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Sustainable Travel: How Not to Wreck the Next Place You Visit

Planning your next trip? As you plan, think about paying closer attention to the environmental impacts of your travel. Read on for sustainable travel tips.
Maya Bay, Thailand

Leonardo DiCaprio may have boasted top film credits in “The Beach,” but the real star of the show was Thailand’s Maya Bay. With crystal blue waters, golden sand, and a thriving coral reef system, this pristine pool of paradise is about as close to heaven on earth as you can get.

Or at least it was. After Maya Bay shot to fame in February 2000, mass tourism quickly shot the place to hell. So much so, authorities officially closed the beach in 2018 to give the environment time to heal.

If you’re looking for sustainable travel, what happened to Maya Bay is not it. In fact, the destruction caused by the hordes of boats, tourists, and rubbish that infested the place is exactly the opposite of what sustainable travel is meant to be.

This can make travel a bit tricky. You still want to see the world and all of its natural and historical beauty. Part of the joy of visiting ancient temples or remote beaches is that they’ve survived as long as they have. To be sustainable tourists, we need to really think about the impact we’re having when we step out of our homes and into the world.

What is “sustainable travel”?

Sustainable travel refers to traveling in a way that pays acute attention to both the positive and negative impacts you may be having as you journey from place to place.

  • Positive impacts can include things like job creation, preserving cultural heritage, and leaving the environment better than you found it.
  • Negative impacts can include overcrowding and damage to the environment, both of which occurred after a daily dose of up to 5,000 people and 200 boats crammed into tiny Maya Bay.

What are the pillars of sustainable travel?

Go even deeper into the realm of sustainable travel, and you’ll find it’s made up of three main pillars. They are:

  • Environmental sustainability
  • Social sustainability
  • Economic sustainability

For those in the know, the three pillars are often referred to as planet, people, and profits.

Environmental sustainability

Protecting and preserving the environment and biodiversity are at the core of environmental sustainability. This applies to waterways, forests, coral reefs, and other elements of the natural environment. But it also applies to architecture, statues, art, historic buildings, and other artifacts crafted by humans.

Social sustainability

Humans play a central role in social sustainability. Here you want to pay attention to the impact your travel has on the different communities with which you may interact. A big one is the community at your destination.

The goal is to respect, conserve and even contribute to their culture and legacy. Don’t forget the other communities you may encounter along the way, such as your fellow airline passengers, flight attendants, and other people you meet.

Economic sustainability

Financial profitability is key for economic sustainability, but it should never be pursued at the expense of the other two pillars.

In the case of Maya Bay, the droves of tourists were causing environmental damage year after year. But they were also bringing in an average of $9.5 million year after year. The reluctance of Thai authorities to shut down the beach was a boon for the economy—yet a total bust for the environment.

While Maya Bay gave local tourism a boost, it was not sustainable the way it was going. Economic sustainability requires a long-term solution that provides socio-economic benefits to the community across the board.

The tourism that was overrunning the bay was destroying the very source of income.

Is traveling bad for the environment?

Maya Bay is a prime example of how traveling can be bad for the environment. But it doesn’t have to be. It all depends on how you go about it.

An influx of careless visitors has the power to damage even the most pristine environments, but that’s not the only thing that can have a negative impact.

Air travel impact

Air travel gets a bad rap, thanks to its estimated impact on the atmosphere. In addition to carbon dioxide, airplanes produce pollutants like nitrogen oxides, aerosols, and water vapor – all of which absorb and trap energy that would otherwise radiate back into space.

Keep in mind, however, air travel only accounts for a scant 2.5% of global emissions—far less than electricity and agriculture.

Sunset through airplane window

Car travel impact

Road trips may not be much cleaner, especially if you’re going alone. Even if vehicles spew out smaller amounts of harmful byproducts, there are more of them on the road. A single flight can hold dozens or even hundreds of passengers. A single car typically carries 1.6 people (including the driver).

Vehicles likewise emit carbon dioxide, and burning diesel fuel or gasoline creates carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, hydrocarbons, and other less-than-fun byproducts.

Road trip with map

Negative impact on the destination

Overcrowding, carelessness, and prioritizing profit over everything else can likewise make traveling harmful to the environment. Sure, Thailand may have enjoyed an influx of nearly $10 million per year from travelers visiting Maya Bay. But it paid dearly with the destruction of its beach, its plant life, and its coral reefs.

Does sustainable tourism really make a difference?

With so many potential threats to the environment, local communities, and economies, travel may seem like a surefire way to wreck the planet beyond repair. And if the most extreme cases of destruction kept on the way they were going, it certainly could be.

But then sustainable tourism was born. Does it really make a difference? Yes.

Changing habits to preserve instead of destroying has no choice but to have a positive impact. How much of a positive impact depends on how many people participate.

In the case of Maya Bay, we have an ongoing case study we can check in on to see the progress. The beach was closed in 2018 after more than 80% of its surrounding coral was destroyed by boat anchors as well as pollution from boats, litter, and sunscreen.

Water pollution by plastics and litter

After four years of closure, the bay was back to its happy, healthy self—and a sustainable tourism plan was put into place. Efforts included:

  • Cleaning up all the trash
  • Planting coral, plants, and trees to replace and replenish those destroyed
  • Installing a boardwalk to limit damage to plants and sand
  • Installing a floating dock behind the cliffs for boat travelers, prohibiting boats from anchoring in the bay itself
  • Creating a designated swimming area in the bay
  • Capping the number of daily visitors

New guidelines break down each day into seven or eight shifts, with each shift only allowing for 300 visitors at a time. That would put the daily total at around 2,400 visitors spread out over a six-hour period between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.—instead of up to 5,000 daily visitors at any or all hours of the day and night.

The beach reopened, briefly, in January 2020. It was again closed after four months to assess the impact of the new plan and help determine if it’s a feasible solution to preserve the local environment, community, and economy moving forward.

Helpful tips to travel more sustainably

You don’t have to head to Maya Bay to incorporate sustainable travel practices into your routine. You don’t have to wait for official guidelines to be set, either. You can travel more sustainably with a variety of habits that make a positive impact wherever you may roam.

Stay local

Instead of booking a 24-hour flight to Thailand—or any lengthy travel to anywhere—consider staying closer to home. Try exploring the hidden gems in and around your own or a nearby town. Atlas Obscura is a great site to scour for unique local treasures. You’ll definitely use less gas, with the ability to skip a flight and perhaps even take public transportation to your destination.

Ask longtime residents for suggestions, or check out trails, hiking, and travel sites, putting your own city in as the destination to see what options grab your attention.

Travel by train

Taking a train is hands-down better for the environment than traveling by plane, bus or car. The numbers say so. The numbers listed, courtesy of the BBC, note the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per passenger per kilometer traveled. (A kilometer is equal to about 0.6 of a mile.)

  • 171g: Car with one passenger
  • 102g to 133g: Airplane travel
  • 104g: Bus
  • 43g: Car with four passengers
  • 41g: Domestic rail, like good ole Amtrak

Sure, train travel takes longer than hopping on a plane. But the extra 6 to 11 inches of legroom alone may be worth it.

Travel by train through New Hampshire

Avoid renting a car if you can

As noted above, a car with one passenger is more detrimental to the environment than taking a flight. And if you’ve already taken a flight, you’re just compounding the negative by renting a car at your destination.

Not only that but driving in unfamiliar places can add more stress to your getaway than you may care to handle. Check out public transportation options at your destination, including shuttles to and from the airport.

Depending on where you’re traveling, you may find everything you need within walking distance. Or renting a bicycle could be another option, one that gives you a more personal glimpse into the surrounding landscape.

Don’t overpack

Heavy-as-lead luggage can not only hurt your back, but it can burn more fuel. That’s right. The heavier the load, the more fuel the plane, bus or car needs to move forward.

Hauling around an extra 100 pounds in your car, for instance, could decrease your MPG by an estimated 1%.

Stay in sustainable accommodations

Any accommodation that strives to help the local environment, community, and economy can technically fall into the sustainable category. Hotels can actually earn a variety of green certifications based on the practices they employ.

In addition to certifications, things to look for when choosing accommodations include:

  • Solar power, greywater recycling, renewable energy efforts
  • Sustainable materials used in its construction and furnishings
  • Recycling
  • Seasonal and local food sources
  • Plastic-free solutions and zero-waste options
  • Non-toxic cleaning agents
  • Rental bikes, water refills, and other efforts to preserve and protect the environment
  • Owned, managed, and/or staffed by locals
  • Gives back to the local community
  • Encourages guests to participate in sustainability efforts

Beware of greenwashing, or lodgings that may proclaim to be sustainable just to attract visitors – but don’t do anything to prove it.

Hotel with green certifications

Show respect when visiting local historic and protected sites

Respect is a huge part of sustainable travel, and you can embrace it by following the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. The principles were originally established to protect backcountry areas, but they can be applied to other destinations.

  1. Prep and plan ahead, which helps minimize waste and danger while maximizing fun.
  2. Stay on durable surfaces, as off-trail tromping, and coral reef anchoring can really put a dent in the environment.
  3. Dispose of your waste properly, whether it’s a greasy pizza box or recyclable newspaper.
  4. Leave what you find, which lets others get as much joy out of every rock, shell, or flower as you did.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts, which can be extended to include paying attention to any potential harm you may cause by any burning of flammable objects.
  6. Respect wildlife, keep a safe distance, and ensure minimal disturbance.
  7. Be considerate of others, which applies to fellow travelers, local residents, and the surrounding community at large.

Travel slowly

Taking your hurried pace down a notch (or six) can have a serene and significant impact on your entire trip. Slow down with a train instead of a plane, and you’re helping the environment right off the bat.

If you must drive, doing so calmly and consistently can use up to 40% less fuel than hurried, aggressive driving.

Slow down in general and you’ll find yourself being more mindful of the world around you. You’ll step carefully along the trail instead of barreling through the brush.

You’re also apt to become kinder and more polite, now that you’re not in a rush and pushing everyone else out of your way.

Offset your own carbon footprint

Your carbon footprint is based on the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted from the fossil fuels you use. If your footprint is going to explode due to plane or car travel, you can offset it by engaging in activities that mitigate fossil fuel emissions.

These activities can be done while traveling, such as renting a bicycle instead of a car at your destination. They can also be done before or after you travel, such as planting more trees or growing your own veggies.

Support local businesses where you’re visiting

Once you arrive at your destination, make a point of giving your business to the local businesses. Opt for a mom-and-pop shop instead of the national big-box chain. Eat at locally owned restaurants. Find tours and excursions owned and run by locals, with extra credit for those that give back to the local community.

A local business

Avoid single-use plastics

Single-use plastics may be the epitome of convenience while traveling, but they also double as the epitome of environmental hazards. Not only do they litter the landscape and clog up landfills, but they are produced from fossil fuels that emit massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.

Go for reusable straws, coffee cups, plates, utensils, and other items that aren’t made out of plastic and chucked in the trash after a single use.

Encourage others to follow sustainable travel principles

Traveling with companions? Then make it a joint mission to follow as many sustainable travel practices as possible. Instead of nagging, lead the way by example. Showcase how you are doing your part, offering to help them do the same. (Bringing along an extra reusable coffee cup and straw can never hurt.)

The future of sustainable travel

Sustainable travel has moved from a bright idea into reality and will hopefully continue to grow. People are embracing more sustainable practices in every activity across the board. They’re also expecting companies and governments to prioritize sustainability as a keystone of their operations.

Investors are listening, feeling the pressure to weave sustainable practices into their own businesses. Governmental agencies are also feeling the pressure, taking action with regulations that help to protect and preserve the environment.

With the goal of preserving and protecting the local environment, community, and economy, sustainable travel is a giant stride forward. But some say it’s not enough. The term “regenerative travel” has already hit the scene.

Regenerative travel goes beyond preserving and protecting. It aims to make a place better for future generations to come. Proponents claim sustainable travel is merely about slowing down an inevitable death, while regenerative travel is about creating something better altogether.

Although the regenerative travel term is buzzing around, the concept is currently stalled at the starting gate. And although consumers insist they are interested in sustainable travel, whether or not they consistently adhere to the practices remains yet to be seen.

The Vacationer’s Summer 2022 Travel Survey reports that 87% of respondents say sustainable travel was important to them. Nearly 30% said they’d follow sustainable practices no matter what, while about 52% said they’d adhere to such practices only if it doesn’t cause any inconvenience.

Friends practicing sustainable travel together

Leaving it better than you found it

With disasters like Maya Bay still fresh in our minds, it’s clear that travel could use a change. The regulations introduced by Thai authorities have already shown improvements, such as black-tipped sharks and other wildlife returning to Maya Bay waters.

The reservation systems for many National Parks in the U.S. also strive to preserve the beautiful and wild places. Some areas, like Zion Canyon in Zion National Park, even have restrictions on private vehicles entering the area at all. State government or tourism authorities may need to step in to ensure these things stick.

Sustainable travel practices can certainly have a positive effect, but they’re not a panacea for preserving the earth across the board. They need to be combined with other practices that keep the world healthy and beautiful for years to come.

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