7 Steps to Becoming a More Sustainable Traveler

In the course of my travels—and my career as a promoter and practitioner of sustainable tourism—one question comes up again and again: “What can I do to be a more responsible traveler?” So I thought I’d pen a primer.

Here are seven things globetrotters can do to ease their impact on the planet:

1. Avoid the plane and take the trainBecome part of the emerging “slow travel” trend by going to fewer places and spending more time in each. Train travel is a good way to do this. Not only will you experience a deeper sense of place, you’ll also decrease your carbon footprint. Some of my favorite travel-by-train destinations include India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and China.

2. Give, the right way. Many well-intentioned travelers bring sweets, used clothing, books, and pencils to hand out to children and villagers in developing nations. Sadly, this kind giving often has unintended consequences—it can sow community conflict and encourage a culture of dependency and begging. I watched two Maasai women in Africa fight over a T-shirt that a smiling tourist had handed out; in some parts of Asia, the first English words children learn are “Give me sweet.”

It is better to give—be it money or goods—to reputable local organizations that work on social welfare programs, or to international groups that partner with them. A good one is Pack for a Purpose.

3. Understand the following two terms and be part of the new age of intelligent travel: 

> Ecotourism: Two decades ago, I joined a dozen scientists, conservationists, and modern-day explorers in an old farm house outside of Washington, D.C. It was the first board meeting of the International Ecotourism Society.

Our task? To define what, exactly, ecotourism was. After two days, we agreed on what is now the most widely used definition of ecotourism in the world today: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves nature and sustains the wellbeing of local people.”

> Sustainable Tourism: This movement takes ecotourism’s core principles and applies them across the full spectrum of the travel and tourism industry—from city hotels to cruise lines. The three pillars of sustainable tourism are employing environmentally friendly practices (reduce, reuse, recycle); protecting cultural and natural heritage (e.g., restoring historic buildings or saving endangered species); and providing tangible social and economic benefits for local communities (ranging from upholding the rights of indigenous peoples to supporting fair wages for employees).

4. Say no to plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of human trash stretching across thousands of miles of the ocean, includes gazillions of throw-away plastic bottles and bags that will take hundreds of years, if ever, to break down—all the while wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.

Be a part of the solution by opting for locally purified water in recyclable glass bottles (in the tropics, I rely mainly on green coconuts to stay hydrated) and carrying tote bags in your luggage that you can use while perusing street markets and shops. Not only will this cut back on plastic waste, it will also reduce your carbon footprint–petroleum-based ingredients are a staple in manufacturing plastic bottles and bags.

5. Do your research when it comes to tour operators. I explore on my own most of the time when I travel, but when I do seek out the services of a tour outfitter, I always ask three questions before signing on: What are some of your tour company’s environmentally friendly practices? Can you give me an example of how your trips help to protect and support wildlife or cultural heritage? Do you employ local guides on your trips?

These days, any outfitter that cannot provide a clear answer is behind the times. Find another one.

6. Support the real local economy. Locally made crafts and souvenirs are not always cheaper, but purchasing them ensures your contribution to the economy will have a more direct and positive impact.

In Cancun, for example, some gift shops sell “traditional” Mexican sombreros that are imported from China because they cost less, while village artisans who make the hats by hand charge more.

The difference is not just in the price. Buying the real sombreros supports authentic cultural heritage and provides needed jobs for the locals who make them.

7. Never buy wildlife products—period. On a trip to Vietnam’s Halong Bay, I watched a group of American tourists haggling with villagers who were selling some of the most beautiful sea shells I have come across in my travels.

Similarly, in Mongolia, I witnessed a couple of backpackers haggling at an outdoor market to buy a hand-stitched eagle hunter’s hat made from plush wolf fur. These travelers were inadvertently helping to support a growing marketplace for trafficking rare and endangered wildlife products as souvenirs. Just say no.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic Travel. He’s also chairman of the World Legacy Awards. Follow Costas on Twitter @CostasChrist.

