How can we make tourism sustainable?

Sustainable tourism

Years ago (a few too many now!) I did a degree in geography. It was one of the things which started off my love of travel – the field trip to Thailand definitely helped – and it was also the first time I’d heard about sustainable tourism. This is the idea that visitors should have as low an impact on a destination as possible, so that in the long term it benefits local people as much as the visitors who get to experience these amazing places around the world. Sounds simple doesn’t it? There were a few basic tips – stay in locally-owned hotels rather than big international chains, buy local produce, offset your carbon emissions when you fly.

Read more: Cruise travel: How to minimise your environmental impact

Cinque Terre train

Reducing environmental impact by train

But travel has changed so much since then and become this huge juggernaut which seems unstoppable. The number of international trips taken each year has doubled from 527 million in 1995 to 1.2 billion last year, and it keeps on growing. More people are travelling, and they’re travelling more often. And I’m one of them – just back from my 11th flight to my eighth country this year. People are generally better off than they were, air travel has become cheaper with more flight routes and more planes in the sky, there are more hotels opening as well as new accommodation options like AirBnB. And that’s before we get to the emerging markets like China and India where more and more people are starting to travel internationally.

Bear in Great Bear Rainforest Canada

Bear-watching in Canada

Travel is an amazing thing on an individual level – seeing wonderful places, exposing you to new cultures. And anything that helps people to be more open-minded can only be a good thing, especially with the political climate at the moment. Tourism has become the biggest employer in the world, and there are cities, regions and even whole countries whose economies are almost totally dependant on it to survive. But can this level of tourism be sustainable? It all came home to me when I visited the Cinque Terre earlier this year. This beautiful patch of Italian coastline has become so popular that 2.5 million people visited last year. Unsurprisingly the villages are packed full, trains are overflowing and paths are being eroded.

Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre

It’s just one of a long list of places where tourism is getting out of hand. Where the things which attract visitors – the culture, the landscapes, the atmosphere – are in danger of being destroyed by them coming. So it’s not surprisingly a backlash has started. There have been protests by locals in everywhere from Barcelona to the Isle of Skye that they can’t cope with the current levels of tourism and the damage it’s causing. Some governments are even stepping in, with talk of tourist quotas. In Venice you can now get fined up to €500 for swimming in the canals or loitering too long on the bridges. And in the Balearic Islands, tourist accommodation has been restricted to 623,000 beds with plans to take it down further to 500,000.

Venice Grand Canal

On the Grand Canal in Venice

It’s easy to be sniffy about having to dodge hoards of ‘tourists’ or never being able to get a photo without wading through a sea of selfie sticks. But every one of us has an impact on the places we visit, whether you’re a digital nomad or on a week’s package holiday. Each of those individuals wanting to go and tick somewhere off their wishlist adds up to make a whole lot of people. And travel bloggers have an extra level of responsibility. Whether we have a hundred readers or a million, the things we post can help shape where people go. I loved the Cinque Terre and know a lot of readers want to go there so of course I wanted to post about it. But I know that I’m contributing to the problem – the more publicity the more visitors.

Garlic stall in France

Shopping locally in France

So is there a solution – should we all just stop travelling and stay at home? Definitely not (and not just because I’d be out of a job!). Many places rely on tourism but exploring the world is a real privilege which needs to be sustainable – both in terms of environmental impact but also the cultural impact – so that in the long term we don’t destroy the things that made us want to visit. I’ve started to become more conscious of the impact of my own travels on the world and looking at ways I can minimise the negative impacts on the places I visit. If you’re wanting to travel more sustainably too, here are some things that can help.

Isle of Harris beaches in Scotland

Deserted beaches in the Outer Hebrides

Think about your choice of destination

There are some places which are just too popular now – like the Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu, Paris, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam and Venice. Venice gets 26 million visitors a year when its population is only 265,000, so there’s no way the city can absorb that many people. These places top travel bucket lists for a reason and I’d never say you shouldn’t go – they’re on my wishlist just like everyone else’s. But you can reduce your impact by visiting at off-peak times and exploring some of their lesser-known sites as well as the famous ones (here are some of my alternative suggestions for things to do in London, Paris and Edinburgh).

Look beyond the obvious destinations too – think Albania instead of Greece or the Faroe Islands instead of Iceland. Try smaller cities or rural destinations outside of the major cities. People tend to be pretty lazy and stick to places close to airports and easy to get to, so if you have to add on a ferry trip or train ride chances are the destination will be less touristy. And although I’d steer clear of war zones or places with human rights violations, don’t discount places that have had trouble in the past. Back when I first visited Thailand, Cambodia was practically a no-go area, but now it’s a mainstream destination. Places like Egypt and Tunisia have been hit badly by a fall in tourism after recent troubles but are considered safe to visit again.


