Over the last year, we’ve all had time to reflect on what’s important to us and how we might change some of our habits in the future. For some, that could be giving Veganuary a try. For others, it could be a promise to themselves to take sustainability into consideration in more aspects of their life – like travel.
What do we really mean by ‘sustainable travel’?
In the words of Sam Edwards, Skyscanner’s Sustainability Lead, “If we were to ask 10 different people, even those in the know, we would probably get 10 different answers. Instead, let’s take a step back and look at what ‘sustainable’ means on its own: ‘able to be maintained at a certain rate or level’. This is what truly matters – that travel, and the destinations we visit, are maintained in the long run, making it possible for future generations to visit and enjoy.
Regenerative travel takes it a step further, ensuring that the impact of travel and tourism is not only minimised but beneficial to the local area. You may also have come across the idea of conscious travel, which refers to being mindful of the impact you have when travelling so that your journeys are as fulfilling for others as they are for you.
It’s clear that sustainable travel is about so much more than its carbon footprint. Of course, we need to address the climate crisis and preserve the environment, but we also need to protect ecosystems and wildlife, as well as make sure that local communities enjoy the direct economic benefits tourism can bring to where they live. This means building awareness, educating, investing in technology and offering consumer choice. It’s about promoting intelligent tourism growth and looking at both overtourism and undertourism, too.”
What is a sustainable destination?
It’s important to establish that no destination will be 100% sustainable in every way. Working toward full sustainability is a collaborative effort that involves citizens, NGOs, businesses, local and national governments and, of course, tourists. A sustainable destination emphasises respecting nature, wildlife, culture and the economic wellbeing of local people. This is carried out in many different ways, which we’ll explore through the five destinations we’re highlighting when it comes to eco-friendly travel in 2021 and beyond.
Sustainable destination #1: Palau
“Back in 2015, the Pacific Ocean island of Palau was first to insist visitors sign an ‘eco pledge,’ ensuring all who visit are good environmental stewards for the duration of their stay via a stamp in their passports. This set a benchmark for national dedication towards the protection of the environment. As though that weren’t trailblazing enough – as well as banning single-use plastics, styrofoam and coral-killing sunscreens – Palau is also striving to be the world’s first ‘Carbon Neutral Tourism Destination.’
Sustainable Travel International is an organisation dedicated to protecting destinations and preserving natural environments. Not only is this non-profit helping get Palau noticed for their next-level conservation of land and sea, but they’re working with Slow Food International to make their tourism industry more sustainable through promoting local food systems, reducing the cultural and environmental damage caused by food imports.”
–Juliet Kinsman, Sustainability Editor at Condé Nast Traveller
The natural habitats and local communities on islands are incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This spurred the people of Palau to take action to protect their Pacific archipelago and serve as an example to other nations. Since 2020, they have been working toward carbon neutrality in the tourism sector. Tourists will be able to contribute to activities that reduce CO2 emissions by making a carbon offset contribution based on the footprint associated with their trip. These funds will go toward tactics like marine conservation, habitat restoration and investments in local food production.
Even before Palau’s carbon-neutral initiative launched, the country had made great strides toward sustainability and encouraging responsible tourism. Here are a few examples:
- There is a mandatory eco-pledge that visitors must sign before entering the country – the first of its kind in the world.
- Single-use plastics are banned, and Palau is also moving toward zero waste.
- Palau turned 80% of its national waters into a marine sanctuary where activities like commercial fishing and oil drilling are banned. This was a critical move for a country reliant on water-based tourism.
- Sunscreens that contain ‘reef-toxic’ ingredients cannot be worn or sold in the country.
During your stay, support businesses that carry the Palau Pledge logo. These certified businesses are taking actions to reduce their environmental impact, work in a sustainable manner and support local people and products.
Sustainable destination #2: Rwanda
“Rwandan development at all levels is in harmony with the environment, a commitment to lift all Rwandans, and a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption. Tourism is an economic driver and all lodges must be environmentally friendly and provide tangible, social and economic benefits to nearby communities. Especially hiring ex-poachers. These reformed hunters, working as porters, trackers or guides, now promote conservation by protecting the animals they used to hunt. 10% of tourism revenue is invested annually in sustainable community development projects next to protected wildlife areas, encouraging communities to have a stake in animal and habitat conservation.”
As a country, Rwanda has been making impressive strides when it comes to sustainability, both for the local environment and for its tourism industry. Plastic bags have been banned since 2008, which has served as a model for other countries. Community-based initiatives were developed to invest in locals. These programs support activities such as gardening, farming, handicraft production (sold to tourists as souvenirs) and jobs in the tourism industry, such as tour guides and hospitality work.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park was named one of ‘The World’s Top 10 Sustainable Destinations’ in 2018 by ITB Berlin, the largest tourism trade fair. This recognition is partly owed to the work that locals are doing to help protect the park and its wildlife.
Tracking mountain gorillas is a popular activity for visitors to Volcanoes National Park. However, without the right precautions, it can put a lot of stress on the gorillas and hinder conservation efforts. Rwandans have implemented measures that have proven helpful in protecting the park’s gentle giants and turning gorilla tracking into a sustainable activity that respects the animals and their habitat. This includes limiting the number of visitors, enforcing etiquette measures and prohibiting those who are sick from participating. Part of the fee visitors pay for a tracking permit also finds its way back to the community through a revenue share program.
Sustainable destination #3: Costa Rica
“With 30% of its territory in well-established national parks and protected areas marked for conservation – one of the highest ratios in the world – paired with the highest density of plant and animal species on Earth, unsurprisingly, Costa Rica’s ecotourism is second-to-none. But it was the government’s understanding of the country’s natural wonders and tourism assets that led to the prioritising, championing and pioneering of sustainable tourism, as well as its certification for the benefit of its people, environment and economy, and even the development of the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, NatureAir.
