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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?


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