What is sustainable traveling and why is it important? | Sustainable Travel Series / Part 1

Hey there, I’m Daniela and this is the Science of Travel Blog!

Topics range from geoscientific stories about the formation and history of Earth, and the formation of specific landscapes to sustainable, respectful, conscious, and regenerative traveling to philosophical contemplations about living life as an Earthling.

This is a 3-part blog series that covers what sustainable traveling is, why it is important, and how you can travel sustainably. These tips are for affluent and budget travelers alike. Sustainable traveling is not a matter of money, but of goodwill, common sense, values and responsibility. It is neither expensive, complicated, nor difficult to travel sustainably.


Subscribe to the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter to receive updates about this blog


This is what the individual parts are about:

Part 1: What is sustainable traveling and why is it important?

Part 2: How sustainable traveling turns from chore to joy and how to alleviate travel guilt

Part 3: Build your ecofriendly itinerary: Sustainable travel tips for before, during and after your trip


This is part 1

What is sustainable traveling and why is it important?

This article covers: 

  • The UNWTO's definition of sustainable traveling
  • My personal simple-and-easy-to-remember-and-execute definition of sustainable traveling
  • How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted tourism numbers worldwide
  • Adverse effects of tourism
  • Positive effects of tourism
  • Is traveling okay?
  • What your responsibilities as a tourist are and what they are not


Let's cut to the chase and start.


Now that travel destinations are opening and traveling is picking up again, it’s a good opportunity to think about how we want to travel in the future, it's a great opportunity to rethink how we want to travel.

Many destinations who’ve suffered from mass and over-tourism before the pandemic see this time as a huge chance to introduce a better way to travel.

What is sustainable traveling?

The UNWTO has a great definition.

The UNWTO, or World Tourism Organization, is the United Nation’s agency that is responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.

The UNWTO 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.”


This sounds fantastic, but somewhat political, I think. For the normal tourist this hardly gives any concrete ideas about what sustainable tourism means and how we, as tourists, as visitors, can integrate sustainability into our trips.

I rephrased this definition a little bit to create a better image. This following sentence makes clearer what sustainable tourism means for the regular tourist and immediately gives ideas how we, as tourists, can travel better.

Daniela's simple-and-easy-to-remember-and-execute definition of sustainable traveling:

Treat your destination like you treat the home of a friend.


Here's what I mean:

When you visit a friend’s house, you come with joy and gratitude. You’re happy and grateful for the invitation and their hospitality. During your stay, you respect their house rules, you don’t pick flowers in their garden, and you don’t break their windows. You don’t take their belongings with you as a souvenir. You don't disturb their pets. You don’t trample the plants in their backyard. You don’t drop trash or cigarette butts on their property.

Instead, you tell them how beautiful their house and their garden are. You ask how they built and maintain them. You’re curious about your friend, you ask questions about their past, about their dreams and you are interested in their well-being. You want them to feel safe with you, you want them to welcome you. You want to leave a good impression, you want to care for your friend.

You want to listen to your friend’s stories. You want to learn from them. You have the best intentions about maintaining a good relationship from the start. While spending time with your friend, you’re present and immersed.

This is exactly how we should behave when we enter a destination.

Behave in your host destination, in your host community, like you behave when spending time with a friend. Be curious, and respectful, appreciative and grateful of their hospitality, mindful and conscious.

Acknowledge that you’re a visitor. You are a visitor anywhere that is not your home. And the destinations, the people, the nature, are your host and not products to consume.

You are a guest, a visitor. Destinations are your host, not products.


As travelers, and as humans, we should be mindful of this simple fact:

Traveling means entering the home of others.

Of other people if we visit new cities, regions or countries.

Of marine animals and plants – corals, fish, turtles, sharks, whales, algae – if we take a dip in the ocean.

Of other animals and plants when we hike through the jungle, forests or if we climb a mountain.

It’s their habitat: the people's, the plants', the animals'.

We should care about our travel destination as if it were our own home – and in a larger sense it is – as Earth is the home of all of us. But on a smaller scale we are guests everywhere we go that is not our familiar home.

