Sustainable Tourism: Tips for Conscious Explorers

Every year around late February in Venice, Italy, Piazza San Marco is flooded with strangers. During Carnevale season, you cannot get anywhere in Venice without squeezing through large crowds and running into people who journeyed from all over the world to relish in the season's spectacle.

Over the course of my semester abroad in this beautiful city, I was able to witness the high tide of tourism as well as the slow moments of stilless during the off-season. It is not unknown that Venice, Italy, has an over-tourism problem, an issue that encompasses more than "too many people" on the small, man-made islands. Over-tourism has increased environmental problems such as pollution, mass waste generation, and damage to the delicate lagoon ecosystem. As more feet stumble on the stone streets to marvel at the spectacular buildings, it has contributed to an erosion of the historic structures and the continuous wear down of streets and bridges. Venice is only one example of how tourism can be unsustainable and harm the culture and environment.

So, what is sustainable tourism? And what's the difference between sustainable tourism, ecotourism, and regenerative travel?

The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism 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." In other words, sustainable tourism reduces tourism's negative impacts and maximizes the positive impact on communities, cultures, and environments. Other buzzwords such as "ecotourism," "regenerative travel," or "nature-tourism" focus on specific aspects of sustainable tourism. For example, ecotourism explicitly targets how to travel responsibly in natural areas, while regenerative travel focuses on leaving places better than they found them. Sustainable tourism is a catch-all term centered around achieving balance in all aspects of travel. 


While the most sustainable option is to travel close to home to cut back on your carbon footprint, we are lucky enough to live where traveling has become convenient and affordable. This only means when we reach new corners of the world, we need to be consciouses about the impact we make through our explorations. 

Here are five sustainable travel tips to make you a more conscious explorer:

  • "Take the Road Less Traveled": As I mentioned, Venice is literally being loved to death by tourists, and over-tourism negatively impacts the environment and culture of the area. When planning where you want to go, skip the tourist draws and "take the road less traveled," as Robert Frost once said. Avoiding the usual hotspots will allow you to have a more authentic experience where you can spread tourism benefits to the local community while reducing the burden of over-tourism on the people and environment. And if you do want to visit the tourist hotspots, consider scheduling your trip during the off-season. 
  • Respect the Culture and Community: Now that you know where you want to go, it is time to research your destination's culture and customs. The most beautiful thing about experiencing new cultures is you can get a glimpse into a different way of life. Consider immersing yourself in the culture by reading the history, etiquette, and customs beforehand. You can even download Duolingo or Babbel and get to work learning a new language. Remember you are a visitor in someone else's space, so it is crucial to understand their way of living to abide by the laws and not disrespect their culture. 
  • Pack Smarter: Before you embark on your destination, you have the power to pack smarter, which will not only make your life easier but is the first step in reducing your carbon footprint while traveling. 
    • 1. Choose products with fewer chemicals: This includes sunscreens, detergents, soaps, and shampoos. Remember, if they are better for the environment, they are probably better for you as well!
    • 2. Consider a capsule wardrobe: When packing clothes, take a collection of simple items that mix and match well together and could be layered on top of one another. This will make your life easier, as your luggage will be lighter, but it will also encourage you to shop for clothing built to last. 
    • 3. Reduce your single-use plastics: One way to do this is by bringing a reusable water bottle. Staying hyrated in hot or cold climate is essential, and carrying your own bottle will save you from constantly buying bottled water. You can also reduce the amount of plastic you consume by packing small containers for snacks or bringing reusable straws. 
  • Use Efficient Modes of Transportation: Transportation is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses, and therefore it is important to consider this before you take your journey. Many destinations have excellent public transportation, which is more energy efficient than renting a car, for example. It is also a great way to make new friends and meet local people. Renting a bicycle is another way to get around and get exercise. The most sustainable transit will vary from place to place, so consider researching ahead of time. 
  • Keep Your Dollars Local: The best way to ensure your presence benefits the local economy is by supporting local businesses. This means shopping, eating, and living like a local. Try to avoid chain resturants and consider smaller, more local resturants made with locally sourced ingredients. This will give you a more authentic experience and fully immerse you in the culture. Another tip is to book excursions led by local guides or learn a skill taught by someone from the area. As Dr. Claire Ellis puts it simply, "When you are a visitor in a new place, consider you are voting with your money, feet, and wallet."

When considering your next adventure, I hope you find these tips helpful in making smarter choices in all aspects of your journey.