What is Sustainable Travel?

"Sustainable travel" has become a buzz-phrase in the last few years, right along with "responsible tourism." Neither of them have a very clear definition. They have become coveted keywords on travel sites, and they are pasted here and there without much meaning. Eco travel could indicate kayaking or saving turtles, or, perhaps, a trip to a lodge beside a mountain stream.

Sustainable travel, according to general Internet consensus (currently showcased by Wikipedia), means that we leave a place in better shape than we found it. According to some, sustainable travel also generates employment for local people. And, it's a "positive experience" for the environment and the culture of the place. It's different than eco tourism, we're told, but eco tourism is a subset of sustainable travel.

According to this definition, if you travel somewhere and don't make any impact at all, it isn't officially sustainable travel. Strange, right? The word sustainable means to be "able to be maintained at a certain level." Sustainable ecology means conserving (not necessarily improving) natural resources. Sustainable travel should apply to the tourists who keep the status quo, as well as those who improve the area. It doesn't seem to.

Sustainable travel is an odd phrase, in the first place, because travel is not sustainable or eco-friendly. Your impact on the environment would be less if you stayed in your hometown and bicycled everywhere. Transportation is bad news for the environment, and travel is too. When a community begins to welcome more tourists, it also opens the door to foreign resorts and an influx of people, litter and sewage. Good-bye sweet little town, good-bye forests and local culture. Hello tourism showdown. Buildings on the beach, resource conflicts and social stress.

But can't we make the world a better place by spreading love and joy? Sure, if that's your style. And, of course, if you spend money and support local businesses, you could have a positive impact on the economy. Sustainable tour operators can promote sustainable travel by making contributions to charity, preserving the environment and supporting the local community. Luckily, green is in. People like to go green, and travel companies know it. Of course, greenwashing is right alongside the do-gooders, and it's up to the traveller to sort it out, along with all those eco-awards.

So, what is sustainable travel, again? The term is still in its formative stages, and although certain organizations (like the UN) have put forth definitions, there is no general consensus. The good news is that the positive potential of tourism has lead to this philanthropical-environmental movement in the travel industry, which is making travel more sustainable. The movement wears many labels, each with it's own special spark: responsible tourism, green tourism, eco-conscious travel, eco-friendly travel, organic travel (which makes no sense), voluntourism, pro-poor tourism, eco-tourism, sustainable travel and so forth. It's up to you to define them, follow them, and spread the green word.

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