The sustainable travel movement has picked up momentum in recent years. According to Expedia Group’s Sustainable Travel Study from April 2022, 90 percent of consumers are looking for sustainable options when traveling, and on average, consumers are willing to pay 38 percent more to make their travels more sustainable.
It’s clear travelers want to do better, but making sure their travel positively impacts the places they visit is a bit more challenging. As the “sustainability” buzzword becomes ubiquitous in seemingly every travel company’s marketing, it becomes harder to decipher which operators are legit behind the claims.
We talked to several experts in sustainable travel about what travelers should keep in mind when making conscientious choices—and how to book with travel companies taking real action behind the sustainable talk.
1. Will your tourism dollars stay within the community?
This is the key question to ask when booking sustainable travel. “Knowing that money stays in the community creates a multiplier effect,” says Paula Vlamings, chief impact officer of Tourism Cares. “A sustainable income stream in the community then in turn allows [community members] to solve their own problems, such as water, education, or food security.” Look for locally owned hotels and tour companies and check if the guides are local. This not only ensures your tourism dollars stay in the destination but also means communities can ensure tourism happens on their own terms, adds Vlamings. “It’s so important for local people to be guiding because that will hold onto the traditions and keep the culture intact.” A few places to check out include:
- I Like Local, which creates local-curated experiences in 19 countries across Africa and Asia
- Black Cultural Heritage Tours, which amplifies and preserves Black history in the United States
- Destination Indigenous, helping travelers find Indigenous experiences in Canada
- Visit Natives, an operator working with Indigenous communities in Norway and Tanzania
2. Is the travel company working toward reducing carbon emissions?
Look for companies that are committed to a climate action plan and working on measuring and reducing their carbon emissions—and not only offsetting, notes Vlamings. Over 700 travel companies have committed to reaching net zero by 2050; you can see who’s on board on the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency website. Nonprofit Travalyst is helping to collect and share verified sustainability data on a global, transparent scale.
Now travelers can see accommodations with verified “travel sustainable” badges on Booking.com and “eco-certified” badges on Google and can evaluate the emissions of flights on Google Flights or Skyscanner. Staze empowers travelers to book net-zero hotel stays. Wilderness Group carbon labels all of its trips— and its low-carbon trips in Scotland don’t go above 20KgCO₂e per traveler. Byway, meanwhile, offers 100-percent flight-free multistop trips in Europe.
3. Can the company back up its sustainability claims?
Be wary of greenwashing, advises Kelley Louise, co-founder of Impact Travel Alliance, which promotes education and advocacy around sustainable travel: “If a travel company can’t back up claims with details, then something probably isn’t right.” Louise says Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Criteria is the gold standard for sustainability in tourism, adding GreenStep’s sustainability scorecard. Look for certifications that include third party audits such as the B Corps seal of approval. Bookdifferent is a travel booking platform that aligns with the GSTC Criteria and gives scores for each listing. Travelers can search over a million accommodations where sustainability is strongly implemented.
4. Is your wildlife experience ethical and providing meaningful benefits?
When booking a wildlife experience, travelers should question whether the company is contributing toward biodiversity conservation and supporting the livelihoods of local people, advises Dr. Anna Spenceley, sustainability expert and chair of the IUCN‘s Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group. For instance, if you’re booking an African safari, Spenceley suggests travelers choose wildlife tourism options that have been independently certified as operating sustainably, such as Kenya’s EcoRating Scheme, Botswana’s Ecotourism Certification, or Fair Trade Tourism. By taking trips to places that are owned and managed by local people—for example, within the conservancies of Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya—she explains that travelers contribute toward long-term use of land for wildlife, rather than its conversion to agriculture or mining because tourism dollars directly provide financial benefits to local land-rights holders. Spenceley recommends Wilderness, andBeyond, Singita, and Great Plains Conservation. Outside of Africa, you can book with the conservation travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures.
5. Is a local travel company or accommodation the most sustainable option, even if it doesn’t promote itself as so?
Don’t get stuck on labels. Smaller travel companies and accommodations might not have the resources for certifications, but they are often the most sustainable travel option. “There are really great brands that are not certified because it is a very time-intensive process that can be costly,” Louise says. “It’s important to expand our definition of sustainability. Sustainable travel is simply travel that has a positive impact on the environment, local community and economy.” This can be applied to any experience, destination, or budget. “Remember sustainability is a journey and there is always room for improvement,” she adds. And Impact Travel Alliance strives to make the journey more fun and approachable creating a community of conscious travelers, with in-person meetups, educational content, and coming soon a community app called the Lounge.