There’s a greeting I heard when I first visited Jamaica almost 16 years ago. I continued hearing it during the numerous winters I spent there as a digital nomad. Jamaicans, and Rastafari in particular, use this greeting in lieu of “nice to meet you,” when bidding someone farewell, or when expressing gratitude: “Respect.”
When I think of what best defines sustainable travel—a phrase that’s become overused and that many fail to understand—I think of that Jamaican greeting.
It’s a simple, yet powerful utterance. Respect for the person you’ve just met. Respect for the work a person does, or what he/she stands for. Respect when you’re being welcomed into a community, a country.
For third culture kids such as myself, and for those who grew up abroad, exploring for immersion, exchange and connection with others is our travel modus operandi. It’s how I’ve lived in and visited places for as long as I can remember, even if there was no term for it back then.
For the average American traveler, it’s a more recent concept (and there are many reasons for this which are too deep to get into here).
Respect—it sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what does that look like when you’re making travel decisions?
We are at a time when our planet is facing numerous challenges (I actually first wrote this post in 2019, pre-pandemic), not least of which is climate change, social strife, and the revelation that tourism has failed many host communities for years.
Destinations are rethinking their role in ensuring there is more economic equity and that places are protected for generations to come, but it’s critical for consumers and travelers to understand the impact they can have and the way in which they can lead the industry.
Here are eight sustainable tourism principles you can apply from the moment you start planning your next trip and during your time in a destination.
1. Respect for direct cultural exchange: Sign up for community-based tours
What are community tours, or community-based tourism? It’s the kind of tourism where a specific community or specific group (such as women’s groups, a social enterprise, or a long-standing locally-based organization) is the one creating and offering the experience or product.
All the revenue from tourists is then pooled and equitably distributed among that community’s members. Funds also go towards continuing programs or meeting the community’s needs (for example, building a new health clinic).
When you sign up for a community tour or a community-based activity and stay, 100 percent of your travel dollars go directly towards locals. To be honest all of tourism, ideally, should be community owned and run. But for obvious reasons of economic disparity and lack of resource access globally (caused by colonialism, slavery, usurpation of lands by western powers, as well as local corruption), that isn’t going to be mainstreamed in our lifetime.
The catch with community tourism and community-based tours, as well, is that they’re not always easy to find or book online. Furthermore, not all travelers know to find them or where to find them. But they do exist, and it’s a not a new concept. Whether it’s in the Caribbean or in South America, Asia and beyond, you can find them if you make the effort.
More hotels, particularly on the luxury end, are also partnering with host communities to offer unique tourism experiences as conscious consumers ask for them post-pandemic.
Types of community-based tourism experiences organized by a cooperative or social enterprise:
- cooking classes
- dance classes with history
- hiking with a local guide
- staying in a local village for a homestay
- staying a mountain lodge owned by a local community cooperative
Immersing in a community and supporting their business, while also learning first hand about the culture: there’s no better way to experience a destination, nor a more direct way to contribute your travel dollars to a community’s long term, sustainable future.
When you’re heading to a new destination, ask on the ground for community-based tours or experiences. Try finding them on social media pages, including Facebook and Instagram.
2. Respect for nature: Visiting protected areas and supporting environmental organizations
Engaging with the outdoors is the best way of supporting the environment, and all those who are protecting it for us.
My most transformative trips in 2019 in terms of the outdoors included my trip to Maine, home to staunch environmental stewards. Barbuda too, impressed me with its locals passionate about their environment and the frigate bird sanctuary, one of the largest in the world. Where would the sanctuary be without its most committed guardian, Captain Jeffrey?
In Antigua, the story of the revival of Wallings and its transformation into a nature reserve, at the helm of a determined local woman, was perhaps the most illuminating message of all: one person can make a difference.
When exploring a destination then, look for protected areas or local non profit environmental groups, and put your funds directly towards these important local expert-managed projects and guided spaces.
3. Respect for women: Supporting women-owned businesses and women’s cooperatives
Women in developing countries are at the forefront of environmental conservation and the management of natural resources. This is because they are often the ones who are out collecting water, gathering food or tending to their farms and families. As a result, they are the most affected by climate change, and conversely the most apt in addressing these issues if given the tools and support.
Above: Anne Marie cuts black pineapple at her roadside stall in Antigua.
Because of gender inequality and social exclusion, it’s critical to support women today and invest in their initiatives. While there are organizations doing so, such as the UN Global Environment Facility, you can also make a difference by supporting women-run initiatives and businesses during your travels.
Not only does it improve a destination’s sustainable future, but it also supports entire families and communities. There are many more valid reasons why women should support each other.
Female entrepreneurs who are business owners also tend to hire local women and often pay them better than their male counterparts might.
4. Respect for heritage: Learning from the right source
Who is telling the story? Who are you learning from?
Sustainable travel is about immersing in culture, but before you absorb the stories being told, ask yourself: who’s the expert? And whose voice and perspectives are missing? As much as possible, seek to hear from those who have lived and are living their heritage on a daily basis.
Those whose history might be advertised on tourism pamphlets, yet aren’t given the opportunity to train and guide tourists. It is imperative, in this age of misinformation, that you learn from the right source.