We are always visitors and should always be aware of this simple fact. We should accept the destination’s cultural rules and its character. We shouldn’t impose anything onto them. We should marvel at the landscapes, not destroy or litter them; not disturb the peace, the biodiversity, the nature that lured us in in the first place. 


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter to receive more texts like this:

Why is sustainable traveling important?

Besides our innate desire to be a kind, respectful human being, there are other reasons why sustainable traveling is important.

In the past, the main goal of tourism was to increase the number of visitors from season to season. Marketing strategies that promoted destinations were aiming towards that goal. With great success.

In this graph the blue curve represents the number of international tourist arrivals (in million) worldwide from 1995-2018 [1].

Number of international tourist arrivals in million worldwide from 1995-2018. Source: UNWTO


In 2018 1.4 billion arrivals were registered at borders (red arrow on the right). 10 years earlier, in 2008, about 900 million arrivals were registered (red arrow on the left). So in only 10 years the number of visitor arrivals has climbed by 500 million worldwide.

Tourism is growing and this has consequences for the destinations whose space, resources, capacity, and infrastructure are limited. That’s why it is crucial to travel sustainably, and to manage tourism sustainably.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted tourism and will tourism recover?

This graph shows how the pandemic impacted tourism [2].

Number of international tourist arrivals (in million) worldwide from 2018-2021. Sources: UNWTO 

Yes, tourism will recover. Remember, in 2018 1.4 billion arrivals were registered, in 2019 it was 1.5 billion.

Then in 2020 the numbers plummeted to 398 million and in 2021 to 425 million.

The pandemic has put a sudden stop to the previous tourism surge, but tourism is a very resilient industry. It has bounced back time and again from negative events such as global economic crisis, terrorist attacks and pandemics.

The prediction is that this time tourism will recover as well, catch up with and eventually exceed pre-pandemic numbers. International tourism experts expect international tourism to return to those pre-pandemic 2019 levels for the world in 2023 and 2024. This means we can expect more than 1.5 billion tourism arrivals worldwide in 2023 or 2024.


Adverse effects of tourism

How (badly) does tourism impact the environment?

  • Air pollution
  • Pollution of the oceans
  • Pollution of the beaches
  • Pressure on nature and locals
  • Impacts on landscapes
  • Over-tourism and mass tourism
  • Damage to and destruction of natural habitats and loss of biodiversity through the construction of hotels and other buildings, the development of infrastructure such as roads, paths and trails, electricity, water pipes etc.
  • Overfishing that is partly a result of the high demand for fish from restaurants and hotels
  • Harming of wildlife, not only due to what I mentioned above, but also due to wildlife shows, animal experiences etc. where animals are used as attractions or props for photographs
  • Water shortages: The consumption of water per hotel guest in a destination exceeds that of the local population in many countries. This is especially important to consider in countries where water is scarce due to dry climate or dry seasons
  • Large volumes of waste: paper, cardboard, food, and plastics, especially plastic water bottles
  • Tourism is a victim of and contributor to climate change

I found some images online that illustrate the problems we face today.

Here is a woman riding a turtle, the picture was taken around 1930 [3].

Young woman riding on the back of a turtle at Mon Repos Beach, near Bundaberg, ca. 1930. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane Australia. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The woman is sitting on top of a sea turtle on the shore of a beach. I’ve never seen this before and I was aghast and felt a little nauseous at the sight.

Unfortunately, even today people think they can ride turtles, pose on turtles for photographs, hug turtles, or approach them closely. Don't do that.

By the way, elephant and ostriches riding is now considered taboo [4] [5], and using animals as photo props is unaccepted as well. We should only partake in those animal activities that are educational and support conservation, such as visiting an official sanctuary. [5] I emphasize official because there are a lot of black sheep out there and it is important that you do good research before visiting a sanctuary.

In the next image we can see a tight crowd in front of the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre in Paris. [6]

Crowd of tourists photographing the Mona Lisa, 13 April 2016, Thomas Staub, CC BY-SA 4.0

We can see many people erecting their phones over their heads so they can get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa painting and to take a picture.

