What is sustainable travel, and why is it important? 

by Alejandra & Warner

Traveling has greatly broadened our perspective;

it has made us appreciate both the world we live in, and the role we have in it. It makes us happy, brings new insights to our lives, and helps us grow and develop into the persons we want to become.

Sustainable travel has become an intrinsic part of who we are, and we believe it can be part of living a conscious and ethical life.

Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaTrincomalee beach, Sri Lanka Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaTrincomalee beach, Sri Lanka

However, travel brings in tourism, and tourism, well, tourism doesn’t always have the positive associations we strive for during our travels.

It is a word that honestly gives us a bit of the chills.

When hearing it we have to think of walking through the theme park that many city centres have become, of the forceful selfies with shy locals in remote villages, the intrusive shouts emitting from safari jeeps when watching wildlife, and the trash thrown in the gap between two rocks when walking through the jungle.

Knowingly or unknowingly, traveling can deteriorate local culture, contribute to human and animal rights abuse, incite corruption and inequality, and destroy the natural environment altogether. 

Having said this, traveling is a reality of our globalised life.

Tourism is the fourth largest export sector and continues to grow rapidly, being responsible for one in ten jobs worldwide. It changes a place, for better or worse, and we have to decide which direction we want it to go in.

We can limit the detrimental effects of our actions by changing our lifestyle to be more sustainable and ethical, and our travels are no exception.

Traveling is a privilege that should come with great responsibilities.

So let’s become more conscious and focus on how to limit our negative impact, and even bring positive change, whilst being on the road. 

Fish shop in Trincomalee, Sri LankaFish shop in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

For us, this is what sustainable and ethical travel is all about:

1. Move like the crowds, use public transport 

Mention sustainable travel and chances are the issues of flying will be thrown right in your face. Travel many times involves taking a plane, and without green options for aviation fuel, it may seem like your sustainable aspirations are done for from the get go. 

But for us, trying to live a sustainable and ethical lifestyle is not about following an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

We’re not willing to give up everything we love, and exile ourselves from modern day life, to walk around like Adam and Eve, picking fruits from trees.

The aviation industry is a damaging necessity, one which we would happily see changing, but as long as no green options are available for crossing the globe, this is the reality we have to deal with.

We’re not going to be the ones to deny flying altogether (we will develop on this topic much more in the future).

Bus Sri Lanka Bus Sri Lanka

That, of course, does not mean we stop being conscious of the decisions we make. There are many ways to improve.

We limit our flights as much as possible, and always prioritise taking local buses and trains. Yes, this has meant us taking a 40+ hour train ride to reach north-east India, and we still vividly remember the 2,5 day bus ride from Delhi to Ladakh.

But although we might have complained at that time, it was all part of the experience. We got to meet some amazing people and see beautiful scenery along the way.

Be it governmentally organised, or through (partly) privatised companies, all areas you visit, both in developed and less developed countries, will have a certain level of public transportation.

It is normally cheaper, (fairly) well organised, and generally safe (depending on where you are). You’ll have way less chance to get scammed, and when not knowing where you’re going, there will be a whole bunch of locals pointing you in the right direction… if you ask nicely.

Deer at busstation Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

For a day of discovery hire a bicycle instead of a scooter/car. And walk whenever possible, be it when going to the beach or within the city.

Moving slow means you get to interact with the local people that you pass. We have been invited for tea countless times and into many homes, purely due to the fact that we were leisurely passing by. 

Thus, move around like a local. You’ll see further, meet interesting people and have a more authentic experience. The journey truly can be as exciting as the destination!

2. Respect local culture – adapt your ways and habits 

A new place, means being immersed in another community with a different culture and different norms and values.

Not everything is going to be the same as in your own country, and that is great. One of the reasons you went traveling in the first place is to (hopefully) experience something new and different.

Tolerance, understanding and adaptation are key, be it towards the dress code of the place, a festivities’ rituals, or the way of eating. You may not like the way it is, but it is not up to you to decide otherwise*.

Remember you are a guest, so try to enjoy the privilege you have.

