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What is Sustainable Travel?

mongolian herder sustainable management

Mongolian herders are supported in their sustainable practices for water, forest and pasture management. Photo credit: Eskinder Debebe

Among the different types of travel that we incorporate into eco travel – green travel, ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable travel, ethical travel, and culturally-aware travel – sustainable travel is one of the most precisely defined and diverse from the rest.

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines it simply as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” while the World Tourism Organization (LINK) specifies it is the “management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.”

Beyond Environmental Sustainability

The press often discusses the environmental aspects of sustainable development, as in how to build and run a destinationwith a net-zero environmental impact that allows tourism to continue indefinitely without compromising the destination. But this narrow focus ignores the important economic implications of sustainable travel for local communities.

Sustainable travel doesn’t just preserve the natural environment so that future tourists can benefit, it preserves the environment so that it meets the current and future needs of the local community and funds conservation.

Even more importantly, it incorporates the activities of tourists and travel companies into the local economy in such a way that the economics of tourism don’t create friction with local people, local businesses, or native culture or traditions.

How to Travel Sustainably

A key aspect of sustainable travel is to choose your destination and accommodations wisely.

Many popular destinations are known for the negative effects travel has on the local culture and environment. While there may be a handful of businesses offering sustainable options and developments in these destinations, it can be hard to separate them from the fray.

When you travel, look at how tourism has affected the community you are visiting:

  • Do some businesses seem to cater only to tourists?
  • Do vendors peddle tacky souvenirs as opposed to traditional handicrafts?
  • Do restaurants offer food that tourists like or expect as opposed to typical local cuisine? (A certain hamburger chain comes to mind as an offender in this area)

Travelling sustainably can be trickier than travelling green or in a culturally-aware fashion. It requires research on the part of the traveller into both the destination’s offerings and the business practices of those offerings.

What does sustainable travel mean to you? Is there anything you’d add to this definition?

*Read More in our “What is _____ Travel?” series”*

What is Eco Travel?
What is Green Travel?
What is Responsible Travel?
What is an Ecolodge?
What is Responsible Volunteering?


  1. Good post, but I honestly believe that the differences between green travel, ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable travel and ethical travel really boil down to semantics, as they’re all essentially the same thing.

    The general concept is rooted in the old “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” ideal, but takes it a step further by trying to leave a destination in an even better state (due to the economic impact of responsible ecotourism on indigenous communities and environmental conservation projects).

    I think the key idea that needs to be reinforced is that sustainable travel is really not all the difficult: there are simple steps ANYONE can take to become a “greener” traveler. We shared 10 simple tips here: http://greenglobaltravel.com/2012/04/17/easy-ecotourism-10-simple-steps-to-more-sustainable-travel.

    • Hi Bret
      I totally agree about it all being down to semantics, and general concept. It’s pretty much what I’ve written on the About page, but recently we’ve had a number of readers ask what’s the difference between certain types of eco travel, so we thought we’d try and break it down for them.

      Our Ecotourism Definition post is still one of our most popular, especially among students, so hopefully this, and comments, will be of benefit to them.

      • Interesting post, thank you. Its so great that more and more people are talking about it.
        Actually though, I dont agree though that its just a matter of semantics. The way I understand it ecotourism has a environmentally friendly perspective to it, sustainable travel has more holistic long-term perspective. For example ecotourism hotels might ask you to reuse your towels. ST hotels will undertake a number of measures like adopting rainwater harvesting practices, grey water recycling, reducing consumption, RO plants for drinking water, etc. The target of all this is to reduce the overall effect that large amounts of travelers might have on local water resources. Its just a simple example, but the impact that they aim for, contributes to the long term sustainability in the area.
        ST also takes a landscape approach to issues, and its not only what they do on their property that matters, but also how they contribute to the health of the local environment and community, fostering the very resources that draws people to the area. Hope that helps!
        I do blog on the subject as well, and you can find a little more clarity at – https://www.islandecotherapy.com/2017/05/25/sri-lanka-sustainable-tourist-destination/

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  5. Hello Friends!
    La Gran Vista, located just outside San Isidro de General in South Pacific Costa Rica, is an Environmental Conservation Project where students, volunteers, and visitors can learn how a tropical organic farm functions. We are an Educational Institute where individuals can learn how to milk a cow, harvest a mango tree, or use medicinal herbs. La Gran Vista gives everyone an opportunity to learn about life at its most basic form and exist in a fully sustainable community.
    We are happy to receive volunteers, student groups, families, and environmental interns from abroad. In addition, eco-tourism organizations send groups of volunteers to La Gran Vista every year to participate in the project.
    We offer opportunities for undergraduate groups, ASB, graduate students, and researchers to pursue specific interests or field work pertaining to sustainability and organic farming. Students looking to pursue a career in sustainability will have the opportunity to have practical experience that will be invaluable to their future endeavors.
    We believe that the best way to preserve our Planet is for everyone to be active and lend a helping hand to Mother Nature. The problems are right in front of us, from greenhouse gases to massive landfills, pesticides in our food, and unclean drinking water, making it EVERYONE’S responsibility to wake up and live a more responsible life.
    We cannot change the world in a day, but if we all do our part, we can change the course of history. So start today and join us in our attempt to create a more sustainable future.
    Thanks for your help and please contact us for more information about La Gran Vista. We are looking for partnerships. We are receiving groups.

    Ing Agr. Donald Villalobos
    La Gran Vista Agroecological Farm
    San Isidro del General, Costa Rica
    E- Mail: lagranvista@hotmail.com
    Tel: (506) 89248983
    Facebook ( La Gran Vista Agroecological Farm “

  6. I always like doing a bit of research before booking tours, especially when traveling to rural areas. Even if an eco company is certified by an independent organisation, I still want to make sure I’m making the right choice. Normally I try to find out if the company is involved in community-based projects or if they support conservation efforts in the region.

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  11. Hi Linda, great post! I’d also highlight that transportation takes a very important part of any travelling experience. To make travelling more sustainable, we need to choose more eco-friendly transportation options, with the lowest carbon footprint.
    If you travel internationally, then most likely you take a flight, which has a very high carbon footprint. To make it more sustainable – fly less frequently, choose direct flights, offset your carbon emissions from every flight, etc.
    How do you get around when you at the place? The best transportation mode ever – walking 🙂 No carbon emissions, and it’s good for your health. The second best is cycling. If you need to travel long distances, then opt for public transportation such as buses, metro, trams. Your carbon footprint is still relatively low with this option, as you share a vehicle with many other people. The least eco-friendly option would be taking a taxi or renting a car.

    • Hi Yana,

      Loving all your tips – we talk about the same things in various posts on the site here, but great to have a summary in one place so people can have a quick read. Thanks!

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