I personally wouldn’t want to be stuck there. I don’t think it’s a pleasant experience to be squeezed skin to skin with other sweating people, only to take an image of a painting. Where’s the sense in that?

The formation of this crowd is attributed to over-tourism. Over-tourism happens when one particular destination gets congested because it attracts many tourists at once.

Over-tourism exists in many other destinations as well, an often-made example is the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

It’s the same with the next image. Here we can see many tourists on one tiny beach on a crescent shaped bay that is surrounded by high cliffs with boats lined up in the water. [7]

Beach that is overpopulated by Diego Delso, 19 August 2013, Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To me personally, this would not be a pleasant experience. I live in the city, and I like to get away from crowds and many people while on vacation. Seeing so many people on a beach disturbs me.

Above all, and what is much more important, the noise of the boat engines probably bothers the animals living in the sea and the petroleum pollutes the water, harming marine organism. The natural habitat of animals is taken by these boats and by the tourists on the beach. Perhaps this beach was a nesting for turtles or birds.

The next photograph shows a beach near Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. [8]

Punta Cana littlered beach, Dustan Woodhouse, via Unsplash

The beach is littered. We can see plastic bottles, plastic wrappers and lids entangled with the seaweed that was washed onto the shore.

The photographer made a note alongside this image and he said: “Take a walk a few km’s from your next resort, and here is what the beaches of the world really look like these days.”

Again, in the image we can see trash on the beach, entangled with seaweed and algae.

This photo shows another example of pollution, but this time of the ocean. [9]

Plastic pollution and juvenile fish in Indonesia, by Naja Bertolt Jensen, via Unsplash

We can see large pieces of plastic trash floating in the ocean, plastic bottles and cups and plastic wrappers of candy bars. Among this trash swim black and yellow striped fish. This picture was taken in Indonesia.

In the next and final image we can see a huge patch of plastic bottles near the settlement of Gorakshep in the Himalayan Mountains near the Mount Everest at about 5,000 meters elevation. [10]

Garbage in Himalayas, by Sylwia Bartyzel, via Unsplash

What a horrendous sight. You’d think the high mountains in Nepal are pristine, wild, but they’re littered. I found out that Nepal has banned plastic soft drink bottles, but not plastic water bottles in 2020. I don’t know when the picture was taken.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter to receive more texts like this:


Now that we've seen all these terrible images and we know that tourism can be quite bad and detrimental for a destination, the simple but inevitable question arises:

Is traveling okay? Positive effects of tourism

Yes, traveling is okay (read part 2 of this series if you want to get rid of travel guilt) and, in fact, tourism is important and necessary. Here is a non-exhaustive number of reasons why:

  • Tourism pushes the local economy and develops infrastructure. Many residents say that tourism has positive effects on their lives, as tourists bring in money, service providers raise the attractiveness of a destination and improve the reputation. Because of tourism the infrastructure in a destination is improved, for example of running water, electricity, and public transportation.
  • That is why tourism can increase the standard of living for locals
  • leads to a positive image of the region
  • and it creates jobs.
  • Tourism raises the appreciation for and interest in culture and nature not only in tourists but also within the local population.
  • From the tourist’s perspective, traveling educates and increases our tolerance for and acceptance of different people and cultures.
  • Tourism can lead to the revival of cultures and languages that are threatened with extinction and tourism can lead to the rebuilding, restoration, and conservation of historical and natural sites.
  • Tourism, thus, can also lead to the protection of nature and the establishment and the financing of national parks and nature reserves.


Conscious, respectful tourism offers the chance to increase tolerance, to foster acceptance, to develop the realization of the interdependence of all things, and it plants a much-needed understanding of nature, of foreign ways of life, and of environments that is essential to heighten humanity's sense of responsibility for each other and for nature.

Conscious, mindful traveling turns "foreign = fear = neglect" to "known = understanding = caring".


Now, these positive effects of tourism are not guaranteed. Everybody involved must do their part and it is also important to keep in mind that it’s not your sole job to fix the industry.