*This doesn’t mean nothing can be said or done. We try not to interfere in local societal life, but certain things are unacceptable. Mistreatment of animals and people, or offensive and inappropriate behaviour towards women (or whoever really), is a complete no-go for us. We don’t shy back of saying something if we find it necessary to intervene, we may even shout and make a scene. But we choose our moments carefully.

Hindu wedding in the Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

We see tourists passing by with skimpy tank tops, when locals are completely covered up, others ordering meals like the waiter is a servant, and many obnoxiously drinking alcohol in dry states.

Bad manners are unnecessary everywhere, but especially when visiting another place.

When you dress appropriately, and communicate and behave respectfully, it is like you are taking a real step into their world. You may just be received with incomparable warmth and kindness. We experience this over and over! 

Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri LankaHindu wedding in the Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Furthermore, tourism can be a catalysis for cultural preservation.

When you show interest for local traditions and lifestyles, you may be contributing to them being valued, locally appreciated and protected. We have seen many small communities that idealise western standards, and are thus slowly losing their indigenous way of living.

And others that, although not wanting to, are pressured to change in the name of development. Cities around the world increasingly resemble one another, with the same stores, food, songs and style everywhere.

But globalisation doesn’t have to mean uniformity; people being unique and having differences is a powerful thing to appreciate. Encouraging diversity is thus for us a way of preserving the beauty of humankind all around the globe. 

Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri LankaPathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
3. Demand less, waste less 

The tourism industry comes with high demands and consequential environmental impact. Our requests directly affect the standards set and can hugely contribute to exploiting the resources of a country.

Tourists, on average, spend three to four times more water than locals, over-use and consume the area’s resources, and put a lot of stress on communities.

Beach areas serve amazing sea food on the menu, but overfishing leaves their surrounding waters barren; travellers require AC or pools when water and electricity is scarce; and hot water is a must, even when being in a remote area with barely any gas or fuel.

But these demands are not sustainable. 

Fruit and vegetables in the market of Trincomalee, Sri LankaFruit and vegetables in the market of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Be aware of what is locally available when you eat, be it the fruits and veggies you buy, or the delicious dishes of your dinner menu.

Limit your water, electricity and fuel use, and be less of an impact on the resources around.

See what the local habits and customs are and try to adapt to them.

This sometimes means you won’t be able to have the highest standards around or the comfort you’re used to at home, but at least what you came to see will remain.

And then, there is the issue of waste.

With many developing countries lacking adequate waste management or recycling systems, each cookie wrapper, plastic bottle or straw, is one too many. And throwing your trash in a bin doesn’t make it disappear. There may be no garbage trucks to pick it up, or a central site to bring it to, so most local communities are stuck with it.

You now made it their problem, and for them, there is not much more to do than to bury it, burn it in open fires or dump it somewhere out of site. Contamination and garbage are issues that affect our planet as a whole.

So try to reduce your waste and avoid plastic regardless of where you are. Plastic bags can be replaced by a sturdy tote and there is no need for single use straws, plastic bottles or the packaged cookies and chips.

Lets not become Hans and Gretels with waste. 

Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaGarbage at Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaFishermen boats at Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaFisherman at Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaTrincomalee beach, Sri Lanka
4. Eating and drinking locally

It is easy to go for the things that are already familiar to you, be it the chain supermarket or the Coca Cola bottle. They are recognisable and safe.

But whilst it can be comforting to spot a brand you already know, be it Lays, Mcdonalds or Starbucks, it is more rewarding to buy the on-the-spot roasted peanuts and a freshly squeezed orange juice – for your stomach, the local economy and the environment. 

Fruit and vegetables in the market of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Locals are much better in making their own food than copying a pizza or a pasta dish, and although we admit we sometimes enjoy having a delicious veggie burger or two, we stick as much as possible to local cuisine.

In return we get to try new things, save money, limit our waste and make sure that our spendings go to the right place. All countries we have visited so far welcomed us with an amazing (street) culture of delicious food and drinks.

Farmers markets have local fruits and vegetables aplenty and corner stalls make the best dishes you can find. There are bakeries with homemade cookies and pastries, and sometimes even chips can be found in bulk.