Do you know of a company, organization, or destination that is helping to revolutionize tourism for the better? Encourage them to apply for the World Legacy Awards.

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  1. JR
    June 2, 2015, 11:00 am

    “…one word… are you listening? plastics” (The Graduate)

    It’s a struggle. I have a recycle bin in the library and many times, I’m having to take the plastic (or cans) from one bin to the other. It’s disheartening.
    It’s one of the reasons I’m avoiding cruises. It just screams of excess to me. The food, the scale – all of it. Doesn’t seem sustainable. We’re doing RMNP next month and I’m going to be happy to just wander around the trails, take some pictures, soak in the beauty – and leave with warm fuzzies. I’m conscious of the impact of water bottles and plastics. Now that I know better, I’m going to do better.

  2. Debra
    December 25, 2014, 3:55 pm

    Without a shadow of a doubt, the easiest and quickest way to help the environment is to cut down on plastic.
    As a traveller, esp in Asia, water comes in small plastic bottles. If you keep the first one and top up from the hotel’s purified water or a 5L container you’ve immediately cut down on 6-8 bottles a day. A small change like this can make a difference.

  3. LeAnne Smith
    San Francisco
    December 25, 2014, 3:18 pm

    Excellent advice Costas. I’m sorry I read the other comments. Everyone’s a critic. But there are us who are dedicated to travel professionally and personally who are able to grasp such complex concepts such as train travel.

  4. Johnny Tremblay
    December 25, 2014, 8:47 am

    Very good advices xx.

  5. Loreto
    July 30, 2014, 9:36 pm

    Great advice Costas for those living on the mainland but not so great for those of us who live in the islands of the Caribbean. This region is the most heavily dependent on tourism in the world and we need the visitors!! Agree withe rest of the points !

  6. Ken Stobbs
    Vancouver Canada
    July 30, 2014, 9:08 pm

    Although here in North America it is not often missed, in most other cultures the initial use of ‘Please and Thank you’ will go much further than you think. Remembering that when visiting a foreign location one is not visiting an amusement park and the local people are not necessarily there to serve.
    Further to the overuse of the advertising term ‘Ecotourism’, it warrants investigation. In fact there really isn’t any truly environmentally beneficial commercial tourism.

  7. united-21 kanha
    July 9, 2014, 7:49 am

    If someone really want to enjoy the trip with family and friend just follow this steps, as per our experience in travel and tourism you enjoy it up to pick point of joy.

    United – 21 kanha

  8. jay
    Bombay, India
    July 8, 2014, 3:19 pm

    Costas, you say that one of your favourite places to take a train is India.

    And how do you get there from where you are?

  9. Robert
    Germany and France
    July 8, 2014, 5:37 am

    Thanks for those really helpful advices. I will blog them on my travel blog. Here in Europe our train system is much better than in the US but flights are still a lot cheaper. I paid a ticket Cologne-Nice some 70 Euros. The train would at least be three times more and take 17 instead of one hour. The reason for the huge differences in prices: Public bodies are paying for the airports and airplane gas is not taxed. That’s really crazy

  10. Mark
    July 8, 2014, 3:52 am

    While I agree with some of this how much of it is actually specifically about being a better traveler ?? and how much is about trying to promote being more eco friendly ??

    For example 5 raises a good point about being selective over tour operators but there are more important things for the average traveler to ask before ‘ What are some of your tour company’s environmentally friendly practices? ‘

  11. ReadandShare
    July 5, 2014, 2:08 pm

    Take the train more? I’d be happy if more of us fellow Americans can travel abroad!! The majority of us get only two weeks’ vacation a year. And you gotta visit family and in-laws! Just get on the damn plane and see the world. Trains? Yeah….

    If more of us can travel and gain some firsthand experiences of the world out there — we wouldn’t be so easily scared and swayed by our government and our media — both providing us with simplistic, sensationalized and plain-wrong perspectives of the world out there.