As someone who has been traveling around the globe solo for over a decade, I have made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to responsible travel. In my humble opinion though, focusing on perfection is not sustainable. The key is to continue making progress in the right direction. This post is really just a summation of the lessons I have learned from getting degrees in (and working in the following sectors) Sustainability, Global Health, and International Development. In addition to my professional experience, my perspective is now formed from visiting 52 countries, all 50 U.S. states, and living as an expat on 4 continents. If your goal is to be a more ethical citizen of the world, then these tips on how to travel more sustainably will help you become a more responsible traveler.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as: “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”.
The important thing to remember is that society, the economy, and the environment are all connected. How we travel directly impacts the communities we visit in multiple ways, so it’s not just about the environment and “ecotourism” is only a small part of the solution. Unfortunately, the mere nature of air travel contributes dramatically to climate change, which in turn, further causes harm to the people, plants and animals in the communities we visit. So anything we can do to reduce the negative impacts of travel and increase the positive, is progress (and very worthwhile).
Again, I’m just a human, constantly learning how to do better, and sharing what I’ve learned along the way to hopefully save you some time and heartache. That’s why I put together this list of ways you (and I) can travel more sustainably.
1. Reconsider visiting places that are already suffering because of tourism
There are many dreamy destinations around the world, where tourism is actively depleting resources and negatively impacting the local populations. Some great examples of this are Hawaii and Bali.
Bali, an Indonesian island that receives around 16 million tourists a year, and only has a population of 4.36 million, has been suffering from a devastating water crisis due to tourism. Since 65% of their water is being diverted from rural to urban areas (mostly to large resorts, pools, villas, and golf courses to accommodate tourists), locals are increasingly experiencing water shortages making it difficult to irrigate their agricultural fields and forcing farmers to find new livelihoods. It’s also causing devastating environmental damage, with a shocking 260 of Bali’s 400 rivers already drying up (according to a 2015 report).
Hawaii also has a long history of natives being opposed to tourism, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Locals said their communities rarely benefit from the tourism sector. Native Hawaiians often fill lower-paying service jobs, and many Hawaiians have one or more jobs to survive the state’s high cost of living. Meanwhile, overcrowding has harmed their historical landmarks and disrupted fragile ecosystems” (according to an Insider article published in 2021). So before you visit a country or a region, please do some research to make sure you aren’t adding to the problem there.
2. Research and respect local customs, norms, and laws
Most places have different customs and laws than wherever you call home, and it’s good practice to learn about a culture before immersing yourself into it. I have made some big mistakes in this department, thinking I could just “wing it” and learn about the culture once I arrived in a foreign place. Once I planned a vacation in Zanzibar during Ramadan, not knowing that 98% of the population there was Muslim, or with any knowledge about what this Muslim custom entailed. I was in for a rude awakening when I realized this month requires fasting from sunrise to sunset (including water).
Then on another occasion I traveled to China and didn’t realize that I couldn’t access any Google products there (until after I arrived). That meant, no access to my Gmail account, Google Maps, Google Translate, or even simple Google searches (all of which I am dependent on while traveling).
So as a precaution, it’s just better to know about a culture (including: currency and exchange rates, appropriate clothing, diet, predominant religion, colonial history) before arriving, both as a matter of respect to the locals, and to help make your experience smoother. Some quick googling can help, reading books written by locals, and purchasing a local guide book can all be great ways to learn more about what to expect before you arrive.
3. Learn the local language
A language is a piece of culture, so learning some basic phrases in the local language of the place you intend to visit is another way to show respect and have a more profound cultural exchange. This doesn’t mean you need to become fluent, but at the bare minimum, learn some local phrases and key vocabulary before your trip. English is a relatively common language used in tourism around the world, but if you are going anywhere off the beaten path, or traveling to certain regions (e.g. China, Russia), then don’t expect to be able to get by on English. Being able to speak some common phrases will help you get around more easily, and it will earn you some brownie points with the locals, which can go a long way.
I highly recommend the Duolingo App to start familiarizing yourself with a language beforehand, packing Lonely Planet’s language and guide books, and Google Translate as an on the spot resource for translations.
4. Eliminate single use plastic
Eliminating single use plastics on your travels (and in your day-to-day life) is a great way to reduce your footprint and help support vulnerable and marginalized communities that are being impacted by air pollution from plastic manufacturing. You can easily do this by packing a reusable water bottle, straw, cutlery, napkin, and cloth bags for shopping.
And to go a step further, you can travel with bar shampoo/soap, toothpaste tablets, and for women, travel with a menstrual cup for your period.
