How to Make Travel More Responsible and Sustainable

You can do a lot more than leave a bad review if you want to encourage tourism operators to improve their sustainability.


camels being led through dunes Photo © Getty Images/iStockphoto

With travel bouncing back and pressure building for the tourism industry to lighten its load on the planet, it’s more important than ever that we do our bit. Every traveler that stands up for what’s right and supports sustainable tourism practices is playing a vital role in creating a brighter future. 

Follow this guide to learn how best to support eco and ethical travel operators and the steps you can take to drive positive change.

Look for certification

With more people than ever striving to travel more responsibly, greenwashing is becoming rife – browse any travel-related website and you’re bound to read claims about sustainability. Before you book a hotel, tour or travel experience based on this alone, check whether the operator in question has valid certifications in place to back up their eco ‘commitment’. Is the company a certified B Corp, does it adhere to Leave No Trace principles, and is it a member of 1% for the Planet? Has it committed to taking measurable climate action by signing up to the Glasgow Declaration? If not, why not keep looking and supporting a company that has?

Do your research

Practices that once passed as ‘eco’ are becoming the norm, and travel operators are having to do more to earn genuine eco-cred. Most hotels now give guests the option of not having their towels washed every day, for example, and this no longer qualifies them as being especially eco. Truly green accommodation will be sustainably built, carbon-neutral, plastic-free and energy-wise, so dive a little deeper when you’re researching where to stay and spend your travel dollars wisely. Nothing speaks louder than money when it comes to driving change.

Opt-in for eco upgrade

To help tourism operators introduce more sustainable practices (and measure how much travelers want them to do so), some are giving guests the option of paying a little extra to reduce their travel footprint. For example, some airlines allow passengers to offset the carbon their flight will generate by ticking a box and paying a small fee at the time of booking. Likewise, some accommodation providers give guests the option of a carbon-neutral stay with an add-on levy. African eco-safari operator Singita is doing just that to scale up its sustainability efforts. Singita uses the carbon-offset funds generated to benefit local communities and reduce climate impacts. 

Other tourism operators have a philanthropic arm or foundation that guests are invited to support. Whether they provide bicycles for local children to get to school, fund ecosystem regeneration or support the rehabilitation of injured wildlife, making a small (or big!) donation when you book is an easy way to support the good work they’re doing in the world.

Ask questions and share your knowledge

No matter how careful you’ve been to seek out an ethical and eco-tour operator, expectations don’t always measure up to reality. A dive trip, safari or camel riding expedition that clearly puts profits ahead of animal welfare can be disappointing, for example, as can eco-tour operators whose practices fall short of their promises. 

Before you jump to conclusions, find out more. If you’re on a miserable-looking camel who doesn’t look well cared for, ask about the camel's living arrangements, what they eat and how much rest they’re given between rides. As awkward as it can be, kindly sharing what you know about animal welfare, marine standards or responsible eco practices could equip a tour operator with the extra know-how they need to improve how they do things. At the very least, you’ll be letting them know that travelers notice and care about eco and ethical matters – and you just might be the one who convinces them to make a change.

Always give constructive feedback on how to better support local communities. Photo credit: Getty Images

Send feedback

Taking the time to put your concerns in writing to management – clearly and politely – can ensure any feedback you’ve given in person to hotel staff or tour guides reaches people with the power to make policy changes. Fill out any hotel questionnaires and email a tour operator after your visit, detailing what they could do to reduce their impact on the environment, improve their treatment of animals, or better support local communities – and that you won’t be booking with them again until improvements have been made.

Write a review

Most of us rely heavily on reviews to make a purchase, book an experience, or choose somewhere to stay. If you’ve had an unsatisfactory response to the other feedback you’ve provided, share your disappointment with a negative review on TripAdvisor, Google, and even their own website if you can. Sharing a tourism operator’s poor environmental performance with other travelers clearly communicates that it’s just not good enough. They know as well as we do that bad reviews will directly affect their bottom line. Yours could provide just the motivation they need to do things better. 

Show your appreciation

It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but recognizing when a company is doing right by the planet and making an effort to be responsible can be just as influential. Everyone likes a pat on the back when they do a good job, and travel operators are no exception. Share your positive experiences on social media, make a point of saying thank you to a tourism operator going the extra mile, and leave a review that underlines the efforts they’re making to reduce emissions, save water or support conservation. 

The more we communicate about what matters to us, the more the industry will respond. Demand drives lasting change, but it’s up to each one of us to be clear about what we want – with the choices we make, the feedback we provide, and the positives we celebrate. 

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