How to Practice Sustainable Tourism

I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of girl and try to view problems as opportunities. That’s why I decided to make use of my reduced hours at work and lockdown during the corona crisis to learn more about sustainable travel and tourism.

I enrolled in two MOOCs offered by the University of Wageningen on sustainability and travel. It’s a subject I became increasingly interested in during the last few years. Traveling full time around the world as a digital nomad showed me different ways in which our wanderlust is harming the planet and local communities. In our attempt to see the world, we are slowly destroying it.

Even with travel restrictions slowly being lifted, the ways in which we can still travel are ironically the most sustainable: slow, local, and with intent. And it is not just the pandemic that has inspired me to take sustainable travel more seriously, it is also the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movement. The travel industry has a long-standing problem with white privilege and exploitation of POC. As a white traveler, I have to do my part to change that.

Sustainable travel is about more than eco-friendly travel, it is also about responsible tourism and ethical travel. Traveling in ways that benefit local communities and support equality. And sustainable tourism isn’t hard! All it takes is a bit of education, mindfulness, and making better choices. So, here are a few ways you can practice sustainable tourism:

Support the local economy

protest sign Venice Italy Guidecca sustainable tourism

The number one way you can support local communities as a traveler is with your money. More and more people are financially dependent on tourism, so spend your money wisely and make sure the right people benefit from your wanderlust.

Avoid the big chains

Big corporations, chains, and tour companies have the lowest money flow to local communities. They often hire foreigners for the highest paying jobs and use foreign suppliers, with very little money trickling down to the locals. Instead, opt for locally owned businesses and guides. That money goes directly to the people who should benefit from your presence rather than a huge multinational.

Buy local goes for everything you spend money on during your trip: transport, food, accommodation, clothes, souvenirs, and activities. Pick small local restaurants (they serve the best food anyway), don’t buy the “made in China” souvenirs (unless you’re in China), stay at a locally owned hotel or, even better, a homestay. Kind traveler is a platform for booking responsible and sustainable accommodation.

Here’s why Airbnb does more harm than good

Morocco local tour Sahara desert

Book local tours and guides

I highly recommend booking tours with local guides. Not only to spend your money locally, but they know their home better than anyone. I’ve gotten amazing deals (it pays to haggle!) with tuk-tuk drivers in Southeast Asia, small tour companies in Morocco, and local walking tours in Europe. Those tours were more customized and memorable than a cookie-cutter group tour from an American company. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path, your local guide knows the way.

It is a bit less convenient than booking everything online, but it’s usually a lot cheaper! Not sure where to find those tours? Ask at your accommodation, they always have recommendations, especially hostel staff. Or walk around town and ask at different tourism offices.

Respect local culture and customs

Morocco Atlas mountains

This seems obvious, yet I’ve seen so many ignorant tourists commit a huge cultural faux pas. The number one thing to keep in mind while traveling is that you are a guest. Whatever cultural norms and customs you grew up with become pretty irrelevant as soon as you go somewhere else. I’m not saying you need to abandon your own morals, but keep an open mind and adapt.

Be flexible and openminded

For me, it’s the cultural exchange that makes travel so interesting and rewarding. Experiencing other cultures gives you a whole new perspective of your own. You suddenly realize that all the things you thought were normal, may not be so conventional at all.

So do your research before you go and open yourself up during your trip. Travel can be such an enriching experience if you let it be. And the more open-minded and flexible you are, the less of a culture shock you’ll experience. Everyone and every place is different, and that diversity makes life interesting. Remember that they’re not weird, you are the anomaly.

You can find a list of things to know before visiting certain destinations here

welcome sign diversity

Respect the rules

Follow both the written and unwritten rules. I hate when tourists go on vacation and act like the rules don’t apply to them. I’m looking at you white backpacker buying drugs or riding a motorbike without a license in Southeast Asia! Tourists (especially white tourists) have a lot of privilege and can often get away with things forbidden for locals. Which doesn’t mean you should do it.

Be especially mindful of local customs so you don’t accidentally offend anyone. Wear clothing that is appropriate to the local culture and/or religion. Gestures, clothing, or something as small as which hand you use to eat, are all culturally coded. Learn about these things and keep them in mind. Meeting with locals is the best and most fun way to learn about the funny little ways in which we are different.

Learn the local language

German grammar street art language cases Berlin

Of course, no one is expecting you to be fluent in the language of every country you visit. That would be impossible. But in some cases, it can be necessary to learn at least a bit.

English is not the only language

Don’t be that tourist who assumes everyone in the world speaks English. It’s not a good look and you’ll be in for a rude awakening when you’re stuck somewhere with no means of communication. Although English will serve you fine at most major tourist destinations, do your research to find out if you’ll be able to get by with just that. In some parts of the world or more remote areas, you might have a hard time as a monolingual traveler.

Even if you can get by with English, I recommend you make the effort to learn a few basic words and phrases before you go. Things like “hello” and “thank you” are easy to learn and always appreciated by the locals. It shows that you care enough to try.