The possibilities are numerous and right there to munch on, you just have to dive in! 

Chips stand on the streets of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka Chips stand on the streets of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
5. Distribute equally – the social and economic impact of travel 

Fully organised travel agencies and big chain resorts at the beach maybe sound like tourists’ heaven, but many are not sustainable. Not now and not in the long run.

If you’re staying in those sorts of places, snacking on Lays potato chips and drinking Coca-Cola all day, chances are that your contribution to the local economy is close to none. You’ll just be helping a few privileged people become richer.

And although “sustainable” practices are increasingly marketed everywhere, responsible travel is broader than being ‘eco’ or ‘green’. It is as much about the (local) social and economic impact of our visits.

It has been found that in certain sectors only 5 dollars out of a 100 spend in developing countries stay in the destination the money was spend in, and thus, although enjoying the spaces and places of local communities, they don’t get anything in return (except for the garbage, of course).

Nonetheless, the UNWTO (World Tourism Organisation) has recognised tourism as a tool for sustainable development and poverty alleviation, but that means that everyone has to be able to get a piece of the pie.

For almost half of the least developed countries in the world, tourism is the first or second economic source of income. There are many ways to spend money, and thinking of where yours will go is part of sustainable and ethical travel.Street in Trincomalee, Sri LankaDeer in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Be cautious when planning your trip through foreign travel agencies, stay at home stays and locally owned and run guest houses, spend your money in the streets in local stalls, buy fruit, veggies and other goods from small stores, buy souvenirs from craftsmen/women and artists, and eat out in the not so obvious and touristic places that serve local meals.

This will increase your positive impact on a place, enlighten your experience, expose you to tons of new things, and give you the opportunity to interact with fascinating people. 

6. Be prepared – Pack smartly 

From your clothes, to your toiletries, what you pack is important when traveling sustainably. You have to be prepared for the things you might need along the way, and packing some essentials will help greatly in limiting your demands and reducing your waste.

Drinking a coconut in the market of Trincomalee, Sri LankaDrinking a coconut in the market of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

We carry grocery bags, bamboo cutlery, a metal straw, a knife and peeler, a tiffin (metal Tupperware), a jar of homemade toothpaste, extra bamboo toothbrushes and spare soaps, a purifier for our water, two stainless steel bottles… and on many occasions we even carry extra food.

The way we choose to live and our refusal to waste, requires some more space whilst packing, as not everything can be found on the go. But this doesn’t feel like a drag at all. We are happy to pop out our metal straw when buying a coconut on the street, and to purify our water on a moving bus so we can drink out of a tap.

It’s all about small adjustments that we have easily come accustomed to. 

Fruit and vegetables in the market of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka Fruit and vegetables in the market of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

So pack smartly before you go if you want to make most of your sustainable travels.

We have extended greatly on the travel essentials we take with us, showing you the possibilities and the specific products. There is more out there than you think!

7. Enjoy animals and wildlife consciously

Another detrimental aspect of tourism is that it can promote animals’ exploitation and even the destruction of whole ecosystems. And we don’t want that happening, do we?

Any activity that involves animals and natural habitats should be questioned to make sure you are not contributing to unethical practices and devastation.

Trincomalee beach, Sri LankaTrincomalee beach, Sri LankaDear at beach Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

If you want to see wildlife or natural reserves, make sure you do it through organisations that protect and foment local biodiversity.

Read up on sanctuaries or national parks you plan on visiting. Look at their policy about animal welfare, and please cut through the crap. There are plenty of reviews available from people that give a damn, and based on their experiences you can make a valid consideration of where to go.

And of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in the presence of wild animals, keep your distance and respect their natural habitat (also when diving!). The damage you are causing is not worth the selfie.

Deer in Trincomalee, Sri LankaSelfie taken with deer at Fort Fredrick in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

For us, a big red flag appears when an activity involves animals in captivity or promises any sort of guaranteed interaction.

A clear example is not taking elephant safaris. They are treated with extreme cruelty; forcefully taken captive from wild herds when young, many times killing the protective mum, to then be trained with spikes and bull hooks. Many end up dying of exhaustion and stress.

