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How can we make tourism sustainable?

How can we make tourism sustainable?

Over 20 years ago, I did a degree in geography. It was one of the things which started my love of travel and was also the first time I’d heard of sustainable tourism – the idea that visitors should have as low an impact on a destination as possible, so that in the long term tourism benefits local people as well as the visitors who get to experience amazing places around the world. There were a few basic tips – stay in locally-owned hotels rather than international chains, buy local produce, offset your carbon emissions. Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Read more: Sustainable travel swaps: 9 ways to reduce your impact

Airport arrivals
Airport arrivals

The growth of tourism

But travel has changed so much since then, with the number of international trips taken each year almost tripling from 527 million in 1995 to 1.5 billion in 2019. More people were travelling and travelling more often. And I was one of them – averaging 10 overseas trips a year.

Travel had become this huge juggernaut which seemed unstoppable – until the 2020 pandemic. But even this seems likely to be just a temporary pause in tourism’s growth, and it’s predicted that the travel industry will be back to pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

The world population is rising, people are generally better off, air travel has become cheaper with more flight routes and more planes in the sky, destinations are being marketed more heavily, bigger cruise ships are being built, more hotels are opening as well as new accommodation options like AirBnB. And that’s before we get to emerging markets like China and India where more and more people are starting to travel internationally.

Isle of Harris beaches in Scotland
Deserted beaches in the Outer Hebrides

The impacts of tourism

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. Tourism has also become the biggest employer in the world – with a $8.9 trillion contribution to the world’s GDP in 2019 – and there are cities, regions and even whole countries whose economies are almost totally dependent on tourism to survive.

But can this level of tourism and the continual focus on growing tourist numbers to make more money be sustainable in the long term? It came home to me when I visited the Cinque Terre – this beautiful patch of Italian coastline has become so popular that it saw 2.5 million visitors in 2019. Unsurprisingly villages were packed full, trains were overflowing, paths were being eroded and locals forced out of their homes by rising prices.

Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre
Picture-perfect Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre just one of a long list of places where tourist numbers were getting out of hand in the years before the pandemic. Where the things which attract visitors – the culture, the landscapes, the atmosphere – were in danger of being destroyed by those visitors. Overtourism became a buzzword, and it’s not surprising that a backlash started.

Local people everywhere from Barcelona to the Isle of Skye protested that they couldn’t cope with such huge numbers of tourists and the damage they caused. Some governments even stepped in, with talk of quotas on the numbers of visitors, flights or cruise ships.

The Fairy Pools waterfalls in the Isle of Skye, Scotland
The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye

In Venice visitors could be fined for swimming in the canals or loitering too long on the bridges. In the Balearic Islands, tourist accommodation was restricted to 623,000 beds with plans to reduce it further. And the whole island of Borocay in the Phillipines was closed off to visitors for six months in 2019 after the water got so polluted it was dangerous.

The huge restrictions on travel in 2020 and 2021 mean the issues of overtourism have disappeared for now. But it’s only a matter of time, and without tackling the issues which led to them we could be back where we were in 2019 within a few years. A lack of tourists has been a mixed blessing for destinations – it’s given ecosystems time to recover and let people have their homes back, but it’s also had a catastrophic impact on many economies.

Beach in Borocay in the Phillipines before sustainable tourism measures to reduce pollution
Borocay beaches

It’s easy to be sniffy about dodging hoards of ‘tourists’ or never being able to get a photo without 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 individual wanting to go and tick somewhere off their wishlist adds up to a whole lot of people.

And travel writers have extra responsibility. Whether we have a hundred readers or a million, what we post on websites and social media can help shape where people choose to go. I loved the Cinque Terre and know a lot of readers want to visit so of course I wanted to post about it. But I know I’m contributing to the problem – more publicity means more visitors.