Get clever about communication

I’ve rarely gotten into situations where I couldn’t communicate at all. Even if you don’t speak the same language, it’s amazing how far you can get with nonverbal communication. Pointing, signing, and gesturing can be pretty effective ways to get your point across. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself!

The wonders of modern technology also offer some assistance. I always download the language of whatever place I visit in the Google Translate App on my phone. That way I can translate even when I don’t have an internet connection and it can even translate written text through your camera!

Respect the environment

Lifestraw bottle travel gadgets filter water bottle

Being a sustainable tourist has two sides: socially responsible travel and eco-friendly travel. But the two aren’t separate. To be truly sustainable and have a positive impact, you have to be both.

Respect the environment

After all, part of being a good guest is respecting your host’s living environment. That means not exhausting their resources (like freshwater), not polluting their forests and oceans, and not littering in their streets. You wouldn’t throw trash on the floor in your friend’s house, so why would you do it in a foreign country?

Want to be a more eco-friendly traveler? I have a whole blog post dedicated to green travel

So when traveling, respect local wildlife and nature and only book tours with reputable sustainable travel companies. Support local wildlife preservation efforts and learn about the local environmental challenges. And never, ever go wandering into the wilderness alone without proper training, knowledge, equipment, or guide. You could cause serious harm to yourself and nature.

Check your privilege

We all share this planet, but it’s wealth and resources are not equally divided. And developing countries largely carry the burden of climate change and pollution. As rich western tourists, we have to be mindful of our privilege when it comes to the environment and adjust our behavior accordingly. We have the money and power, so we should be working the hardest to reverse our negative environmental impact. Be part of the solution, not the problem!

Getaway Girl has a great list with ideas for sustainable travel gifts or gadgets for your next trip

Don’t support unethical tourist practices

Elephant sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand

Like I mentioned before, spend your money wisely. This not only pertains to the goods and services you buy but also the tours and activities you go on.

Tourism has a lot of potential for positive economic impact, but it also has a dark side. The promise of money from tourism has led to an increase in unethical practices. Some rip off tourists themselves, like pick-pocketing and tourist scams. Others exploit animals, the environment, and local communities for financial gain.

It seems like an obvious statement, but don’t support these unethical practices. Always do your research to make sure that the tour you’re being offered is as good as it sounds. Lots of activities that are presented as fun outings are actually anything but.

Leave animals alone

By now, you all know not to take pictures with drugged-up tigers or ride elephants in Thailand. But did you know about the issues around fake wildlife sanctuaries or swimming with sharks? It can be hard to know the difference between a harmless attraction and unethical tourism. And we all love cute animals and mean them no harm. That is why I avoid animal tourism altogether. Pretty much any activity where animals are used to entertain tourists is a no for me. Better to draw a hard line than to accidentally support animal abuse.

Not to say that I am a perfect person and have never paid for shady things in the past. I, too, have ridden elephants and camels. I didn’t know better then, but I do now. Learn and grow.

camel ride Morocco Sahara desert

Racism and cultural exploitation

Another issue that I struggle with is cultural appropriation and exploitation. Basically the use of traditional cultural elements in hollow and stereotypical ways to entertain tourists.

Cultural interaction and learning about local traditional is an invaluable part of travel. But unfortunately, the modern tourism industry is built on racism and white privilege. Wealthy white tourist travel to far off places to marvel at the “exotic” locals. Exploitation, othering and fetishization of communities of color are still disturbingly common in travel.

So be mindful of the distinction between someone willingly teaching you about their culture and an empty stylized show. Always ask yourself: is this educational, what am I contributing and who is profiting?

The cost of the tourist tax

The last one is a bit tricky: how to deal with being ripped off. Most people would say that they hate being ripped off, yet many tourists happily go along with it. I understand how awkward it can be to haggle over prices when your monthly income equals what a local makes in a year. A little tourist tax is fine, it is completely justified to charge us more than locals. But just because you’re rich, doesn’t mean you should pay top dollar for everything.

Haggling is an important part of many cultures around the world. It’s part of the social code, a game, and a fun interaction. It isn’t about getting it cheap. Haggling shows that you know what a product is worth and respect the person selling it. As a rich tourist, it is important that you participate, even if it makes you uncomfortable. As a local explained to me in Thailand: when tourists don’t negotiate, it drives up the prices and tuk-tuk drivers will refuse to drive locals because they know they can make more money driving a tourist. So respect the local market and don’t just allow yourself to be ripped off.

I hope you found these tips helpful and will make an effort to become a more sustainable and responsible tourist. How do you feel about your responsibilities as a traveler? What efforts are you making to have a positive impact and support local communities? I’d love to discuss it in the comments.