5. Hire native/local guides for hiking, kayaking, or other excursions
While it may be tempting to save money and skip the guide for a hike, please consider that local guides depend on your business for their livelihood and they have a lot to teach you. I have done locally guided overnight treks in Thailand, Tanzania, Peru, and Guatemala, and each one was so rewarding, and allowed me to support the local economy while learning more about the culture and local flora and fauna in each region.
Additionally, I know sometimes it’s tempting to book a guided tour online through a big international adventure company, but please research who runs the company and where the profits are going first. It’s much better to book with a local company or non profit, which often means they won’t have a fancy website (or sometimes that you have to pay via bank transfer, or cash, which seems sketchy but is a common practice in other countries). By booking locally run and operated guides, your money will truly be supporting the local community. Just make sure to check reviews on places like Tripadvisor or social media first to ensure the company is legit if you are booking online.
This tip also extends to guides for city tours. Most cities offer free walking tours, which I have found to be super helpful! But please be sure to tip your guide well!
6. Be VERY cautious of animal tourism
I know riding an elephant or swimming with dolphins can be tempting, but please consider what you are supporting before taking part in these activities with captive animals. And in general you should avoid exotic animal encounters like taking pictures with captive tigers and walking with lions.
I will be the first to admit, I am guilty of animal tourism activities that I now regret and know more about how these impact the animals. When I was 18, I swam with captive dolphins in Mexico, when I was 24, I rode an elephant in Tanzania and a camel at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and I’ve even swam with whale sharks in Mexico (check out my post about How to Ethically Swim with Whale Sharks). But now I know what to look for, and I approach animal tourism much differently.
We now know with 100% certainty that riding elephants is harmful for their backs and that it supports the abuse required to train these tourist performing elephants. Same goes for swimming with captive dolphins.
Additionally, there is a sufficient amount of information (and mixed messaging) around the ethics of riding camels for tourism. The bottomline is PETA says it is abuse, Born Free (another animal welfare organization) says it depends on the individual operator and their practices surrounding animal welfare. There is evidence that short camel rides in touristy areas are bad for the camels, because there is no regulation on how many “short trips” that camel will have to endure in a day or what their conditions are before or after. There is also footage of camels being beaten in Egypt, and I personally would not ride them again for a short trip like I did around the pyramids.
Photograph safaris while viewing wild animals from a safe distance, and visiting true animal sanctuaries (that rescue injured or abandoned animals and try to raise them and nurse them to health and rerelease them or give them a safe home for their retirement), are a great alternative to riding or taking photos with captive animals. So do your own research before hopping on an animal tour, read reviews, talk to the animal operators and ask questions.
7. Wear reef safe sunscreen
Chemicals in traditional sunscreen threaten coral reefs and other marine life, so you should switch to natural mineral based sunscreens for any ocean activity (or when entering any natural water source for that matter). I personally love Manda’s Organic Reef Safe Sun Creme, because in addition to being made from completely natural mineral based ingredients that are safe for marine life, the company powers their facilities and makes their bottles out of bio plastics derived from sugarcane and the packaging is 100% recyclable!
8. Support local businesses
Instead of spending money on huge hotel and international food chains or stores, you can choose to use your money to support local businesses.
Shockingly, “Travel is the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the 48 least developed countries… yet a 2013 report noted that just $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country stayed in that destination” (source: New York Times Article published in 2018). This means that if you are flying in and taking a private shuttle to an all inclusive resort and booking excursions through that same resort or a large international travel agency, and then buying souvenirs from a giant store, only a small portion of your tourism dollars are actually going to the local community.
It is much better for the community and the environment if you stay at a small locally run lodge, boutique hotel, or homestay, shop in the local markets, eat at local restaurants, and buy crafts directly from local artisans. Plus, you’ll learn a lot more about the culture and get a more authentic experience by truly supporting locals.
9. Lower your carbon emissions
Lowering your carbon emissions can come in many forms: it can mean taking public transportation, renting a bike, or trying a walking tour while visiting a city (many cities offer free guided walking tours). For long distances, it can mean opting to travel by bus or train instead of flying when possible. In my experience, taking a train or a bus can also save you a lot of money when traveling long distances around Europe, South America, Oceania, Asia and Africa.
You can also try to offset your carbon emissions that you’ll inevitably contribute to while flying, by donating to or volunteering with carbon-mitigation projects and organizations working to support the communities most impacted by climate change.
If you are taking a beach or lake vacation, try kayaking, surfing, sailing, or paddle boarding, rather than renting a jet ski or doing activities on a motorized boat that emits pollution.
You can also consider getting an eco friendly bank account that offsets your carbon emissions for you or a credit card that contributes to sustainable causes. Check out my post about Ethical Banks & Credit Cards for some ideas.
Finally, sometimes traveling more sustainably (and lowering your carbon footprint) means traveling domestically. You can do a road trip, go camping, rent a camper van, or try WWOOFing (a work exchange on an organic farm)–just to name a few ideas.
