Sustainable tourism is a real buzzword at the moment, but what does it really mean? Sustainability is all about looking at the positive and negative impacts that come from tourism, not just now but in the future too, to help safeguard places in the long-term. And it’s not just about the environment but also the social and economic impacts tourism has on the lives of the people who live in the places we visit. So not at all complicated then! But if you’re looking to travel more sustainably and reduce the impact of your travels, where do you start?
I’ve rounded up nine sustainable travel swaps we can make, starting with easy swaps which don’t take much effort and going right up to big lifestyle changes. Although I’ve become much more aware of how I travel, I’m nowhere near perfect – I fly too much, I’m always forgetting my water bottle and I’m going on a cruise this summer – and there’s a lot more I could do. But the idea isn’t to get one person doing it perfectly, but everyone mucking in and doing it imperfectly so those little changes add up. So which sustainable travel swaps can you make?
Nine sustainable travel swaps
Swap single-use plastics for reusable alternatives
Single-use plastics are the environmental Big Bad Wolf at the moment. Around 150 million tons of disposable plastics are produced each year and less than 12% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfill where it breaks down into microplastics, which leach toxic chemicals and end up in the oceans. And the only way to stop it happening at the moment is to use less plastic.
Over the last few years there have been campaigns to reduce single-use plastics by banning straws and taxing plastic bags. And the good news is this means there’s now a huge range of reusable alternatives available. One easy swap is to get yourself a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water (I have this metal one* which keeps water nice and cold). There are apps like Refill, Tap and Find Water which show you where to find nearby refill points. Or you can get a bottle* which has a built-in filter if the local tap water isn’t safe to drink.
You can also reduce your takeaway waste by investing in a refillable coffee cup, a set of reusable cutlery and a Tupperware or metal food box so you can say no to the polystyrene trays and plastic cups. And if you want to use a straw there are metal, bamboo and paper versions. It does take a bit more organisation (and luggage space) to remember to pack your own kit as well as costing a bit more up-front, but once you have them they can be used for years.
Other easy sustainable travel swaps include packing a reusable shopping bag instead of plastic bags. And there are lots of plastic-free alternative products available, like bamboo toothbrushes, washable face wipes, and reusable menstrual cups or period underwear for female travellers, instead of buying tampons or pads, which both contain and are packed in plastic.
Swap liquid toiletries for bars
Another simple swap is to exchange liquid toiletries for solid versions. Those tiny toiletry bottles you get in hotel rooms are another big source of plastic waste. A 140-room hotel can easily through 23,000 mini bottles a year. And if you don’t use them all up they often still get dumped. US hotel chains Marriott and InterContinental have already stopped using mini bottles and replaced them with wall-mounted dispensers for soap, shower gel and shampoo.
But if your hotel is still supplying them – or if you’re staying in a rental – you’re better off taking your own. Using solid bar versions instead of liquids means less plastic, they’re easier to transport (no danger of a suitcase shampoo explosion), they last longer and they’re easier if you’re flying hand luggage only. As well as soap you can get other toiletries like shampoo and conditioner in bar form – Lush have a good selection with tins to store them in.
Swap chemical sunscreen for reef-safe sunscreen
Everyone knows the importance of wearing sunscreen to protect our skin from cancer. But what’s not so well known is the environmental problems caused when it washes off your skin into the ocean. Coral bleaching is already a threat as sea temperatures rise. But sunscreen causes coral to bleach at lower temperatures, as well as damaging other ocean life.
And it’s taking place on a huge scale – up to 6000 tons of sunscreen are estimated to wash into coral reefs around the world each year, much of it in busy protected areas like National Parks. The main culprits are two ingredients which block UV rays – oxybenzone and octinoxate. They’ve been banned in Hawaii and some companies are pledging to cut them out. But a lot of brands still contain them, as well as other damaging ingredients like octocrylene.
So what can you do instead? No sunscreen is 100% safe for marine environments and there’s no legal definition of what ‘reef-safe’ means, but among top recommended brands are Badger, Thinksport and Raw Elements*. Look for mineral sunscreens which contain non-nano (which means larger particles) zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – they form a barrier on your skin rather than being absorbed. And choose water resistant versions so less washes off your skin.
It’s also a good idea to avoid spray sunscreens, because a lot more of the product goes into the air and the environment with a spray than if you’re rubbing in a lotion. Or the easiest, safest way to reduce your sunscreen use is to cover up with a t-shirt in the ocean instead.
Swap animal activities for animal watching
From cuddling tigers to elephant rides and swimming with dolphins, animal encounters are a big part of what makes people want to travel, and social media is adding fuel to the fire with the quest for the perfect animal selfie. But an article by National Geographic Traveller highlighted just how cruel most of these activities can be. And even things which seem low-impact like whale-watching can have negative affects on animal health and behaviour.
It’s hard to know which activities are ethical and which aren’t, and it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t have all the facts – I rode an elephant in Thailand years ago and had no idea I was doing anything wrong. Even places which market themselves as sanctuaries can have just as bad a record in how they treat their animals. So how do you know which animal activities to avoid?
A basic rule of thumb is to steer clear of places where animals are in captivity for any reason other than conservation. So that includes places where you can have photos taken with animals, cuddle them or get up close, or where animals are made to perform, as well as most zoos and wildlife parks. There is a need for sanctuaries to look after injured and abandoned animals, but if it’s a real sanctuary then contact with humans will be kept to a minimum.
The animal charity Born Free has created a reporting scheme where you can register any animal suffering you see on your travels. Refusing to take part in these unethical animal encounters helps reduce demand and stop these businesses from operating. And if you do want to see animals when you travel, the best way is in the wild, which helps conserve their habitats too – like gorilla trekking in Uganda, where income from permits helps with conservation.
