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  • Susanna Shankar

Sustainable Travel and the path ahead

What is Sustainable Travel?

Before we get too deep into sustainable travel and our behaviors, let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? If we, as travelers, take away more than we contribute to our destinations, this is unsustainable tourism. If we pollute pristine beaches with plastic or purchase cheap souvenirs, we will lose the spirit of travel. Sustainable travel doesn’t chip away at what makes our destinations beautiful and unique. Instead, it sustains them for our generation and future generations. Honestly, it should be the baseline for all of our activities. Beyond that, we should be aiming for (net) positive impact travel, where we contribute more to our destination than we take away.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

So, sustainable travel ensures our presence doesn’t degrade our destination or contribute to a positive impact. But, what exactly should we be ‘contributing?’ We can look to the three pillars of sustainability and contribute to our destinations with a positive impact socially, economically, and environmentally. All sustainable travel should contribute to each of the three pillars somehow, without any significant adverse effects in any of the categories.

Whether it’s ecotourism, responsible tourism, ethical tourism, or sustainable tourism, at the very least, you should learn about the natural environment of your destination, infuse money directly into the local economy, and seek out authentic cultural exchanges with an open mind.

Top Tip for Getting Started

After we covered the basics, we discussed actionable ways to change the way you plan for and travel to be more sustainable, including my number one tip! My number one tip for getting started in sustainable travel is to shift where you put your money to prevent tourism leakage. Tourism leakage is when the money you spend at a destination ‘leaks out.’ This often happens when you book an all-inclusive resort stay with a multinational company. Most of your money goes into the pockets of the larger company and not the locals. Why is this important? Well, primarily because the destinations are the ones that feel the impact of tourism - increased pollution, strained infrastructure, displacement of local communities. They need every dollar they can get to mitigate and adapt locally, managing these impacts and creating local jobs to do so. If you take away one thing from our chat, I hope it is to be mindful to ensure your money stays local. Book local hotels that employ locals in management. Eat at local restaurants that serve local food. Hire local tour guides. This straightforward step should be considered before you book anything, as it creates local jobs in tourism and agriculture and beyond. Before booking anything for your next trip, I encourage you to read about pages and research the companies you support. My rule of thumb is that I should be able to identify how the companies I support have a positive impact socially, economically, and environmentally.

Accessibility and Sustainable Travel - is it only for the wealthy?

This was one of my favorite questions because, historically, sustainability is rooted in frugality. The core foundation of sustainability is reusing, recycling, and reducing, started by those often looking to save money and stretch their dollar. So, of course, sustainable travel can be done on a budget. If you’re on a budget, you can start your journey by seeking authentic home stays in rural communities. These stays are cheap and contribute to social and economic viability without costing you a lot. Get off the beaten path and away from destinations suffering from mass-over tourism. My favorite example is in Venice. At the main tourist square, espresso costs 10 Euro. As soon as you enter a local neighborhood and find a coffee shop that supports the local community, espresso costs 1 Euro, but that 1 Euro can have a more significant impact than 10 Euros at a tourist hot spot.

I love that sustainable travel has a niche for everyone. If you have a bigger budget, you should seek ways to ensure your money has a big impact. You can do this by supporting master craftspeople by purchasing pricey but authentic souvenirs. If you travel for food, you should ensure your food is local and made with traditional techniques. Find a way to transform your interest and work within your budget to make sustainable travel accessible to you and something you enjoy - it is much easier to maintain this way!

Travel and The Environment

Our next topic landed us on the hot topic of air travel and the environmental impact of tourism. There is no denying that travel is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions, so what can we do about it? Should we stop flying? Both Deeptanshu and I expressed difficulty addressing this topic. We both live across the world from our families, and never flying again means we would never see our families. Also, it is critical to think about who is impacted if we were to stop all flights today. Those privileged enough to live in Europe could easily access many places by train and energy-efficient mass transit. Those in less developed regions are suddenly isolated from ever seeing new places and are often isolated by the economic benefits of tourism, such as conservation funding.

The answer here is not an easy one. It requires us to think critically about our reasons for flying and alter our flight patterns, but flight shaming isn’t the right path forward. I asked the listeners to go down a list of questions before booking their next flight. If you feel good about booking your next flight after going through them, then you are on your way to thinking critically about your next fight. They were:

  • How will I contribute to the three pillars of sustainability on this trip?

  • Is there an alternative method of travel? Even if it takes longer?

  • How long am I staying? Longer trips are better.

  • Will I have a net positive impact?

  • What are some ways I can learn about the environment from my destination?

  • What am I doing to offset this flight at home and financially

  • How will I be supporting the local economy?

  • Am I flying less than last year / How many trips is this?