Off-season in Amsterdam

Spend locally

The old advice to spend locally still stands, so that as much money as possible goes into the local economy. In places like the Caribbean, on average only 20 cents of each dollar that visitors spend actually stays in the country. If you’re visiting on a cruise ship or staying in an all-inclusive resort, chances are not much of the  money you spend will reach local people. Instead try to use locally-owned businesses, whether that’s accommodation, restaurants or tours. AirBnB’s a difficult one – on one hand it’s a way to rent directly from local people. But in some cities whole areas have been bought up to rent to tourists and local residents can’t afford to live there now – there have been protests about it in San Sebastián and Barcelona recently. If I use AirBnB I try to rent from individual owners rather than companies with multiple properties.

Mayo Landing at Lake House Holidays

An eco-friendly stay in the Cotswolds

Minimise your environmental impact

A lot of the advice about making your travels environmentally sustainable are things we should be doing at home too – using a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water, recycling wherever possible, packing a reusable shopping bag instead of using plastic bags, turning off lights and unplugging chargers when they’re not being used. Resources are much scarcer in some countries though, especially water. Apparently a guest in a luxury hotel uses 1800 litres of water per night versus 150 litres for the average person in the UK. A lot of that’s down to the hotels but we can help by trying not to waste water.

I much prefer train travel so don’t need an excuse to ditch the plane if I can, but if you can’t then you can pay a bit extra to offset the carbon that’s produced by your flight. Travel by public transport rather than renting a car if possible. And think about the things you buy when you’re in a destination too – in places like the Seychelles imported food might have been flown in from halfway around the world. A lot of destinations and companies are becoming more aware about animal cruelty now. Elephant rides in Thailand were something everyone seemed to do when I first went out there but I’d never do it now. Same with tiger temples or dolphin shows – World Animal Protection has a list of the animal activities to definitely avoid.

Male lion Balule Game Reserve

Lions in the wild in Naledi Bushcamp

Be aware of cultural differences

Sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s also about being aware of the impact we have on a destination’s culture. Everyone has horror stories about seeing women dressed in miniskirts in Muslim countries or drunken stag dos in Eastern Europe. The local culture is a big part of why people love to travel – try the weird-looking dish on the menu, learn a few words of the language, eat dinner at the same time as the locals. Being respectful of the culture also mean you get treated with more respect. It’s a good idea to do some research before you go as to what’s acceptable. Dress appropriately, cover up when you’re not on the beach, ask before taking photos and support charities over giving money to beggars on the street.

Bulgarian food

Trying Bulgarian food in Bansko

Do your research

Eco and sustainability are real travel buzzwords now and it’s easy to decorate a website with pretty pictures of leaves and say you’re ‘green’. But take the marketing spin with a pinch of salt and make sure you check out how sustainable tourism businesses really are. Especially for things like cruise ships which have a huge impact on the places they visit. What are their environmental policies, do they recycle and use local produce, how do they treat their staff? Most companies with sustainable credentials are proud of them so advertise them on their website, but if they don’t then just ask. Hopefully one day sustainability will be built into every tourism destination and business, but until then it needs us to help make it important to them.

Cruise ship in Santorini, Greece

Cruise ship in Santorini

Do you try to travel sustainably – and if so what are your tips?

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What is sustainable tourism and why is it important? Tips for reducing your impact on the environment and culture of a destination when you travel.

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  • Reply
    August 23, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks Lucy, for your insightful post!

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:05 am

      You’re very welcome!

  • Reply
    Debra Kolkka
    August 23, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    I prefer to travel out of season. It is generally too hot in summer for me anyway. I love to wander in backstreets and see how people really live. I never use Air BnB and try to book directly with local businesses and eat in small family restaurants. I am very conscious of my impact on local communities.

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:06 am

      That’s great to hear. I much prefer travelling off season too, it’s cheaper, quieter and cooler.

  • Reply
    August 23, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    Good points made, Lucy. 🙂 🙂

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:06 am

      Thanks Jo!

  • Reply
    August 24, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    A well-written important post, Lucy! Reading about how the residents of Barcelona, Venice and other places which have been overrun by mass tourism fight back is very sobering. Probably imposing a quota can be a short-term solution to this. But then there are tourists who travel halfway across the world to learn about other cultures and those who only care about taking lots of selfies. How would these cities ensure that they get a bigger share of visitors who actually care about the preservation of their beloved cities instead of the other way around? Maybe Bhutan can be an example of how to curb mass tourism without hurting the local tourism industry. But I’m sure there are as many solutions as they are problems. As you said, what we can do is to raise the awareness among our friends and families and do whatever we can to support sustainable tourism.

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:07 am

      It’s such a difficult one as the places that are overrun are often the ones that rely on the money from tourism. Bhutan is a great example though – and somewhere I’d love to visit too!

