What Is Sustainable Travel?

I recently sat down with a friend and told him all about Hidden Lemur and our mission of empowering sustainable travel.

“Well that's an oxymoron, isn't it?” he responded. “Travel isn't ever sustainable.”

His challenge, admittedly, caught me a bit off guard. But I couldn't help but think that he maybe had a point — at least through the lens through which most of us view travel today: as a means for consumption.

Consuming experiences. Consuming food. Consuming culture. Consuming resources. Consuming destinations.

Dictionary.com defines consumption as “The using up of a resource.” Does that sound sustainable to you?

Didn't think so. Which brings us to what I see as the core principle of sustainable travel, that makes the idea of sustainable travel anything but an oxymoron.

We can only travel sustainably when we stop viewing travel as a means for consumption, and start viewing travel as a means for exchange.

As Anthony Bourdain put it: “The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Leave something good behind.

Does that mean a pack of colored pencils for local schoolchildren? Maybe, but not necessarily. There are numerous ways to leave a net positive impact on the communities you visit and the world as a whole when you travel — and there are more people and organizations than ever before that are eager to help you travel sustainably.

And here at Hidden Lemur, we want to help make it so easy, so convenient, and so rewarding to travel sustainably that traveling unsustainably ceases to exist as an option at all.

The United Nations 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.”

For the average traveler, that may seem like a lot to chew on.

And sure, policymakers and powerful private companies bear much of the responsibility here.

But once you break the concept of sustainable travel down into those three core pillars — economic, social, and environmental — you can see just how easily each of can make a positive impact while exploring the world.

Tourists spend money — and they spend a whole heck of a lot of it. According to the UN World Tourism Organization and World Economic Forum, foreign visitors spent $1.7 trillion USD in 2018.

But where does that money go? Is the lion's share of that sum ending up in the pockets of the local people whose daily lives are most impacted — for better or worse — by the crowds flocking to their home towns and cities?

Oftentimes, it does not. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, just $5 of every $100 that a tourist spends on an all-inclusive vacation package in a developing destination actually goes to local people.

Instead, the vast majority of that money goes elsewhere — to the cruise company that brought you into town; the chain resort that hosted you; the booking agency that assisted you with your plans; the foreign-owned restaurant that caught your eyes because it felt like a safer bet than the hole-in-the-wall down the street.

The key here, historically, has been convenience. Many travelers have failed to make the more responsible purchase when abroad, simply because it often feels like more work to look beyond the most well-advertised (and well-financed) tours and hotels.

But nowadays, the power of the Internet is helping to give mom-and-pop operations more of a fighting chance.

Platforms like Homestay.com and AirBnb are making it easier to find vetted, locally-owned accommodations. Websites like Toursbylocals make it easier to connect with local guides. Sustainable travel organizations like Lokal Travel and ILikeLocal curate locally-operated stays and experiences. Sustainability-minded travelers are leveraging social media to help promote responsible spending as well.

And at Hidden Lemur, we're looking to do our part by amplifying the voices of everybody involved in sustainable travel growth, from the ecolodge owners to the adventure company operators to the travelers themselves.

The opportunity to travel sustainably is out there.

It's just up to you to seek it out.

Conor is the founder of Hidden Lemur. He's deathly afraid of bees.

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