Sustainable Tourism: Perceptions, Practices, and Realities

We don’t have to go too far or search too long to find the terms “sustainable tourism” and “responsible travel” in today’s tourism lexicon. Most travel and tourism businesses ardently acknowledge their relevance and necessity. Yet, the application and practice of sustainability, in all its forms, remains far more elusive. In part, this can be attributed to an absence of information available to the public about existing practices. This, in turn, has led to a chasm between the perception and realities of sustainable tourism.

A few years back, like many others, I came to the realization that travel and tourism weren’t always the carefree constructs we believed them to be. There was a wake in our path, which was often littered – figuratively and literally. Since then, my aspiration has become to authentically engage with sustainable tourism, working to constructively share this information with the travel community and travelers.

Most of us first became aware of sustainability when we learned that by picking up our towel off the hotel’s bathroom floor, we would single-handedly save the Amazon rainforest. It didn’t quite work out that way, as nice as it sounded. “Greenwashing,” as it is known, still exists today, in more subtle forms and usually as marketing gimmicks. Unfortunately, public perception about sustainability hasn’t progressed much past this, despite an increasing number of travelers eagerly looking to incorporate these practices into their journeys. Other misperceptions surround responsible travel as well. One is that it costs more to travel sustainability; it doesn’t. Responsible travel is as much a mindset as it is a tangible practice. A desire to consciously approach our journeys is an important first step to understanding our role in travel and then educating ourselves about how to do it.

Environmental impact is one of three core pillars of sustainable tourism and is certainly the most recognizable. Yet, there are two other components that are equally important: protecting cultural heritage and maximizing benefits for the local economy. Taking these three elements into account, the core of sustainable tourism is drilled down to “acting and treating the people and places we visit with respect, the same way we expect others to act when they tour our homes and communities.” It is effectively the practice of “do no harm” and leave the destination as you found it, if not better, for those that come after.

Here are a few sample questions we should all consider to begin applying sustainable and responsible practices to our travel journeys:

  1. Are our accommodations utilizing sustainability practices such as water and energy conservation? Are they using sustainable materials when and where possible versus single-use items?
  2. Is it possible to use alternate means of transportation such as trains, buses, or bikes?
  3. Are we supporting the local community and economy by visiting locally-owned restaurants and stores?
  4. Do the airlines, hotels, and tour operators we travel with provide the opportunity to carbon offset?
  5. If we visit indigenous people or groups, are we respectful of them and their culture? Did they participate in the criteria and planning of tourism to their towns, villages, and/or homes?

While sustainability can often be confusing, it does not have to be complex. It does need to be fundamental to travel going forward and, in many ways, should be considered crucial. The reality is sustainable tourism is common sense stuff. Vacations should never be work or come with a to-do list. Let’s face it, the hardest any of us expect to work on a trip is worrying about having to be the “WiFi Whisperer” – Be strong; you can do this; you got this! Our vacations should always be the time we need to relax and enjoy ourselves. Hopefully, with some easy sustainability practices included, they will be beneficial to all involved, which is the ultimate goal.

By Justin