Swap big chains for local businesses
In some destinations, it’s the big international companies who get all the financial benefits from tourism, but the local communities who have to deal with the problems it brings, like litter, noise and changes to their culture. All-inclusives get a particularly bad rap – everything’s provided and paid for on site, so visitors don’t need to spend any money locally, and they’re often owned by big multinational companies so the profits get sent out of the country.
But even in traditional all-inclusive hubs like the Caribbean or the Maldives, there’s a growing range of other accommodation options like locally owned hotels, rentals and homestays. By staying, eating and shopping with local businesses, you minimise economic leakage so the money you spend stays local. And the benefits spread wider than just the businesses involved in tourism – if they make more profit the owners have more to spend in other businesses.
It can be easier to go with what you know (who hasn’t been tempted by a Maccy D’s after a long travel day?) but buying local helps get a better insight into the places you’re visiting too. If you’re shopping for crafts and souvenirs, look out for cooperatives or buy direct from the person who makes it so they get more of the money (and it’s often cheaper too). Not all big businesses are the same, and if you are staying in a chain then look at how involved they are in the local community – do they hire local staff, buy their food locally and invest in the area?
Swap new gear for second-hand
It seems like every hobby comes with a load of must-have kit, and travel is no exception. From luggage sets and packing cubes to special pillows and travel wallets – even the eco-friendly products mentioned above – I’ve got a wardrobe full. But as well as costing money to buy, they use up a lot of resources and power to make. Which is fine if it’s something you’ll get a lot of use out of like a suitcase, but not so good if it’s going to be used once then gather dust.
For some trips you do need special equipment – like goggles and ski jackets for winter sports trips or mozzie nets and zoom lenses for a safari. But a lot of the time you probably won’t use it more than once or twice, and chances are there’s someone else out there who’s done the same and you could get the gear you need second-hand. There are a ton of second-hand shopping options, from eBay, Depop and Facebook Marketplace to charity shops and places you can hire more expensive kit, all of which will save you money as well as saving resources.
Swap overtouristed destinations for quieter spots
Overtourism is another hot topic in sustainable travel, with destinations from Amsterdam to the Isle of Skye suffering the side effects of too many visitors. When there are queues of people waiting to summit Mount Everest you know there’s an overtourism problem! Cheap flights, mass tourism and unchecked promotion have all helped get us to a place where tourist numbers are now rising so rapidly that some destinations are using quotas and demarketing.
Overtourism can have major negative impacts on the people who live in these destinations, and there have been protests by locals in Barcelona. So does that mean we shouldn’t visit popular places? Not necessarily, but if you fancy a weekend in Venice it might be better to go off-season rather than in summer when it’s packed with cruise ship crowds. The weather may not be as good but it’ll be quieter, cheaper and you’ll reduce the pressure on local resources.
Overtourism only affects a small number of destinations, and there are tons of places where tourists are wanted and welcome, and you often don’t have to go far off the beaten track. Even staying in a different city neighbourhood can help avoid the crowds. Social media has turned certain places – like Iceland or Santorini – into ‘must-see’ hotspots, but there’s usually somewhere just as beautiful, charming or interesting not far away waiting to be discovered.
Swap Airbnb – sometimes
The rapid rise in AirBnB’s popularity often gets mentioned alongside overtourism. And having a huge influx of unregulated places to stay into a destination can definitely contribute to overcrowding, as well as pushing up prices for local residents who want to rent long-term. But AirBnB is so diverse that it’s a bit too simple to just say we should stop using it.
At one end of the scale you’ve got companies who buy up tens or hundreds of properties in a popular city and rent them out at inflated prices, pushing locals out of certain areas as they can’t afford the rents. But on the other you’ve got people who rent out a spare room or others who let their house for a few weeks each year – like the family house I stayed in in Lapland earlier this year. For them it’s an extra income without having a big impact on the area.
AirBnB can also be a low-cost way for new areas to open themselves up to tourism. If you want to stay somewhere a bit different, there’s far more likely to be a room to rent through AirBnB than a hotel. And if you live somewhere without any tourism infrastructure, it’s a good way to test the waters and see if people are interested in visiting without a big investment. So it’s a case of looking at places individually to see whether they’re legal (some cities regulate AirBnB rentals), who owns them, whether they’re let full-time and again concentrating on less popular spots.
Swap the plane for… anything else!
Flying is the fastest growing contributor to climate change, and it’s estimated passenger numbers could double in the next 20 years. Although there are a few things you can do to reduce your impact – from carbon offsetting to choosing the most efficient route and airline – the truth is that for most of us flying is still the biggest impact we have on the environment. One Transatlantic return flight produces a third of the CO2 most people use in a year.
So what do we do about it? If you’re feeling brave you can join the Flight Free 2020 campaign, which is trying to get 100,000 people to pledge not to fly for the whole of next year to raise the profile of flying’s impact on climate change. I’ve signed up to join in (bit of a challenge for a travel blogger I know!), so instead of heading off on long-haul adventures in 2020 I’ll be seeing how far I can get from the UK by train as well as exploring places close to home.
Giving up flying is too big an ask for most people – and if we all did it then there are places like the Maldives that would suffer as they’re so dependent on tourism. But could you cut down? Take the train instead of the plane sometimes? Resist jetting off for the weekend on one of those Ryanair bargain flight deals and spend it somewhere closer instead? Combine a few short trips into one longer one so you don’t have to take so many flights? Even a small change can make a big difference to our overall carbon emissions if enough people join in.
So which sustainable travel swaps could you make?
* This article contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, thanks.