The same goes for other creatures. Don’t pay to take pictures with monkeys, snakes or whatever animal kept in captivity. And please don’t pick up that beautiful starfish laying at the beach!

It is understandable that you want to come as close to animals as possible, because common, they’re awesome. We know we have made this mistake in the past (and now feel terrible about it!).

But if you truly love animals, letting them be wild and free is the best thing you can do.

Puppy in Nilaveli beach, Sri Lanka Puppy in Nilaveli beach, Sri Lanka

But it doesn’t stop there.

Animal rights and welfare are not very present in many countries. We have seen beatings, stone throwing and confinements of the worst kind. Although we have to accept many parts of local life, even the negative ones, there are times when we feel its important to stand up for what we believe in.

We also try to be a positive example through our own kindness to animals, be it a dog, cat, cow or goat. Showcasing the beauty of these interactions, we hope that others take a more compassionate approach.

8. And finally remember to have fun and enjoy the ride. There is a whole world to explore! 
Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri LankaSelfies taken in Pathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri LankaPathirakali Amman Temple in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

With these principles of sustainable and ethical travel, we hope that people can become more aware and through their actions contribute to positive development, poverty alleviation, increased tolerance and equality, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. 

Do you try to travel sustainably? If so, is there anything else you would add? We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments. Thank you!

All the photographs were taken in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.

sustainable travel 

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Lila July 20, 2018 - 7:27 am

Que bueno! Que bonita manera de viajar y que divertida!!! Y poniendo el dinero en los puestos locales! Me encanta! Y ya que pedís sugerencias creo que estaría bien si pudierais dar indicaciones concretas de -por ejemplo- dónde está el mejor mercado local o los mejores puestos de verduras y frutas que habéis encontrado en la ciudad, o dónde encontrar un buen zapatero y cosas así. Comprendo que esos puestos son casi ambulantes y que quizás cambien de lugar, pero quizás también nuevos viajeros puedan ir corrigiendo o añadiendo direcciones o indicaciones en el blog. Algo así como una guía de viaje sostenible y respetuosa con los lugares, los animales, y las personas que viven allí.
También me gustaría saber de dónde habéis sacado las bolsas de tela que lleváis para comprar sin producir residuos, las habéis hecho vosotros o se venden? Y lo del agua que decís qué es? LLeváis un purificador de agua con vosotros?
Muchas cosas me gustaría saber para viajar así. Gran propuesta!!!

Alejandra July 26, 2018 - 6:48 am

Muchas gracias! Sí, es una forma divertida de viajar y ver el mundo.
Sobre las guías, es muy difícil porque depende mucho de nuestra experiencia particular en situaciones cambiantes. Sería muy difícil que alguien estuviese en exactamente la misma situación que nosotros y necesitase un zapatero (por ejemplo) en la misma parte del mundo. En nuestra opinion, es más bonito instigar a que se viaje de una determinada manera y que después cada uno encuentre sus pequeñas joyas por el camino.
Las bolsas que llevamos nosotros son compradas, pero también se pueden hacer en casa fácilmente si se tiene una maquina de coser. Y sí, llevamos purificador para el agua, un UV filter. Pronto haremos un blog post detallando todo lo que utilizamos y llevamos con nosotros para facilitar el viajar así.
Muchos besitos!

Lila July 20, 2018 - 7:29 am

Que bonitas las fotos!!!

Alejandra July 26, 2018 - 6:48 am

Gracias!! <3

Coralie August 27, 2018 - 12:10 am

I LOVE IT! Just experienced eco-tourism in Ecuador two months ago for the first time, and it really has been much more rewarding than I thought… Highly recommended! (And necessary)

Alejandra September 4, 2018 - 8:25 am

Oh that’s amazing! We would love to know more about your experience in Ecuador 😀

Janice October 22, 2022 - 12:25 pm

Great critique of the tourism. I mainly travel in New Zealand and Australia. The same issues of animal welfare, environmental degradation and sustainable development are just as tricky in developed countries.


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