Laurel in Guatemala

What is Sustainable Tourism?

Phrases like responsible, ethical, and sustainable tourism are becoming more and more a part of our vocabulary. As we become increasingly aware of the impact of travel on our planet, companies, tour operators, and individuals alike are looking to take action to have less of an impact on the world.

With emissions from airplanes playing a big part in global warming and careless practices destroying coral reefs, the face of travel needs to change. We know we should all strive towards sustainable tourism, but what exactly does it mean? Here is everything you need to know.

Is Sustainable Tourism Different From

Responsible or Ethical Tourism?

In a nutshell, yes. While all three share similar goals (and there is crossover in their definitions), there are a few key differences between responsible, ethical, and sustainable tourism.

Responsible and ethical tourism are essentially one and the same and also aim for tourists to have a positive impact on travel destinations. However, they focus more on actions that produce short-term results. They look at a destination through the eyes of a local rather than a tourist. As a result, it is based more on individual actions and specific destinations. Choosing a sustainable travel destination is the first step towards becoming a sustainable traveler.

Sustainable tourism, on the other hand, is a way of traveling that minimizes its negative impacts on a larger scale. It promotes the longevity of a destination’s natural and cultural environments. Basically, it’s aiming to change the travel industry as a whole so that tourism can continue for years to come.

The Three Pillars of Sustainable Tourism

The concepts of sustainable tourism can be split into three different pillars: ecological, economic, and social (these are sometimes called planet, profits, and people). Here are descriptions of all three, and tips on how you can make a difference through each.

The Ecological Pillar

This is all about the effects of tourism on nature, the environment, and wildlife. This is probably the most widely recognized aspect of sustainable tourism, thanks to its enormous repercussions and a growing movement to protect the planet. The ecological pillar includes things like:

●      Cutting down your CO2 emissions

This could be by choosing another form of transport like trains or boats, or by extending our time in long-haul destinations. If you absolutely must fly, choose an airline that’s making efforts to become more sustainable, get a direct flight if you can, and fly economy (there’s less room per passenger, meaning a lower carbon footprint).

●      Using eco-friendly transport when you’re at your destination

Traveling by foot or bike is a great way to experience more of a country, and it’s much better for the environment too. At times where walking or cycling isn’t possible, try to use public transport, mini busses or car shares.

●      Reducing your waste

Waste is slowly destroying some of the world’s most revered natural wonders, from the three tonnes of climber’s rubbish on Mount Everest to the mounds of trash collecting on Machu Picchu. Even if you aren’t scaling a mountain, you can help reduce your waste by avoiding single-use plastics and instead taking your own reusable water bottle, shampoo, and conditioner bars or reusable shopping bags.

●      Avoiding wildlife encounters or purchasing animal products

Generally speaking, anywhere you get the opportunity to touch or take pictures with animals is probably unethical. There are several types of animal activities that should be avoided when traveling, but for the animal lovers out there, you do have options. You can support conservation projects, see animals in the wild, or visit an animal sanctuary (just be sure to do your research on its sustainable credentials).

●      Taking extra care when snorkeling or scuba diving

Treading on coral can cause considerable damage to the ecosystem, and many coral reefs are now damaged beyond repair. Go diving in small groups and do not touch or feed any of the creatures you see. Another thing to consider is using reef-friendly sunscreen, free of harmful chemicals that are toxic to marine life.

The Economic Pillar

This pillar concerns tourists using their money to make a positive contribution to the local economy and to create economic opportunities. Essentially, it’s all about supporting small, local businesses and artisan products over big chains and cheap, imported goods. You could also:

●      Give generous tips to local guides and recommend them to other travelers.

 Word-of-mouth plays a vital part in attracting more business, while extra tips will help ensure guides are getting paid fairly for their work.

●      Book your locally-run accommodation directly instead of through a third-party site

Booking websites will usually take a good chunk of the rate while booking over the phone or via a company’s own website will ensure your money goes directly to them.

●      Ask the staff at your accommodation for their recommendations for local restaurants, tour operators and shops.

You’ll probably find companies and places that you might not have discovered otherwise, and you’ll feel more confident that you’re getting quality in return.

●      When you’re not eating out, buy your produce from local farmer’s markets

This not only helps to support the local economy but also has significant environmental benefits as food won’t have traveled far to reach you. That’s a win-win in our books.

The Social Pillar

Tourism can have a significant effect on people, offering not only chances for employment but huge potential for human connection. However, there are many negative effects too. Overtourism in certain parts of the world has driven their people away. Indigenous cultures have been commercialized or, in some cases, completely disappeared.

The social pillar of sustainable tourism is all about our impact on local people and communities. Here are a few things that you can do:

●      Educate yourself about the culture and traditions of where you’re going

 A bit of preparation will help you to avoid any misunderstandings or unintentionally causing offense (this is particularly important if you are planning on visiting any sacred sites or places of religious significance). There can sometimes be significant differences in customs between regions, so be sure to keep checking the rules if you are traveling through a country.

●      Support social projects that benefit the area

This could be through volunteering or by asking local aid organizations if there are any supplies that you can bring with you to help. As with things like visiting animal sanctuaries, it’s important to do your research before you volunteer to make sure you won’t be doing more harm than good.

●      Be open to meeting others

Travel offers an incredible chance to get to know people from cultures vastly different than our own. It might not be something that comes naturally, but try to make an effort to talk to people on your travels. Learning more about their way of life could give you meaningful insight, helping to broaden your view of the world.

Watch Out For Greenwashing

While it’s fantastic that the world is catching on to sustainable tourism, some companies use marketing language and imagery to appear more green than they really are, in order to persuade well-meaning people to use their services. This is known as ‘greenwashing’. For example, a tour operator might claim to be more environmentally friendly than it really is, or a hotel might call itself an ‘eco-lodge’ without taking action to increase its sustainability. Unfortunately, their ultimate goal is usually profit over change.

Here is how you can figure out if a company is as ‘green’ as it seems:

  • Use external resources to check its accreditations. Several regulatory bodies look for evidence of sustainable practices, such as  GSTC, Green Globe, or the Rainforest Alliance.
  • Similarly, some countries have certification systems that rank companies on their sustainability. See if the country you’re visiting has one and take a look at the ratings online.
  • Check reviews from travel bloggers and on third-party websites like TripAdvisor, Google, or TrustPilot. Negative reviews may well reveal if a company has been less than truthful with their claims.
  • Ask the company directly. If they are as dedicated to sustainable tourism as they say, they should be able to easily provide you with their policies and answer any questions you may have. If you feel that something isn’t quite right, you should always trust your gut.


Sustainable tourism benefits everyone involved. It skews the balance from traditional travel where tourists’ wants and needs come first, often to the detriment of local people and places. It looks beyond our own short-term desires and instead looks to a future where tourism can be maintained on a long-term basis.

There’s no magic solution that will make travel sustainable overnight. The responsibility lies with each and every one of us to make sure that we are traveling in the most sustainable way possible. As you’ve seen from the points in this post, it’s not too difficult to make the changes that can make a significant difference in the effect of tourism on the environment, local cultures and communities.

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