Q: What is sustainable travel and why does it matter?

A: Well, technically that's two questions, but I'll let it slide this time! 

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism "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."

So, in short, it's NOT just staying in a hotel with solar panels on the roof. Sustainable travel is recognizing that when we travel there is an impact, not just on ourselves, but on the communities and people we encounter during those visits. It's about making tourism a positive thing and not a destructive one.

You may have heard about Maya Bay in Thailand closing because of overtourism. You might have read about how hoards of tourists in Venice are overloading the infrastructure, damaging buildings, and making daily life miserable for all who live there. And did you know that in Africa, sometimes poachers will follow your geotagged posts on Facebook or Instagram to know where to find their next victim. In Iceland and in other countries, they're actively concerned about how to protect the natural beauty that makes them so attractive to tourists FROM those very same tourists.

In fact, there are so many stories in the world about the negative impacts of tourism that it's a topic of concern just about anywhere you visit. It's not all about hugging trees and recycling; sustainable tourism is about finding ways to travel and experience the world without destroying the beauty, culture and nature that make travel so very worthwhile in the first place.

So, how do we do that?

Well, here are some things to consider:

  • Make a point of interacting with locals when you travel. These one-on-one connections can give you incredible insight into their daily lives and can help you become more sensitive to the impact your travel has on them. In some areas, this might mean understanding that when you buy that scarf, you're helping them feed their families. In other destinations, it might help you understand what kinds of tourist behaviors negatively impact the local life. These types of connections are much more easily accomplished outside of a large tour group and instead with a single, reputable guide who can help you dig deeper into destination and connect with its people. 

  • Be aware of your impact on the environment you visit. In Iceland, that might mean not stepping on moss that will take 100 years to grow back; in other places, it might mean traveling at off-peak times, in smaller groups, or to less touristy destinations to limit your impact. Other places, it might mean simply being aware of the physical toll your visit takes on important landmarks — both man-made and natural. Think about how you can help ensure these places are in pristine condition for your kids and grandkids and all future generations.

  • Understand local culture and customs. Don't try to change a destination to be what you expect it to be or what you're used to. So much of the joy of traveling is in experiencing new and different cultures and customs. Join in on what the locals share with you instead of trying to impose your own customs. Because, when it comes down to it, many places are dependent financially on tourist dollars, and if every tourist who visits expects fast food on every corner, it won't take long for that expectation to be met.

  • Spend money locally. Tourists are huge business in many countries. And tourists can speak with their money, investing it where it can do the most good. For example, in Thailand, you can buy batik fabric from a woman with a small stall at a market who wove it herself and supports her family with her craft OR you can buy a similar fabric from a shop filled with mass-produced merchandise. It's always better, when you can, to spend your money on authentic, local products. 

So, as you can see, sustainable tourism is about way more than just "being green." It means being the best possible tourist in ways that will help preserve and sustain the culture and beauty of the destinations you visit.

Sustainable tourism is important to me personally, and I'd love to help you plan a trip that benefits both you and the environment! Send me an email at kati@curiotraveldesigns.com, and we can get started!

Kati Knowland