At Earth Changers, we feature the country’s first lodges to have gained the coveted 5 Leaf rating for Sustainable Tourism. Lapa Rios, a 930-acre private nature reserve located at the southern-most tip of the Osa Peninsula, is Central America’s last remaining lowland-dense tropical rainforest, home to 2.5% of the biodiversity in the world – probably. It is not even known exactly how many unidentified species there may be, the primary forest being so dense.”
-Vicky Smith, Founder at Earth Changers
As the home to 6.5% of the world’s biodiversity, Costa Rica has been an international leader in conservation and sustainable practices for decades. Its people take this role seriously. They have successfully reversed deforestation, are using renewable resources to generate more than 90% of the entire country’s electricity and are working toward net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
Since 1997, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute has been awarding tourism companies – from eco-lodges to whale-watching expeditions – that excel in environmentally sustainable practices with the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). This was one of the first programs of its kind in the world and is recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
In the small village of Parismina, just south of Tortuguero National Park on the east coast, visitors can see eco-practices being carried out at a local level. Association Save the Turtles of Parismina (ASTOP) is a small conservation group that works to protect turtle species that nest on its shores from poaching. Villagers are employed by the non-profit and locals host volunteers for an additional source of income.
Sustainable destination #4: The Azores, Portugal
The volcanic landscapes of The Azores islands and their surrounding sapphire waters would be in jeopardy if not for the country’s sustainability efforts. A focus on renewable energy sources, better water usage and management and the protection of landscapes, habitats and wildlife has garnered The Azores much recognition. In 2019, it was the first archipelago to earn Earthcheck Silver Certification. The following year, The Azores received the prestigious ‘Best of Nature’ award at ITB Berlin.
Sustainable development and a cap on the number of hotel beds available to tourists ensures conservation of the landscape and protects against overtourism. Some of the most-visited spots among the islands, like the Caldeira Velha hot springs, are limiting the number of people who can enter so as not to stress the environment.
Sustainable destination #5: Helsinki, Finland
“As a city, Helsinki has grand ambitions to be carbon neutral. It’s promoting slow fashion labels, hotels that consider the environment and experiences with a small carbon footprint are easily found on the Visit Helsinki website.
As a country, Finland takes sustainable tourism seriously and considers it the norm. There’s a fabulous Sustainable Finland pledge you can take as a visitor, which includes looking after nature, not using single-use plastics and being respectful of local cultures.”
-Georgina Wilson-Powell, Founder of pebble, a stylish sustainable living magazine and Author of Is It Really Green? Everyday Eco Dilemmas Answered
Helsinki stands out among capital cities – and even the entirety of Finland – as a model for sustainable living. Eco-initiatives are centered around the city’s goals of reducing greenhouse emissions by 60% by the year 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2035. It’s installing more charging stations for electric cars, developing public transportation services and improving pedestrian and cycling mobility (more than 745 miles of bike paths already exist in the city!). To help decrease consumption, there’s an emphasis on textile recycling and second-hand shopping. Libraries also offer shared services ranging from 3D printing to drill rentals.
Although these are resident-focused initiatives, visitors are largely affected and play a great role in Helsinki’s sustainability efforts, too. The Think Sustainably program helps residents and visitors identify service providers that operate in a sustainable manner and meet specific criteria. This includes restaurants that serve vegan and vegetarian dishes, lodging that respects and businesses that provide fair compensation and hire those who may be difficult to place.
What are some sustainable practices when it comes to travel?
As a traveller, there are minor and much greater actions that you can take to ensure you’re travelling with the smallest-possible footprint. Some are:
- Avoid single-use plastics by travelling with your own reusable bags, water bottles and food containers.
- Never litter, disturb flora or feed or touch wildlife.
- Contribute a donation to local conservation and protection programs to offset your carbon footprint.
- Make greener choices when it comes to bookings: stay in eco-lodges or hotels, select flights with lower CO2 emissions (use Skyscanner’s ‘Greener Choices’ filter when you search for flights), dine at farm-to-table restaurants and choose tour operators that hire local and participate in environmentally friendly practices.
We all need to keep innovating and pushing boundaries as we work toward making travel sustainable worldwide. The destinations showcased above are each innovating in their own ways – whether through community-based action or carbon commitments – and are great examples of those leading the charge toward making travel a catalyst for good.
Sustainable travel in 2021 and beyond
Travel is a fundamental part of being human. We want to explore, see the world, connect with others and relax, too. This will always be true. But the choices you make when you travel have a profound impact on climate change and the local people and their environment. So travel must change, and we all must do what is necessary to help communities and ecosystems everywhere thrive for years to come. Doing this will ensure that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy and explore our beautiful world, too.
Discover where you can go
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Frequently asked questions
In addition to those we’ve mentioned in this article, other popular ecotourism destinations include Bhutan, Slovenia, Jamaica, Scotland, New Zealand, Galapagos National Park and Lake Tahoe.
Responsible travel will help preserve the destinations we visit for future generations. This includes the local environment, fauna, flora, people and their culture.
Just a few examples of sustainability include recycling, composting, using recycled materials, sourcing electricity from renewable energy sources, employing locals, accessibility, protecting wildlife, forest regeneration, low-impact transport and supporting local community initiatives.
Want to read more?
- Coronavirus travel advice. We continually update this page with relevant UK government requirements and recommendations, plus the latest airline policy changes.
- Our 2021 new year’s travel resolutions. From carbon offsets to eco tourism, this is what we’re doing to travel better in 2021.
- Travel after Brexit: what are the new Brexit passport rules?