10. Stay in an ecolodge
If you can afford to stay in an ecolodge (they can be pricey), this is a very fun way to support local sustainable initiatives and lower your overall footprint. Just do some research beforehand and make sure the lodge is truly sustainable, and not just greenwashing by using words like “eco-friendly” as a marketing tactic. It also doesn’t need to be an “eco-resort”, but many small lodges will take pride in their environmental and social consciousness, and supporting them rather than large hotel chains, is better for the community.
Some quick things to look for in eco-lodges:
- run on renewable energy
- water catchment and grey water systems & water waste is minimal (they don’t wash sheets or towels everyday, compost or low flow toilets, etc.)
- gardens on site, farm-to-table restaurant or locally sourced food
- the structures themselves were built sustainably with local and reclaimed materials
- the excursions offered are sustainable (don’t harm the environment or community and they’re run by local guides)
- the workers are paid fair wages
- profits go back to the community
11. Don’t be cheap in taxis and markets
It can be so tempting to negotiate to the lowest price possible while at a market, or getting in a “taxi” in a developing country (especially when you’re a budget traveler), but please keep in mind that the $1 you manage to save while bargaining, means a lot more to the person you are bargaining with. I am very guilty of this on my travels, but have changed my perspective and now do my best to resist the urge to be cheap in these particular scenarios.
12. Avoid poverty porn
Poverty porn can come in the form of slum tours, or visiting remote villages to take pictures with the locals, or simply just taking pictures of little kids or adults in public without their explicit informed consent and posting them on your social media accounts.
Again, I’m guilty of all of the above, and now I know better. A good litmus test is to ask yourself, would I do this in my own country, or home state/community? Would I walk through a low-income neighborhood near my house to look at poverty up close and/or take pictures of little kids and post them on Instagram? I hope the answer is no, and therefore, the same should apply in a foreign place.
If you really want to take and post photographs that capture different cultures, blur out faces, take pictures from behind people, and omit specific details to protect the people in your photos. You can also ask a person for permission to take their photograph and explain where you want to publish it and how big your following is (so they fully understand how many people will see it) and then get their informed consent.
13. Contribute sustainably to the community
I know it can be tough to see a kid (or anyone for that matter) begging for money, but it is very important to look at the big picture and long term community development goals before giving in to the temptation to “help.” This can mean not giving money to or buying a knick knack from a kid on the street, and instead, donating that money to a community development project that is focused on sustainable locally led education, healthcare, or economic initiatives. Giving money to a kid who is missing school to bring income to their family, is only further encouraging this pattern. Whereas contributing that money to a more sustainable local cause, will do much more to empower the people in the community.
14. Volunteer responsibly
Volunteering abroad can be a great may to make a deeper connection with a place and the local people, but there are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to volunteer tourism. As someone who has both volunteered abroad and worked for international organizations who hosted volunteers, I have learned a lot first hand on this topic.
In general, you should try to avoid volunteering at an organization unless you have a tangible skillset that you can teach locals and/or that will provide a sustainable impact on the community when you leave. As a former international AID worker, I watched organizations literally invent jobs/tasks for volunteers to do, just to get their money for participating in volunteer programs. I’ve also watched well intentioned volunteer projects/programs disappear when the volunteers did.
Two Dusty Travelers are a husband and wife, teacher and nurse duo with a lot of international volunteer experience who wrote a great article called: SHOULD I VOLUNTEER ABROAD? FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF FIRST that I highly recommend reading before deciding to volunteer abroad.
|Logistical Tips for Booking Your Trip|
I typically use Skyscanner to book my flights because it allows you to search through websites and airlines worldwide all in one convenient search engine. You can also get price alerts for flights you’re interested in.
I always book my hostels through Hostelworld. If I’m not staying in a hostel, then I often book an
|Using a VPN for Online Bookings|
I also use a VPN (a powerful virtual tool that provides you with a private, anonymous, and secure internet connection) when searching for flights, accommodation, and rental cars. Since websites track your online activity and location, then use these factors to make the rates you are given dramatically higher than their true value, a VPN ensures that you get the best rates, by eliminating artificially high prices based on your country and internet search history. I recommend an affordable VPN like Surfshark to make sure you are getting the best travel deals online!
I always travel with insurance, because I know all too well how many things can go wrong while traveling (and sometimes even beforehand). Travel insurance can protect you against certain cancellations, theft, lost luggage, trip interruptions, medical emergencies, and more. I use and highly recommend InsureMyTrip to find, compare and buy the plan that makes the most sense for each trip.
|Other Travel Resources|
Check out my Travel Resources Page to see the best companies, apps, jobs and other resources I use when traveling on a tight budget.