You want to be a sustainable traveler but don’t know from where to start? There is a daunting amount of information on multiple issues related to sustainable travel.  We’ve laid out steps and practical tips to guide you in your quest

1) Can you go local?

While travel around the globe can sound fascinating, it rarely is sustainable – and if done by plane, definitely not very climate-friendly. So think twice. What are you really looking for on your next travel? Is it a change in landscape? New business contacts? Some special time with family and friends? Hammock and a book? Outdoors and extreme sports? History and sights? Art museums and music festivals? Are you sure you cannot find these closer to home? From a sustainability point of view, a #staycation can be a good choice and free you from a lot of hassle – and a big footprint.

2) Prioritize

While it’s good to have a holistic approach, it helps to prioritize. The first step is to determine which issues matter the most to you – or which are the most urgent in the location you are visiting. Are we talking about climate change, the impact of on locals, human rights issues, food security, protecting the environment or something else? Based on this, narrow your focus and come up with a set of questions and checklists that will enable you to make informed decisions.

3) Research

Research your destination before you get there. Better still, select a sustainable destination. This means the destination should: Have a sustainable management strategy that not only includes environmental aspects but also measures to enhance positive social impact, including sustainable management of human resources; Maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impact to the communities by e.g. local and fair trade and protecting cultural heritage; Protect the environment e.g. through circular water and energy cycles. These are the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) criteria. For example, during our trip to Colombia, an indigenous group from the Tayrona National park asked for the park to be closed to the public for a month for spiritual and biodiversity rehabilitation. The Government accepted. Try to ensure your destination cares about sustainability, even if it means you might miss your entry to the part. The good news is the flora and fauna will more likely be there in future.

4) Take the train, not the plane

We all know it’s best to travel light, but that can be challenging! What we can do is ensure we travel with the lightest footprint possible. If you cannot walk or bike to the destination, take a train. This is a far better option than to take an airplane that produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide, toxic sulfurs and gases that accelerate climate change. If there is no train available, investigate if you can take a ship or bus powered by renewable energy, or car-pool with a bunch of like-minders. If there is no way to avoid a plane book non-stop flights whenever possible, as take-offs and landings create most of an airplane’s carbon emissions. Try to use one of the airlines that offer carbon offset programs investing in carbon reduction projects. Many of them allow you to offset carbon emissions when purchasing the ticket. There are also dozens of sites that offer carbon offsetting e.g. by investing in reforestation programs and other environmental initiatives. But bear in mind this is only a stopgap measure.

5) Be mindful

Find out if there are issues to be mindful of, and which areas, industries, hotel, organizations and companies have sustainable practices. Secondly, find out if so-called ‘eco-tours’ or “green tourism” operators really are what they say they are. What is the “eco-friendly” hotel’s energy consumption like? Where is the locally-sourced produce grown? Ask your guide if s/he is happy working for a tour company claiming to pay staff fair wages.

You can also check international sustainability certification schemes that rate and help hotel members and tour operators around the world to improve environmental, social and economic impacts cost-effectively. You can search per country and location for sustainable hotels and operators. See e.g. Travel Life and Book Different that measures carbon footprints and looks for accommodation that is fair and social, culture-friendly, considers the environment, and the local economy.

6) Demand and create the supply

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask hotels, operators, locations what their policy is on protecting the environment, on preserving heritage, if they buy and use local products and so on. Observe what they say and what they actually do, and what the overall environment feels like. A company that takes care of their employees and cares about the environment will be open and happy to answer your questions. Apply sustainability to any kind of travel, whether nearby or far.

7) Avoid what you get at home

It can be shocking how little money actually ends up in the local market, as profits often go to international hotel chains or companies. Go local: Choose local your accommodation, food, trips, tour guides, and shopping places.

Enjoy the local specialties and discover your destination in an authentic manner: the local restaurants, cafes, shops, stores or stalls, and markets. Buy and experience locally made and handmade products and food. Of course, don’t buy anything made from endangered animals, ancient artifacts and so on. Support local artists and artisans when you buy directly from them, helping also to preserve their culture. This means avoiding international, major hotel, store, restaurant chains and “Westernized” areas. You can always go to that Roadster, McDonalds, Starbucks, Hard Rock Café or Ben & Jerry’s back home. Can you have a Vietnamese coffee, a shawarma, an empanada, or a batido in your home area? Why travel all this way to go somewhere you could go at your homeplace? Traveling is about experiencing new cultures and places, not visiting what we already know and have.

8) Give back

Even during short trips, you can make a difference. Initiatives like Kind Traveler facilitate this. The mentioned hotel booking website offers discounted rooms to users who make a $10 donation to a charity affiliated with the hotel in some 30 destinations. Hotels are vetted for their sustainable practices, including environmental and community impacts. If you want to get more hands-on, there are sites which can help you find social impact projects. See the tour booking site to search for causes such as women’s empowerment, cultural preservation and others. Whether you sign up for a full-on voluntourism vacation or work with a non-profit like Pack For A Purpose, it doesn’t need to take a lot of extra effort to make a noticeable difference in the local community when you travel. Remember that supporting through a transparent and trustworthy organization is always a more responsible way to give back and to avoid enhancing conflicts and inequality gaps.


Camaleonte Oy/ Miriam Azar & Maija Peltola