What on Earth is Sustainable Tourism?

What on Earth is Sustainable Tourism?

Lately it seems like everyone and everything is making an effort to be more sustainable. We’re (finally) becoming more conscious of how we impact the world, and it’s showing in things like zero-waste kits, eco-fashion, and…travel?

How can travel be sustainable?

Travel, with all its beauty and benefits, can easily come with quite a few unsustainable consequences. It impacts the environment the moment our buses, cars, and planes start their engines (the LA Times reports that travel is responsible for around 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions). It impacts cultures when local towns and villages give up their traditional practices to adapt to globalized demands (visit Bohol and you might just feel like you’re in Korea). Lastly, it impacts attitudes by normalizing the idea that we can visit a destination and only care for it while we’re there (that’s equally tough for the destinations – what happens in the off-season?).

We use the term “Sustainable Tourism” a lot, but realized that we never really sat down to ask what it actually means. What counts as sustainable tourism? What does it aim to achieve? How does it plan on doing that? For some of you, all this might be intuitive – something you know but haven’t quite articulated. For others, it might be a completely new idea.

Let’s start with definitions.

Sustainable Tourism is a way of traveling with an impact that does more good than bad. It’s all the novelty and fun of tourism without (or with less of) the environmental and cultural waste. It’s the necessity of sustainability without the bore. Sustainable tourists and sustainable tourism companies use travel as a means for positive social and environmental change.

There’s a simple way to remember the idea – leave the places you visit better than how you found them.

Sustainable tourism does this by facing the social problems of our destinations head on and carefully working with locals to develop experiences that contribute to solving these problems.

Another simple way to remember this idea – sustainable tourism aims to solve old problems, not make new ones.

The problems often have to do with the three things mentioned above – the environment, culture, and attitude.

Sustainable tourism does this by facing the social problems … and carefully working with locals to develop experiences that contribute to solving these problems.


Where the tourism we’re used to might clear mountains to build new hotels and leave bags of trash when the tours end, sustainable tourism might leave some newly planted seeds and trees to help rebuild destroyed farms and forests.

This helps offset some of the carbon emitted just by getting to the destinations. Perhaps more importantly, it restores the nature we all love to see and preserves it for future generations – both of travelers and locals.

When we visit mountains and beaches, it’s easy to get sweeped off our feet by their beauty and forget that while we’re only staying for a week or so, most of the people around us live there. Traveling sustainably is one way to respect those people and their homes.


A lot of culture is lost when our destinations start to adapt to lifestyles from cities on the other side of the country or the other side of the world. It’s nice to have what we’re used to around even when we’re far from home, but part of the thrill of traveling is living in new and unfamiliar ways.

Sustainable tourism highlights the cultures of its destinations. From local food and traditional songs and dances to native pastimes and festivals. If you’re in the Philippines have a rice cake, not a crepe!

We’re only in our destinations for a short time, but we have the power to shape their cultures forever. Our travel habits have a lot to say about whether these small and almost forgotten cultures live or die. Let’s make sure they live.


Sustainable tourism isn’t necessarily about only traveling through tours focused on, well, making travel sustainable (though if you’re looking for some, we know a few).

It’s a positive attitude that we think everyone should carry around. It’s travel that is mindful. It acknowledges and respects its surroundings and carefully considers its impacts. It’s open-minded. It embraces new cultures and lifestyles. It’s constructive. It creates positive and long-lasting change. It’s transformative. Both for the temporary travelers and the life-long locals.

It makes for environments, relationships, and experiences that are more mindful, considerate, and, well, sustainable. It helps travelers be more appreciative of their destinations and encourages locals to look after these destinations the ways only they know how.

 It’s constructive. It creates positive and long-lasting change. It’s transformative. Both for the temporary travelers and the life-long locals.

Before we end, a short disclaimer.

Sustainable Tourism is not perfect. It’s definitely fun, but it also definitely takes a lot of work. Building relationships with local communities is tough and comes with its own unique set of problems. Ditto for looking out for the environment and changing attitudes. This kind of travel and exploration is slower compared to what some of us might know. There are far more perspectives to take and outcomes to consider. Still we think it’s worth the work. There’s nothing quite like feeling good and doing good while you’re at it.

There you have it! That’s how we’d define Sustainable Tourism. Whether it’s a term you’ve been seeing around or one that you’re encountering for the first time, we hope we’ve give you some things to consider the next time it shows up.

The next time you travel – be it a soul-searching trip alone, a fun weekend out with friends, or even a company team-building event –  please try to make it sustainable. Immerse in different cultures. Live different lifestyles. Learn some words in a new language. Plant some trees.

Cover photo by Ivan Torres from Unsplash. Photo of Lola Milyang dancing with guests by Danna Pena.

Romano Santos
Romano Santos

Romano is a project manager, content creator, and public speaker for MAD Travel. You may reach him through romano.santos@madtravel.org or on Instagram as @romanohimself

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