Deer in the woodland near Glencoe
Wildlife in the Scottish Highlands

So what’s the solution – should we all stop travelling for good? Definitely not – 2020 has showed us how important travel is. It has plenty of positives, from providing income and encouraging investment to helping preserve cultures, funding conservation and protecting wildlife from poaching. But exploring the world is a privilege which needs to be sustainable so that in the long term we don’t destroy the things that made us want to visit.

Over 20 years of travelling I’ve noticed more and more negative impacts from tourism starting to show, and have become more conscious of the impact of my own travels. So last year I did a Master’s degree in sustainable tourism, looking at how I can minimise the negative impacts on the places I visit but also how the tourism industry as a whole can be better managed. But how can we help make tourism more sustainable?

Spices in the market at Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe
Shopping locally in Guadeloupe

What is sustainable tourism?

But first of all, what is sustainable tourism? You see the term – and related ones like eco and responsible tourism – used all over the tourist industry, but what makes a real difference and what’s just greenwashing? The World Tourism Organization describes 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.”

Reflections on Kinky Lake
Off the beaten track at Kinky Lake in Canada

How can we make tourism more sustainable?

Making tourism sustainable means increasing the benefits of tourism and reducing its negative impacts. A lot of time we think about sustainability as being about the environment, but that’s only one of the three strands that need to be met, sustainable tourism also has to contribute to the economy by creating jobs and income, and help conserve local culture.

The pandemic stopped tourism in its tracks, but that reset does give us the opportunity to rebuild the travel industry in a more sustainable way. So if you are looking to travel more sustainably in the future, here are five tips to get your started.

Walking the Cotswold Way – signpost at Crickley Hill
Low-impact walking holidays on the Cotswold Way

1. Think about your choice of destination

There are some destinations which are just too popular – whether it’s big cities like Venice, Paris, Dubrovnik and Amsterdam or famous sites like the Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu and the Isle of Skye. Venice had 26 million visitors a year with a resident population of only 265,000 – there’s no way the city can absorb that many people. When queues of people are waiting to reach the summit of Mount Everest you know things are out of control.

These places top travel bucket lists for a reason and I’d never say you shouldn’t visit them – they’re on my wishlist like everyone else’s. But you can lower your impact by visiting at off-peak times and exploring their lesser-known sites as well as the famous ones (here are some of my suggestions for alternative things to do in London and Paris).

Winter in Amsterdam
Off-season in Amsterdam

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 which have had trouble in the past. When I first visited Thailand, Cambodia was a no-go area, but now it’s a mainstream destination. Tourism in places like Egypt and Tunisia was badly hit after recent troubles but they’re considered safe to visit again.

The Faroe Islands
The gorgeous Faroe Islands

2. Spend locally

The old advice to spend locally still stands, so as much money as possible goes into the local economy. In places like the Caribbean, an average only 20 cents of each dollar visitors spend actually stays in the country. If you’re on a cruise 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 is 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 locals can’t afford to live there now – there have been protests about it in Barcelona and New York. If I use AirBnB I try to rent from individual owners rather than companies with multiple properties.

A sustainable stay at Log House Holidays in the Cotswolds
An eco-friendly stay in the Cotswolds

3. 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, packing a reusable shopping bag instead of using plastic bags, recycling wherever possible, turning off lights and unplugging chargers when they’re not being used.

Resources are much scarcer in some countries though, especially water, which makes it even more important to minimise usage. 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 trying not to waste water by taking shorter showers and reusing towels.

The Canadian train across Canada arrives into Jasper
Travelling by train across Canada

Flights are a major contributor to climate change. I much prefer train travel so don’t need an excuse to ditch the plane, but if you can’t then there’s the option of offsetting carbon emissions produced by your flight. Travel by public transport rather than renting a car if possible. And think about 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.

Visitors are becoming more aware about animal cruelty – elephant riding in Thailand were something everyone seemed to do when I first went visited 20 years ago but I’d never do it now – but there are still many unethical animal activities like tiger temples or dolphin shows. World Animal Protection has a list of the ones we should definitely avoid.