It's not your job to fix the industry.


The tourism industry needs to fix itself, the tourism industry needs to make the necessary changes. Of course, we as tourists have the responsibility to be kind, respectful and mindful. But above all, the tourism sector makes the offers that we, the visitors, accept. Only when they change their offers, their marketing strategies, their focus, their goals, their benchmarks, can we make better and better choices.

This is where you come in. Whenever you choose a sustainable, ecofriendly option, you show the tourism industry that this is what you want and that you are willing to pay for this, that you want, in fact, more of it. 

The UNWTO says: “Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.” [11]


A non-tourism example

Before we come to the end of this article, I quickly want to share with you an example of a marketing campaign that in my eyes didn‘t hit the right tone at all. [12]

It's a non-tourism example but I think it clearly paints the picture. It‘s from a large German supermarket chain who wants to market its sustainability efforts. They started a campaign with the slogan: „Good deeds start with the groceries I buy“ which is said from a consumer point of view. This particular image from their campaign [13] here says: "290 t fewer packaging starts with my vegetables." And they show a sweet potato with information engraved on its peel and without plastic wrapping.

REWE Weniger Plastik beginnt mit meinem Einkauf Campagne

I think they got it all wrong!

REWE Nachhaltigkeitskampagne Gutes beginnt bei mir

This marketing message completely shifts the responsibility upon the individual buyer. But that‘s completely false. They have to make sustainable offers that I can choose. If the shelves are devoid of sustainable, plastic-free and cruelty-free, affordable options, I don‘t have the chance to buy sustainably. It‘s their responsibility to fill the shelves with good products, not mine.

Now, again, this wasn‘t tourism related, but I think it's a great analogy and I am sure you got the point! Remember, sustainable tourism or living, doesn’t start or end with you. But you can help. You are part of the solution and your actions make a difference. Your small actions matter.

Sustainable tourism + living doesn't start or end with you. You are part of the solution.


In part 2 of this blog series we explore how sustainable traveling turns from chore to joy and how to alleviate travel guilt.

Before you head to the next article, download the Sustainable Travel Checklist. 


If you want you can also subscribe to the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter to receive more articles about Earth, sustainable traveling, and geology.


About the author

Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, and newsletter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter.

References + Image credits

[0] Blog banner image: Taryn Elliott - Photography (pexels.com)

[1] World Tourism Organization (2019), International Tourism Highlights, 2019 Edition, UNWTO, Madrid, DOI: https://doi.org/10.18111/9789284421152.World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), www.unwto.org

[2] World Tourism Organization (2019), International Tourism Highlights, 2019 Edition, UNWTO, Madrid, DOI: https://doi.org/10.18111/9789284421152.; Infografía (amazonaws.com)International tourism growth continues to outpace the global economy | UNWTOInternational Tourism and Covid-19 | Tourism Dashboard (unwto.org)

[3] Young woman riding on the back of a turtle at Mon Repos Beach, near Bundaberg, ca. 1930. Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane Australia. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (Link)

[4] How the travel industry is working to improve the welfare of elephants in tourism | ABTA

[5] GlobalWelfareGuidance_2019_WEB2.pdf (abta.com)

[6] Thomas Staub, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (Link)

[7] Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (Link)

[8] Dustan Woodhouse via Unsplash (Link)

[9] Naja Bertolt Jensen, via Unsplash (Link)

[10] Sylwia Bartyzel, via Unsplash (Link)

[11] Sustainable development | UNWTO

[12] REWE starte Kampagne zur Nachhaltigkeit | REWE Presse

[13] REWE | Weniger Plastik beginnt mit meinem Einkauf - YouTube


Animal welfare | ABTA

Advice for travellers on activities involving animals | ABTA

What are your thoughts?

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

/* -- Responsive video embed -- */ .responsive-video { padding-bottom: 56.25%; /* for 16:9 ratio */ padding-top: 25px; position: relative; height: 0; } .responsive-video iframe, .responsive-video object, .responsive-video embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }