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Woman in forest in Costa Rica
Photograph: Shutterstock

Why ‘sustainable travel’ isn’t enough anymore

The travel industry’s favourite buzzword only goes so far. Here’s why we should be aiming far higher than maintaining the status quo

Imogen Lepere
Written by
Imogen Lepere

Fashion may move in roundabouts (hello again, ’90s grunge) but thankfully the travel industry generally traverses a one-way road. Whether it’s shaming private jet users and big game hunters, or eating at local restaurants and saying ‘hell no’ to plastic straws, over the last few decades most of us have become more conscious about our travel.

According to’s 2022 sustainable travel report, 71 percent of interviewees said that they want to travel ‘more sustainably’ over the coming 12 months, a ten percent increase from 2021. And while you may think of ‘sustainable travel’ as a twenty-first-century trend, the term is actually quite a bit older. Way back in 1988 – that’s 15 years before the birth of Greta Thunberg – the World Tourism Organization defined it 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’.

Beyond the buzzword

Since then, the concept has seeped into the mainstream. And while it may have inspired some of us to reduce our environmental impact where we can – for example by booking trains instead of flights, bringing a reusable water bottle, and leaving a place roughly as we found it – it’s also become a much-abused buzzword.

Tour operators and hotels happily slather the #sustainabletravel hashtag all over their Insta feeds, as if the use of ‘natural’ materials, a vegetarian menu and the option to have your room cleaned every other day to save energy (as well as money for the business!) were a substitute for clear plans and targets to reduce their impact on the world.

It’s time to go further. After all, protecting the status quo is a pretty low benchmark. Don’t you think, whether we’re industry insiders or travellers, we should aim far higher than not making things worse?

The cost of travel

On the one hand, there’s the option to not travel at all. Crossing huge distances at speed is inherently unsustainable, at least when it comes to the climate. There’s a reason climate-savvy Swedes talk about ‘smygflyga’: flight shame.

Flying is responsible for around 4 percent of manmade global heating – that’s more than most entire countries. The aviation industry is fighting to at least appear to be cleaning up its act: major airlines from 184 countries pledged to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 at a United Nations meeting last October. But the reality is that flying will still release carbon emissions – and lots of them – for the foreseeable future. And while ‘slow travel’ alternatives like trains and (some) boats emit less, in terms of the climate crisis it would be better if we all embraced the micro-travel movement: seeking out mini adventures in the place we live.

Train Belgium
Photograph: Komelin /

The upside of tourism

But there’s another side to sustainability, and that’s its social impact. Billions of people depend on tourism for survival. In 2019, it accounted for one out of every ten jobs globally according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, and this figure is expected to be matched by the end of 2023 as the industry bounces back post-pandemic.

Many of these jobs are in delicately balanced communities (including Indigenous ones) that live in remote places where traditional forms of work are no longer viable – often due to climate change. Take the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where soil degradation means there is no longer enough grass to feed cattle, or the Peruvian Amazon, where unpredictable floods are threatening the Maijuna’s traditional hunting and fishing food system. In places like this, tourism represents one of the few alternative sources of income.

Travel also helps protect countless fragile ecosystems that play a key role in sequestering carbon. One example is Costa Rica, which, in the ’70s, had the most rapid deforestation out of anywhere on earth. Today, more than 30 percent of the country is protected national park – largely because ecotourism was proven to be more profitable than logging.

Costa Rica is one shining example of travel and tourism actively making a place better. Never mind sustainable travel, what we need is regenerative travel: a concept that centres around enhancing environmental, economic and social systems in a destination so tourism can be an active force for good.

Costa Rica rainforest
Photograph: Shutterstock

Conscious travel: the next generation

And although the pandemic was the industry-wide equivalent of a holiday from hell, many destinations and travel businesses have used the enforced lull to plan a regenerative future. Take the Future of Tourism coalition: a group of six NGOs encouraging industry players to sign an agreement to uphold 13 regenerative principles. These include focusing on a circular economy (such as reusing and upcycling products rather than throwing them away) and redefining economic success to include things like the enhancement of sustainable local supply chains, rather than relying solely on GDP. So far, 23 businesses have taken the pledge, including adventure tour operators Intrepid and G Adventures.

A clutch of other tour operators and hotels are helping to lead the regenerative charge. The Ibiti Project in Brazil is working to rewild 6,000 hectares of degraded farmland and reinvigorate two poverty-stricken villages through ecotourism, while Lokal Travel is an online platform that supports small, community-run projects throughout Latin America.

The dreamy Fogo Island Inn in Canada invests 100 percent of its profits back into the community; Ecosystem Restoration Camps offers budget travellers opportunities to learn regenerative growing skills while working to restore fragile ecosystems; and hiking specialist Pura Aventura aims to mitigate 160 percent of each guest’s carbon footprint by supporting a rural development project in Nicaragua that is restoring a depleted ecosystem – and offering a generous financial incentive to locals to keep trees in the ground long-term.

The Azores, Portugal
Photograph: Shutterstock

Some whole destinations are adopting a top-down regenerative approach too. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (which sets international sustainability standards within the industry) touts as leaders in the field the Azores, the Kiwi town of Kaikoura, Val Gardena in the Italian Dolomites, and Nuuk, the eyewateringly picturesque capital of Greenland.

If you’re looking for a place where your travel could make a real difference, another way to go is to pick a destination that’s trying to get back on its feet after a natural disaster – bonus points if you help with relief efforts while you're there.

Consumer power

In future, travelling consciously shouldn’t just involve treading lightly – it should mean leaving a place better than you found it. And that doesn’t have to be holier-than-thou. Cocktails by the pool are still very much on the cards – they’ll just be made from grain grown on regenerative farms and served in a cup made by a local craft cooperative.

As travellers, it’s up to us to prove the demand for regenerative travel is out there. The best thing we can do is vote with our wallets by supporting companies who uphold our values – and asking tough questions to those that don’t. If they’re calling themselves ‘sustainable’ but can’t provide specific examples about how their operations are making local lives better, their strategy for circular waste disposal or where their food comes from, chances are there are more deserving places to spend your hard-earned travel savings.


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