform to spread awareness to as many people as I possibly could to evoke action. This post, in a way, is going to be the tree trunk of sustainable travel and lifestyle practices, and all the branches and leaves are going to be future posts for planning and being a responsible traveler. There was a time in my life where I never knew what went down behind closed doors, and now that I know, it’s important for myself to spread the message to others. Even if you share this one post with a friend, it’s going to start a conversation and hopefully a change that will start a conversation time and time again until it reaches hundreds, possibly thousands of people. We all have to start somewhere. Let’s start now.

“It’s just one straw.” – Seven Billion People



+ More


Informative Guides + Resources

what is sustainable tourism?

Useful Guides

Documentaries I Recommend + Love

  • Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things / (Netflix)

  • Plastic Paradise / (Google Play, Amazon, Itunes)

  • The True Cost / (Netflix)

  • Before The Flood / (Itunes, Amazon, Google Play)

  • Blackfish / (Netflix)

My Favorite Online Zero/Little Waste Shops

Other Resources On What Do You Sea


What are some ways you’ve created a positive change? Share your experience with me in the comments below!

This post does contain affiliate links for the products I mentioned, but as always, all opinions are my own. I make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, when you make a purchase or booking through these links. This helps to support this space and keep me blogging, which I am so extremely thankful for.



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What is sustainable travel? Does it even matter? Actually, yes! Your dream trip to Bali has more impact than you know! In this blog post, I dive into what sustainable tourism and travel is and why it is so important that we start evoking good change. | Sustainability | Tips For Traveling Sustainably | Sustainable Travel | #sustainabletravel #howtotravelsustainably

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