So, now that you’ve thought about your flight and decided to book, the next question we talked about was carbon offsetting. Is this a way to make travel responsible? The short answer is no - it is not a band-aid for flying, but it is 100% something you should be doing every time you fly. However, during our chat, I encouraged our listeners to go beyond a regular carbon offset and consider alternatives. Alternatives to offsetting with airlines like United or Delta is to find a local carbon offset program. Local programs started and supported by your destination are likely to significantly aid communities to find environmental solutions that work best for them. You can also look into carbon removal programs that actively remove carbon from the air for an even more significant impact. Finally, you should be changing your actions at home for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Once you arrive at your destination, you should look for ways to continue to reduce your impact on the environment. One way to do this is to take the time to engage in sustainable ecotourism, learning about local conservation concerns and the region’s biodiversity. Another of my top tips is to ask yourself what sustainable behaviors you can discover from local communities that you can, in turn, adopt back home. For example, when I visited India, I learned many ways to reduce my food waste that I use in my kitchen today.

Post-Pandemic Travel

The topic on everyone’s mind, post-pandemic travel, and the million-dollar question will travellers change their behavior moving forward. With people talking about sustainable travel more than ever, I am hopeful for a positive shift in traveler’s behaviors. Simply talking about sustainable travel opens the door for a change in social norms. Yes, that means you should be talking about sustainable travel with your friends and family! However, it is unlikely that in the last two years, travellers as a whole will have changed at the scale needed. The best thing to come out of the pandemic is when it allowed for destinations buckling under the weight of unsustainable tourism to reset. Destinations such as The Netherlands, Venice, Thailand, and Barcelona have taken time to rework their tourism model to build upon sustainable principles. These systemic changes in tourism are critical. Eventually, whether or not travellers actively choose to do so, they will be partaking in sustainable travel. In a post-pandemic world, this combination of changes to the system and in our behaviors gives me hope for a positive future for travel.

Positive Power of Travel and The Next Steps

We ended our chat on a positive note. While travel can get a bad rep from the carbon emissions to over tourism, there is a positive side. We discussed stories where travel is helping increase the population of critically endangered mountain gorillas and transforming local communities in Uganda and DR Congo. We shared stories of how community-based travel can prevent domestic violence in rural communities. These stories are why we should be changing our behaviors, and we should be doing it today!

If it seems scary or overwhelming, you are not alone. My journey to sustainable travel has been long and filled with bumps. Every trip I take, I realize I could have done something better and do something better. This change needs to happen, but you can learn as you go. Every time you travel, adopt a new behavior. Start by bringing a reusable water bottle, changing the type of accommodation you find, taking one less flight, or changing the type of food you eat. Over time these little changes add up, and they seem much more manageable.

I started by changing the narrative from “what can I get out of this trip?” - to “what impact can I create on this trip?” And you know what? I realized that I began to enjoy travel more than ever. I didn’t have to give up the things I enjoyed. I just had to change how I enjoyed them. I still splurge from time to time. Instead of booking a boujee stay at a multi-national chain, I find luxury in rural Eco-lodges built using sustainable materials, surrounded by vineyards, hospitality, and local food and wine.

I hope you’re inspired to find excitement and enjoyment about positive impact travel. If we as travellers have the opportunity to learn about our planet’s beautiful biodiversity while preserving it for future generations, we must certainly take it.

Sustainability is a journey and it will always remain a journey . The only thing which we can do is how judiciously we manage this journey

Author: Susanna (

Growing up in a small town in Alaska, I had a connection to nature and a sense of sustainability that is often lost in the era of urbanization. Unfortunately, as a young adult, I lost many of the lessons I learned as a child and set off on selfish travel adventures that probably did more harm than good. Slowly, the more I traveled, the more I realized that each destination I saw had unique biodiversity worth protecting. Each region had incredible ecosystems providing natural resources for locals. Each culture had its way of connecting to the environment and combating environmental issues in the era of climate change. Traveling became a way to engage in learning opportunities about nature, to discover sustainable behaviors to adapt, and to create a positive impact at each place I visited. I spent some time as a tour guide in Alaska, where I learned firsthand the complex nuances of tourism. On the one hand, travel had the power to connect travellers with the environment and brought countless economic and social benefits to rural small towns. On the other hand, problematic economic leakage and environmental infractions left small communities dealing with a slew of new problems like pollution and overcrowding.

These lessons empowered me to engage in sustainable tourism, and I was excited for the opportunity to pass along some things I learned along the way. I have hope for a future where there is no longer a divide between travel and sustainable travel; we will have inherently sustainable travel. Unfortunately, if we can not do this, the price we pay is the loss of the very reason many of us choose to travel in the first place- to see beautiful natural destinations and experience authentic cultural experiences. We, as travellers, can strive for positive impact tourism, which can combat poverty, gender inequality, and ecosystem degradation. Of course, travel isn’t the ultimate solution to all our problems, as it comes with its own environmental problems. But we owe it to our beautiful planet to do better by altering some of our actions to engage in sustainable tourism, creating a positive ripple as we travel.

My conversation with Deeptanshu from TRESTLE covered many great topics exploring both the darker and lighter side of tourism and how we can alter some of our behaviors to shift toward the lighter side. I hope our chat and the sustainable travel tips in this post serve as a primer to help you start your journey to sustainable travel - and remember we all have to start somewhere and today is a great day!

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