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25 thoughts on “How to Practice Sustainable Tourism

  1. Great post! There’s never been a more important time to think about how we travel and the impact it has on the communities and environments of the places we visit. I’m curious that you mentioned camels in your piece about animal tourism. I’ve made myself very aware over the years of issues like this, but I cannot find anything definitive on camels. By which I obviously don’t mean the cheap, exploitative roadside “camel attractions” (which I sadly fell for many moons ago), but actually riding camels through the desert. I guess it is like every industry where you have bad eggs, but I feel it’s similar to horse riding? As opposed to elephant riding where it doesn’t matter how “ethical” a company tries to be, the elephants went through a horrendous experience getting to that point. I’m just interested to know if you have any more info on whether camel riding as a whole is unethical?

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    1. Thank you! Camel riding is one of those grey areas as is horse riding. Like I mentioned, it can be hard to know how the animals are treated. There is nothing wrong with riding horses or camels per se, but it is when they are malnourished, abused or otherwise exploited for the entertainment of tourists. Like those poor underfed and overworked carriage horses you see in some cities. I went camel riding in the Sahara and the animals seemed to be treated quite well, but they did have nose rings and were obviously forced to work. That didn’t sit right with me. I feel that ideally, animals should live wild and free without us making them work for us.

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      1. Ahhh yeah, I know what you mean! It’s really hard to tell sometimes, and especially in areas of the world where (unfortunately) animal welfare won’t come first. My parents actually used to do carriage driving tours in Orkney (Scotland), and as soon as the horses were like “okay I’ve had enough now”, they called it a day and took them home. You don’t really see that happen in a lot of places. And you also never know how they are treated in the background. Anyway, it’s definitely important to be educated on things like that.

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      2. Absolutely! I think we often unknowingly contribute to unsustainable and harmful tourism practices. We always need to be carful and mindful of where our money is going to. And if you can’t be sure, maybe your option is to avoid it.

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  2. These are some worthy points to bring up in a time when tourism is taking a hit, a few points I’ve thought of myself before. I didn’t pay much mind to where my money was going in the areas I visit, but I can see the importance now of supporting local businesses that are struggling as the tourism industry is struggling. I’ve never traveled to different cultural areas before so I’m not concerned about violating local customs, but I do notice more the lack of respect and knowledge the general touring public has with animals. Whether it’s people approaching bears with cubs, feeding bears like their pet dogs, or getting gored by a bison because they left their car for “the perfect shot”, there are some really careless (and frankly stupid) behaviors I’ve heard of. I’m less strict on watching animals for entertainment – I saw tigers in a circus show once; they seemed well nurtured enough. Still, I’ve seen enough to say that animals are the most commonly mistreated beings during vacations that people take.

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    1. I definitely agree. People have a lack of respect and understanding of wild animals. From feeding them to trying to pet them. This is not only incredibly dangerous, but also disrupts the natural way of life for these animals, leading to suffering. It’s crazy to me that even when there are clear guidelines about this, people willfully ignore it.

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  3. Now that we can’t travel freely just like last year, we opt for a more sustainable way by visit local tourism. And also helping the local tourism by sharing amazing experience and places online. In terms of shopping, I opt for local shops or mainly thrift shops coz I always find good and affordable items.

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  4. I think you have beautifully listed some points that everyone can follow quite easily and its high time that travellers and tourists become aware about their responsibility towards the environment and society in general. I couldn’t agree more about buying tours & experiences from local operators & supporting the local businesses, especially in certain countries which are not economically well off and can really benefit from tourism. Also, being environmentally conscious is important, and making sure that cruelty towards animals is discouraged by ensuring you only visit places that known and verified as being ethical.

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  5. You have highlighted such important point and we agree to each and every one of it. Right from supporting local companies to caring for the environment. These steps will be needed especially when tourism starts to open worldwide again

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  6. It is so awesome to come across such content that shows that people like you who care for the environment exists. I have read your blog on green travel earlier, and I must say the points you listed there and also here are not rocket science, people can easily follow these and make this world a better place even by traveling sustainably. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts.

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    1. Thank you! I wanted to elaborate on sustainability and the social side rather than environmental. I agree that it’s not hard to be a better traveler, really minor effort and common sense

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  7. Hi Sophie,
    You’ve highlighted so many important points here and it’s so awesome to stumble across content that shows other travel bloggers are also caring for our planet – I often feel a bit alone in that respect!
    I have a question: How do you deal with friends who are just completely reluctant to adopt sustainable travel practices and carry on recklessly destroying our planet?
    So happy to have stumbled across your blog and heading over to follow your adventures on instagram now!

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    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Happy to have you follow along 🙂 That’s a great question! It can be really discouraging when you try hard to be more eco-friendly but you see others refuse to treat the planet with respect. I think the important thing to realize is that you cannot force people to do anything or even to care. The only thing you can control is you own actions. So keep adjusting your lifestyle, keep taking action and keep advocating for enviromentalism. The best you can hope for is to educate, inform and inspire you friends. Don’t berate them, argue with them or talk down to them, but show them how fun and easy zero waste and green travel can be.

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