17 tips for sustainable travel

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Photo of a western woman looking at textiles in an Indian souvenir shop

Preferably buy locally made souvenirs (© Shutterstock).

There is no ingenious code of conduct for sustainable travel. A lot depends on the context, but in any case respect for people and planet take priority. Here are 17 tips to help you on the right path.


1. Respect local standards and values, and find out in advance about

Dress codes, greetings, bodily contact, eating habits, contact between people of the opposite sex, or a different status, visits to religious sites, etc. Take time to discover the culture and meet people.

2. Don't just spontaneously take photos

First approach the people you wish to photograph and ask permission. Negotiate a fair price if people ask for money. It is better not to give money to children (see point 4). Taking photographs of some locations and objects may be offensive and unwelcome in certain cultures and religions.

3. Do not enter a village or go among native people unannounced

Make clear agreements in advance, possibly with the village chief: in terms of fees, camping spots, places you may visit, etc. Respect their culture.

Photo of a woman posing for a photographer in an Asian village

First approach the people you wish to photograph and ask permission (© IRD).

4. Be extra vigilant around children

Sex with underage persons in return for payment (money, goods, other promises) - wherever it takes place in the world - is punishable in Belgium. It generally also leads to prosecution in the travel destination itself. It is better not to give money to (street) children, even if they ask for money for a service such as taking a photo of them. If they earn good money, their parents may keep them home from school. Or they might purchase alcohol, glue, or other drugs. You can also donate something useful to a school, preferably bought at a local market.

Photo of a group of people walking in the mountains

Leave nature intact (© David W. Siu).


5. Travel slowly and offset the carbon emissions of your trip

‘Sustainable travel' somehow is a contradiction in terms. But you can choose to travel less often, less far, slower and longer. A holiday close to home will always be greener and cheaper.

And you can offset the carbon emissions of your trip through specialised organisations such as CO2logic.be, Greentripper.org and Treecological.be. These organisations calculate the amount you need to pay to offset your emissions, and they invest your money in sustainable energy and reforesting activities. Ideally use public transport at your travel destination. If you do use a rental car, consider a hybrid or electric version.

6. Plan your trip thoroughly

If you travel to a distant country, it is better to go for a longer period. Look for accommodation with ecological initiatives such as solar energy. Carefully plot your route so that you don't need to make any unnecessary detours if you need to use the car. If you choose a travel package with a sustainability label, find out exactly what it entails. Recycle your travel brochures: pass them on to family or friends.

7. Don't consume energy unnecessarily

Ensure that you have unplugged all electronic devices at home before you set off. It is better to unplug all unused electrical devices at your destination as well.

8. Leave nature intact

Take your waste with you, and avoid polluting public water. Use biodegradable soap. Leave animals and plants alone, and don't unnecessarily deviate from paths. Exercise caution when starting fires, and only use driftwood or dead branches. Preferably cook using gas or sustainably-produced charcoal.

9. Look for alternatives to plastic

In some hotels or shops, you can obtain 'separate' drinking water. You can simply refill your water bottle or jerrycan. If in doubt, you can always purify the water. If you do use plastic bottles, put them with the waste, or give them away. Plastic bottles can be useful for people. Take a reusable bag from home, that way you don't need to accept a plastic bag when shopping.

10. Always be frugal with water, even when on holiday

For example, it is better to use a beaker to brush teeth, and take a quick shower. Don't have your bedlinen changed every day, and use reuse hand towels.

11. Eat locally-produced food as much as possible

That is good for the environment and the local economy. In addition, you can discover local specialities. But beware of illegal bush meat (from poaching).

12. Do not take any illegal souvenirs

As a traveller, you should always respect the existing legislation. Therefore, do not bring illegal souvenirs such as endangered animal or plant species, or cultural heritage such as fossils, arrowheads, corals and potsherds.

Within the EU, you may not bring plants or parts of plants from non-EU countries into the EU, unless accompanied by a recognized "phytosanitary certificate". The exceptions are: pineapple, dates, bananas, coconut and durian.

Photo of two tourists at a tuktuk taxi

Let local people work for you and give a reasonable tip (© Shutterstock).


13. Make use of local amenities

Preferably sleep in smaller family hotels or you can look for 'Community based tourism', which closely involves the local population. This is a great way to make direct contact with the locals. Check whether they get their fair share of the income. Or you could perhaps try agro-tourism? You can experience day-to-day life on a farm on every continent.

14. Let local people work for you

Don't skimp on minor expenditure. Take a tuktuk or rickshaw, have your cases or backpack carried, and pay for it. Or enlist a local guide.

15. Don't forget to tip

For many families, a job in the tourist sector is all they have, the wages are low and the work is seasonal. An extra tip to a maid or bellboy is a nice gesture. Find out what a reasonable tip is.

16. Only give to beggars if the locals do likewise

In Islam, giving alms is one of the five pillars, and it is also customary in India to help beggars. Adapt to their culture. It is preferable to give little and often rather than give an extravagant amount in one go.

17. Purchase souvenirs

And if possible, buy them from the makers themselves. Make sure that for instance necklaces are not made of illegal coral or ivory. And that it doesn't carry a sticker indicating it has been produces abroad. Haggle by all means, this is part of the culture in many countries. But don't push it down to the limit. The seller has a minimum price in his head in any case.