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Overcoming 3 Hurdles to Traveling Sustainably

If sustainable travel is so great, then why does it feel so hard?

You’re not alone. Even once you understand the basics of sustainable travel, it can still seem daunting. It’s hard to beat the comfort, convenience, and efficiency of taking planes, booking with large travel companies, and staying in all-inclusive resorts.

Attempting to avoid less responsible habits sometimes doesn’t feel like you’re doing enough and you may question whether the actions you are taking are truly sustainable.

The truth is that often what you “should” do varies by destination and activity – there is not a one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to traveling responsibly. This is, in large part, what makes it feel so complicated!

Below is one definition of ‘sustainable tourism’. Beyond this, the interpretation of this phrase varies depending on where you go and what you do. 

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.
United Nations World Tourism Organization

The three biggest hurdles to traveling sustainably

You may be thinking that: 

  1. Traveling sustainably is not possible, in fact, the phrase itself is an oxymoron
  2. Being a sustainable traveler is too difficult
  3. Sustainable travel is too expensive

If one or more of the above sounds like you, we hear you! Each challenge is valid, and many travelers encounter one or more of these feelings before, or as, they embark on their journey toward sustainability.

However, don’t let these thoughts discourage you. Here are three ways to overcome these hurdles and set you on the path toward becoming a sustainable traveler.

1. What to do: Educate yourself

This helps overcome hurdles #1: “Traveling sustainably is not possible,” and #2: “Being a sustainable traveler is too difficult.”

We’ve done a lot of research to help make this part easier for you. Traveling sustainably is a huge grey area, with many tradeoffs across different pillars of sustainability, and with room to do things either “more sustainably” or “less sustainably.”

We believe that if people knew more, they would care more. By increasing your own awareness, it will become easier to both see and do things “more sustainably.”
A young Black man sits and reads a book; we can see his side profile. A stack of several books are in the background and there is a grey wall behind him.

Sustainable travel is about so much more than hotels using bulk shampoo and soap bottles instead of individually plastic-wrapped bars, or putting a sign on your door saying not to wash your towels every day. Both those actions are certainly good things to do, but they just scratch the surface.

Here are two questions you can reflect on to improve your awareness:

  1. Is the action being taken by somebody else or by me? A hotel using bulk products is great; and we applaud hotels doing so. Bring your thoughts back to what you can do in any given context.
  2. Is the action good for the environment? The local community? The local economy? Many people will first and foremost think about the environment (yay!) and not realize the other components that go into a holistic approach to sustainability.

When you focus on what you can do in the context of reducing your environmental impact, learning about different cultures and promoting cross-border understanding, and positively impacting the destinations and their economies, you will be well on your way!

(For more on what it means to be a sustainable traveler, read our blog post Sustainable Travel 101. It’s a great place to start as it provides in-depth info on what actions travelers can take.)

2. What to do: Be practical

This helps overcome hurdle #2: “Being a sustainable traveler is too difficult.”

A colorful map where each continent is a different color is shown on a grey background, with a white hand pushing a small toy plane over a royal blue North America.

Oftentimes, travelers believe sustainable travel is too difficult because they have to make seemingly inconvenient changes to the way they travel. 

One of the biggest challenges for sustainable travelers is the avoidance of air travel. Yet, sometimes it’s just not possible or practical to get to your destination without taking a flight. So, what do you do? Just not go? Perhaps.

But not everyone can be Greta Thunberg and swear off flights for life (though we do commend her for that).

Occasionally taking a flight does not mean your sustainable travel card will be taken away, nor does it mean that you should give up on your pursuit of sustainability. If you’re feeling guilty or worried about your carbon footprint, remember that you still can make a conscious effort to travel sustainably while in the destination.

Instead of beating yourself up about taking a flight, consider these three things: 

  1. The duration of your trip: Embrace slow travel! It’s better to take flights less frequently and for longer-duration trips, rather than more frequently for shorter-duration trips. This helps minimize your carbon emissions and allows you to spend more time exploring the destination and interacting with locals.
  2. The activities you will partake in: Try to participate in low-carbon impact activities such as trekking and cultural visits in villages. Try to avoid high carbon impact activities, namely trips that require flights within the destination itself. Please also carefully consider any type of animal tourism, and ensure no mistreatment or disruption of their natural habitat is occurring.
  3. Your primary mode of transportation: If you’re making your own travel plans, think of taking public transportation, walking, or biking to get around. If traveling with a group, then think of carpooling and even trying to get eco-friendly vehicles if possible.

We also suggest calculating your carbon footprint. Then you can choose to remove or offset your carbon impact. Check out our Climate Impact page for some great companies and organizations fighting climate change through carbon removals and offsets. 

3. What to do: Practice progress over perfection

This helps overcome all three hurdles: hurdle #1: “Traveling sustainably is not possible,”  #2: “Being a sustainable traveler is too difficult,” and #3: “Sustainable travel is too expensive.”

Sustainable traveling does not have to feel impossible, overly difficult, or too expensive! Simply do what you can with the resources you have, and make the best choices you can while planning your trip and then while actually traveling.

Maybe this means committing to only one international trip per year. Perhaps it means pledging to a year of purely domestic travel with no flights (you don’t have to travel internationally to have a wonderful sustainable travel experience). Or maybe your flight frequency doesn’t change, but you promise to purchase carbon removals or credits.

Maybe you dedicate yourself to being a zero-waste traveler. Perhaps you focus on traveling with responsible companies: those that are committed to preserving the natural environment, connecting you to the local cultures, and committed to retaining money within local economies.

There are sustainable travel actions and options for all budgets and travel styles, no matter the type of experience you are looking for. We list a variety of sustainable adventures on Yugen Earthside if you need some inspiration. Browse our Destinations to find one that interests you and fits your budget.

Just remember: Concentrate on what you can do, within your budget, and make an effort to consider how sustainable your actions are in terms of their impact on the environment, cultures, and economies of your destination. Starting to think about this topic and then slowly but surely finding ways to act is what really counts. 

Overcome the hurdles, don’t let them overcome you

A young woman in black capris and a long sleeve open shirt skips along rocks on a hiking trail with her arms gleefully out to the side. She is in the mountains and there are peaks in the distance.

Don’t let the hurdles we’ve discussed today discourage you from becoming a sustainable traveler. Traveling is about having fun! We completely get that. We want you to have a good GREAT time, and you can easily have a fantastic trip while still being responsible. 

Information and options are key – and we hope to provide you with both. Our Sustainability Resources page provides great information to help you on your sustainable travel journey – whether you’re an avid traveler, a tour operator, or just interested in learning more. 

The goal is not necessarily to become a perfect sustainable traveler. There’s no such thing. We’re human and nothing we do is infallible.

The goal is, however, to encourage you to make little changes that will make a big difference.

Don’t become paralyzed with indecision or let this journey overwhelm you – aim for progress over perfection.

Remember to make the best choices you can for how to arrive at your destination, where to stay, and what to do. You can make a difference when you consciously decide to make better choices to preserve our planet while economically and socioculturally supporting the local communities you visit.

Leleti Phillips contributed to this article.


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Hilary Matson

Hilary is the founder & CEO of Yugen Earthside. An avid traveler, and passionate about sustainability, she has visited nearly 40 countries & territories across five continents. She loves educating and advocating for responsible travel through all forms of media: blogs, socials, interviews, and more. Hilary is an American living in Paris.