Male lion at Balule Game Reserve in South Africa's Kruger National Park
Lions in the wild in Naledi Bushcamp in South Africa

4. 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 of seeing semi-dressed women in Muslim countries or drunken stag dos in Eastern Europe. Contact with tourists – introducing different behaviours, alcohol, drugs and crime – can change a place’s whole culture.

The local culture is a big part of why people love to travel – try the weird-sounding 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 research what’s acceptable before you go. Dress appropriately, cover up when not on the beach, ask before taking photos and support charities over giving money to beggars.

A local Creole cookery class in Saint Lucia – a sustainable tourism experience
Creole cookery class in Saint Lucia

5. Do your research

Eco and sustainability are 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 trips like cruises which have a particularly big impact on the places they visit.

Ask what their environmental policies are, do they recycle and conserve water, is food and drink locally sourced, how do they treat their staff, do they invest in the local community?

Most companies with sustainable credentials are proud of them and advertise them on their website, but if they don’t just ask. Hopefully one day sustainability will be built into every tourism business, but until then we need to help make it important to them.

Cruise ship in Santorini, Greece
Cruise ship in Santorini

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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 | Sustainable tourism | How to make tourism sustainable | Ecotourism | How can sustainable tourism be achievedHow can we make tourism more sustainable? An introduction to what sustainable tourism is, why it's important and what we can do to help | Sustainable tourism | How to make tourism sustainable | Ecotourism | How can sustainable tourism be achieved

Mohammed Pervaiz

Tuesday 30th of November 2021

Hi, interesting article. I am from Andaman Islands , India working for Govt on Tourism. I have interst in Sustainable Tourism. Can you please suggest a place from I can do a course on Sustainable Tourism. I also invite you to visit our beautiful islands. Bye

John Yuccas

Sunday 14th of February 2021

Are there any companies worth mentioning that are doing a great job at the moment to be leaders in this space? Also, is it always better to drive locally near your home in terms of greenhouse gases compared with taking a flight? Is there a metric (ex. Driving a car that gets 24 MPG 1200 miles is the equivalency to a 1 hour flight)?

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 8th of March 2021

There are a few recent start ups like Byway which are focusing on flight free travel as well as Responsible Traveller who've got a range of trips. Driving locally is better than flying (particularly if there are a few of you in the car) but trains/buses better still if possible – there's a useful chart here that shows the comparative emission levels


Sunday 29th of December 2019

Impressive thanks for sharing Lucy


Friday 29th of November 2019

Thank you for writing this Lucy. But I have a question about buying local. Tourists are in many cases much wealthier than the native people, especially in developing countries. I recently read another post about how the local shop owners in popular tourist destinations will push their prices up as they know the foreigners will be able to spend more on their goods. However, this means that it is harder for other locals to buy from these shops as they often have lower income. I do think buying local is better though, as money won't just go to the big companies but will be more evenly spread. Its a hard issue to solve though, but I think if we all try and make tourism more sustainable we will have the situation more under control


Thursday 12th of December 2019

Yes there is definitely some complexity around local purchases – though I think if you are buying locally produced items it isn't as bad but rather imported goods prices can get pushed up more, and often there are particular things that aren't really bought so much by locals, such as art and crafts, where your money can really help.


Friday 8th of March 2019

Hi Lucy Enjoyed reading your post. I've been reading about the impact of air travel as a factor of climate change recently. As well as thinking about our impact on the destination, I think we need to think about impact as we make our way to the destination. Part of me just wants to stop flying due to the environmental impact of flight, as much as I love seeing new places. Any advice?


Sunday 10th of March 2019

Thanks Jon, the flights issue is such a tough one. I've never been much of a fan of flying so would happily give it up but there are so many places where you don't have much choice and I wouldn't want to totally write them off visiting. Short haul flights have a comparatively high impact though and are the easiest to cut down (I'm trying the train from the UK to Sweden this year which should be an adventure, though there's obviously a higher time/money cost) - also taking longer trips to multiple destinations rather rather than lots of short breaks, spending more time visiting places closer to home you can visit without the plane can all help.