  • Reply
    Sara @ Travel Continuum
    August 24, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    I love this post, Lucy – a great summary of a HUGE subject. So glad you mentioned the cruise industry- because on some occasions (unfortunately) their environmental policies aren’t properly adhered to for one reason or another – so we should all keep an eye on the news too. Another key area often overlooked is the supply chain. For example, a tour operator’s legal obligation to ensure the sustainability of their contracted service providers doesn’t extend to a third party further down the supply chain. It’s a grey area, but a fascinating one. Finally (sorry, I’m passionate about this too!) – I wholeheartedly agree with your final comment…we need to make it important to the tourism orgs, and the only way we will do that is by educating ourselves first. Fabulous stuff, thank you!

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:10 am

      Such a huge subject! I’ve been getting more and more interested in finding out more, especially as these anti-tourist stories seem to be becoming more frequent. There are so many aspects but even if we just try and do our small bit where we can hopefully we can make an impact.

  • Reply
    August 24, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    This is such an important subject and I agree, no one wants to give up travelling but if we all do our bit, we can definitely make a difference. I’ve had quite a few experiences now where I’ve booked an Airbnb thinking I am going to stay in someone’s home, to find it’s a serviced apartment and probably one of dozens of properties they have in their portfolio, so I think there needs to be more transparency there. Thanks for sharing – some really important points raised!

    • Reply
      August 25, 2017 at 11:12 am

      AirBnB is such a difficult one – I like the idea but it’s had to tell the difference between a rental company and an individual owner sometimes. Would be helpful if they were marked up – maybe like the business and personal sellers on eBay?

  • Reply
    Diana Johnson
    August 26, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    Great Info. ….I like off season travel…

    • Reply
      August 27, 2017 at 10:21 pm

      Me too, it’s a great time to travel – as long as you get decent weather!

  • Reply
    September 2, 2017 at 11:37 am

    All the best people have a degree in Geography! Glad to find another! I know what you mean – we see the erosion on our walks on the south west coastal path, it’s scary! Keeping things local is the one thing we really try and stick to wherever we are – I would always rather leave a hotel for lunch/dinner and go to the local shack or beach bar

    • Reply
      September 4, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      Loved my geography degree years! Yes it’s scary when you can see the changes in a landscape going on in front of you like that, really brings it home.

  • Reply
    Kathryn Burrington
    September 2, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    The tourism industry does seem to be running away out of control and we, as travel bloggers, are contributing to that. It’s an ongoing ethical dilemma we have to face.

    • Reply
      September 4, 2017 at 12:41 pm

      So difficult isn’t it – I’m definitely starting to think more about the places that I visit and trying to highlight more unusual spots.

  • Reply
    Agness of eTramping
    September 2, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    I’ve learn so much about sustainable tourism from your enlightening post, Lucy! This is definitely food for thought!

    • Reply
      September 4, 2017 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks Agness, there’s a lot to think about but hopefully plenty of small things we can do to help.

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    September 3, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    Such an important subject for travelers to think about. I try to go local whenever I can, both at home and abroad.

    • Reply
      September 4, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Me too, I think that’s one of the easiest things we can do which does really make a difference.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    September 5, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Such a huge challenge for all of us. I try to buy local in small shops, restaurants and markets when I’m away. I’m also very conscious of the amount of plastic being dumped in our oceans. I refuse a straw when it’s offered with a drink and take a foldable, reusable bottle for water but I know I could be doing a lot more.

    • Reply
      September 8, 2017 at 9:59 am

      I’ve just been reading about straws and what a big pollutant they’re becoming now so will make sure to refuse them too. There are so many different aspects it can be hard to know where to start sometimes!

  • Reply
    September 27, 2017 at 7:06 am

    This is such a great summary on sustainable tourism and how we all have to play a part in making sure that the inevitable effects of tourism don’t become irreversible! I try to travel during the off season as much as I can, especially in Europe, as I find that during the peak seasons the locals are struggling to keep up with the swarm of people that overtake their cities day in, day out.

    I’ve also just started my own blog that aims to educate young travellers on the importance of becoming respectful tourists who are welcomed by locals… and being sustainable while travelling is definitely such an important part!

    • Reply
      October 2, 2017 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks so much – it’s such an important subject and hopefully if we all do a bit it can make a big difference. Best of luck with your new blog too!

  • Reply
    Maria Stadler
    January 6, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    Great post! Sustainable travel is getting more and more important as tourism contributes a lot to the world’s CO2 emissions. What I also consider as important is to chose an accommodation that has an eco-certification or at least avoid resource-wasting all-inclusive resorts. Especially air travel has extremely increased within the last few years. When booking a flight there’s the possibility to pay a CO2 compensation. This donation is then used for environmental projects where your contribution helps to save the amount of CO2 that was emitted on your responsibility. It’s great to see that so many of us travellers think about sustainability but there’s still way to go.

    • Reply
      January 7, 2019 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks! I’m actually working on a post about carbon offset at the moment as I’ve been doing a lot of research into it. Definitely so important to try and minimise our impact now with so many people travelling the world.

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