What Is Sustainable Travel?
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Tourism (n). A big, messy, all-encompassing web of complex economic, social, political, and cultural elements that includes everything from cruises to homestays to bike tours and countless experiences in between.
As travelers, we tend to step in and out of the world of tourism, entering when we embark on vacation and exiting when we return home. Yet, for millions of people and dozens of countries around the world, tourism is everpresent. In 2019, it was estimated that the travel and tourism sector supported 334 million jobs or nearly 10.6% of all jobs in the world. In the places where tourism is a central piece of the economy, it becomes not only a source of livelihoods but also a defining characteristic of the place. When you live in a highly sought-after destination - think Barcelona or the Riviera Maya - you do not ever really get to leave the world of tourism. It swirls around you, impacting and influencing your day-to-day life, your environment, your freedom of movement, your sense of identity.
These impacts can be both positive and negative. The positive impacts include job creation, funding for wildlife conservation, historical preservation, cultural exchange, and more. Yet, the negative impacts of tourism can cause serious harm to the local environment, contribute to unmanageable over-crowding, drive out local landowners and businesses, and create a system of inequity between locals and visitors, among other things. In recent years, the rise of over-tourism, and its associated negative impacts, has been highlighted in the news. Swarming crowds in famous destinations, like Venice, provide a visceral picture of what the negative impacts of tourism can look and feel like.
Enter the idea of sustainable tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Sustainable tourism is a philosophy that suggests that there need not be winners and losers in the world of travel. It is a philosophy that asks the industry to think critically and thoughtfully about the way it organizes itself. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) suggests that sustainable tourism is “an aspiration to acknowledge all impacts of tourism, both positive and negative.” And, once we’ve acknowledged all impacts, good and bad, we can work towards making more sustainable choices.
So, what’s a traveler to do? How does the philosophy of “sustainable tourism” apply to individuals? How can we ensure our vacations contribute positively to the places that we visit? How should we go about selecting hotels or restaurants or tour operators?
“Responsible tourism” offers us a scaled-down approach to sustainable tourism by focusing on the power of individual travel choices. The GSTC defines it as “the behavior of individual travelers aspiring to make choices according to sustainable tourism practices.” Responsible tourism is empowering; it reminds us that we have the ability to enjoy unforgettable experiences while also leaving a positive impact on our destination.
I started Molly Gone Wild as a way to combine my two passions: sustainability and travel. I believe “sustainable travel” is possible and I strive to be a “responsible traveler” wherever I go. For me, that means staying at locally-owned hotels, eating at non-chain and locally-owned restaurants, reading about the history of the places I visit, taking time to get off the beaten track, choosing to walk or bike whenever possible, tipping well, always paying park fees or conservation fees, respecting local customs, buying souvenirs from local artists, visiting national parks or protected areas, getting to know locals, asking questions, traveling in the off-season when possible, choosing tour operators that abide by the principles of sustainable tourism, among other things.
Of course, it’s impossible to make perfect choices all the time. Sometimes the only ecolodge available costs $1000 per night and is way out of your price range. Sometimes you have to take a taxi from one place to the next because it would take hours to walk. Responsible travel is not about being perfect, it is about being thoughtful and intentional about our choices so that we can explore the wild and wonderful corners of the world in a way that creates positive social, economic, and environmental impact.
With Molly Gone Wild, I invite you to explore the world of sustainable, responsible travel with me. It is my hope that by sharing responsible travel tips and sustainable destination recommendations, I can help others discover that sustainable travel can be attainable, affordable, and wildly fun.