Bike leaning on brick wall in city street

Sustainable Travel: What does it mean and why does it matter?

Written by Lucy Rawlings


While the shift to sustainable travel is far from new, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again brought this topic to the forefront of discussion and highlighted just how broad in scope sustainable travel really is. “Buzzwords” like sustainability, eco-friendly, natural, organic, ethical, responsible, and conscious are all powerful in their own right, but it is important to distinguish them from mere “fashionable trends”, and rather consider the real significance of their meaning. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the world of tourism, with uncertainty playing a huge part in the disruption, as people continue to grapple with the ever-changing restrictions. Last summer, it seemed as if there was some semblance of “normality”, as restrictions eased in the U.K. and allowed people the opportunity to catch some European sun, but there is no doubt that the airport closures, suspension of incoming and outgoing flights, and nationwide lockdowns inevitably had a huge impact on the travel industry as a whole.

 sustainable travel

 One consolation, or silver-lining if you like, could be the environmental impact of this global pause on travel. In comparison to 2019 figures, international tourism declined by an astounding 65% in the first half of 2020. Just take a moment to really think about that.  The result, although devastating for the travel industry, has been a sort of reboot for the world and indeed for the travel industry as well.  We saw headlines that were almost as shocking as the announcement of the pandemic itself: in Venice, the canals were so clear you could see fish, Los Angeles recorded its lowest ever air pollution levels, and citizens of smog-smothered cities in India could suddenly see the Himalayas. In many ways, the pandemic allowed the world to breathe again. With lockdown exit plans revealed and with the rollout of vaccines rapidly making its way through the population, it seems that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the gloomy Covid-19 tunnel. Having waited a year for some sort of normality, many are jumping at the chance to book holidays, and airlines and travel companies such as EasyJet and TUI have reported a surge in holiday bookings, especially to destinations such as Spain and Greece. Of course, we can’t blame people for this, but we must consider, are we about to undo all of the positive effects of pandemic?

sustainable travel 

What is sustainable travel?

Of course, there is a reason why we travel. We want to learn, to explore and to seek adventure; we travel to far flung corners of the world to see the most beautiful landscapes and to experience cultures that differ from our own. I might be wrong about this, but on the whole, this is why the majority of people travel. What is important to keep in mind though, is how to be a responsible traveller. This is where sustainable travel comes in. The World Tourism Organisation defines sustainable travel as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of its visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. The foundation of sustainable travel is to leave a small to non-existent footprint on the host destination, and this footprint is based on three pillars: the environment, society, and economy.


  1. Environment: probably the most predictable pillar, environmentally aware or eco-friendly travel can be as easy as respecting wildlife and habitats, thinking about the different modes of transport you use, or remembering to switch off the air-conditioning in your room. Making a conscious effort to protect local landscapes helps to preserve the natural beauty of the area, hence making as small a footprint as possible. Besides that, due to global warming many beautiful places are being destroyed and so, by choosing a responsible way to travel, you can reduce your own carbon footprint, and therefore help reverse the effects of global warming, little by little.
  2. Society: the pillar of society is all about culture. Culture-friendly travel means striving to preserve local culture and heritage. This can mean simply respecting and following the rules of local culture, or diving headfirst into the culture, learning about it and potentially building bridges between the local culture and your own. This pillar is something that may ask for more participation than the others, as it could require getting involved with your host community but can also be as simple as respecting the unenforced and unspoken cultural rules of the place. For example, this could mean following the dress code of South East Asian temples, or respectfully refraining from climbing Uluru in Australia.
  3. Economy: this pillar does not refer to finding the best deal for your budget-holiday. While this may be important to us, the economic pillar of sustainable travel refers to putting your well-earned money into the right places. What this means is for us as travellers is to consider where we put our money, with an emphasis on the local economy of the country you are visiting, rather than investing solely in big corporations.


Why does it matter?


Before reading this, you may have felt that “sustainable” was synonymous with environmental protection initiatives, but, as I hope you see now, true sustainability in tourism goes much deeper than this. Sustainable travel means helping to protect local communities and cultures in the undeveloped areas that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to over tourism. Travel is a privilege and the destinations that tourists visit should be treated with respect, and so too should the local communities that live there.  We should environmentally and culturally acknowledge the area that we are visitors of, and also give back by investing in local businesses to show that a rise in tourism can mean empowering local communities over international corporations. If you would like to learn any more about what sustainable tourism is and why it matters, I would urge you to listen to this very informative podcast by the wonderful Holly Rubenstein:

 sustainable travel bike

I hope that this article has made you reflect on how you personally travel and has hopefully taught you some ways in which you can think about travelling in the future, as after all, there really is no planet B. Also, remember that you don’t always need to be looking abroad! The U.K also has many amazing destinations for any age group. Cornwall, the “British Riviera”, is perfect for family holidays, and there are a whole host of amazing metropolitan cities for young people, including Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. Consider reducing your footprint by staying local this summer, and if you choose to travel further afield and are still unsure about how to travel sustainably, then I have linked some articles below which can provide some useful tips about how to become a more responsible traveller.



For some ideas about where to travel in Britain this year visit:

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