In 2019, I stumbled on the opportunity for a two-day tour on the African history of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. It wasn’t lead by a typical tour company, but by a university professor with deep knowledge of the slavery days in the DR, including the former plantations of the south. How do you find this meaningful tours? You dig for them—ask friends, search online, contact tourism boards and contact tour guides who care about sharing their lesser-told stories.
Choose the persons whose ancestral roots begin and continue in the place you’re visiting, or who’ve studied in depth and share balanced perspectives. Most people are good and just want to share their culture and country with us; let’s give them the opportunity to do so by hiring them.
5. Respect for local food: Eating from the source
When you’re sourcing your food locally—i.e., shopping at markets or dining at a spot that buys its food products from locals—you are supporting the local economy and supporting local producers. Why does that matter?
Because local producers thriving translates into food security, which is critical for countries facing the most dire effects of climate change, in particular the Caribbean. Many of its destinations are still far too dependent on imports. Supporting local sources also means less fossil fuels use, less plastic use, and more local wealth.
It’s equally important in industrialized nations. Supporting fishermen or oyster farmers who supply direct from sea to table in Maine, to a mobile pizza maker who crafts her menu solely relying on the week’s available fresh produce, food security is key to a thriving, sustainable future.
6. Respect for green businesses: Choosing responsible hotels, floating or otherwise
How do we get more businesses ditching plastic, operating on clean energy and sourcing their products locally? By supporting those that already do this and spreading the word about them. By asking questions of the ones that aren’t green yet.
When more lead by example, more follow.
In Puerto Rico, I stayed at the stunning Finca Victoria–a botanical farm house hotel where all food is sourced or grown locally, including the souvenirs and apparel sold on site, made by boricua artisans. Suites had patios with mini organic gardens, no TV or electronics, and fresh mountain air for A/C.
A handful of all inclusive resorts in the DR have also begun greening their practices, and a handful are Green Globe Certified. Research which, and stay there.
While sailing the US and British Virgin Islands on The Viramar in December 2019, a private yacht chater, life was green. The yacht is part of a green, membership-based initiative spreading in the sailing industry, whereby charters pledge to implement and follow green practices year round. We even received a Green Guide on what to pack and not pack that’s environmentally harmful when coming to spend a week at sea. Imagine if all non-floating hotels did that for their guests.
There was absolutely zero plastic on board The Viramar. Guests are given a metal water canteen, with a color band so you could recognize the one you used and keep reusing the same one for the rest of their trip (then take it home). Reusable cups. Eight solar panels on the boat; the generator is turned off during the day until the evening. Silicon reusable straws. Even wooden toothbrushes and sulfate-free, glass bottled Bite toothpaste tablets were provided. Sulfate free shampoo and reef safe sunscreen. Woven beach totes for use offshore. And your own reusable thermos to take home at the end of your stay.
7. Respect for creativity: Supporting small entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship continues to boom wherever we travel. That’s a good thing because these hard working, independent men and women are improving our lifestyle, creating jobs, inspiring social change and innovation, generating wealth and contributing to the economy. More often than not, entrepreneurs also double as social activists and get involved advocacy for the benefit of their communities.
It’s a great time to support small businesses, and you should look for them when visiting a new place, whether in the US or elsewhere.
8. Respect for socio-economic context and for accuracy
I have no respect for people who judge countries they’ve never visited, or that they’ve never lived in long term. If you’re one of those people who boycotts places based on governments and politics, my guess is you live in the middle of the ocean on an uninhabited plot. Not in reality, that’s for sure. The world is big, messy place.
Meeting people from that place and interacting with them is what helps us see beyond what’s painted in the media as a story that sells.
Bavaro Beach, facing the Occidental Punta Cana; front desk team member Arabeli Vasquez.
We can all learn from the complexities of life in a country by educating ourselves on the geography, economics, politics, and social class issues in that destination. By visiting in person and talking to locals. Smearing, insulting and judging places on social media helps no one. Worse, the result is often the demise of every day workers who lose their jobs because hotels are suddenly empty, for no proven reason.
Sustainable tourism, then, is also about not pointing fingers or preaching. Instead, it’s about educating, learning how to travel smarter, and supporting others in doing so.
Beyond the buzz words: one small travel choice at a time
Let’s recap what a sustainable trip looks like:
- You sign up for community-based tours
- You visit protected areas and support environmental groups
- You support women-owned businesses
- You learn from the source
- You eat locally-sourced foods
- You choose low-impact hotels and businesses
- You support small entrepreneurs
- You lean about the destination’s socio-economic context
Why do all of these choices matter? Because despite leisure tourism being one of the largest economic sectors in the world, it’s still a privilege of the few. That’s why it’s critical for those of us who can, to bring balance to the destinations we visit. Our planet needs it, desperately. The Caribbean too, needs it badly.
The good news is that each one of us can make a difference with our travel decisions. In the hotels or all inclusive resorts we pick for our annual vacations, or the tour guides we support. In the way we tell our stories or share information online. In the voices we choose to hear and learn from. Every single decision gives us a chance to play an important role in shaping our trip and in making a positive impact on the places and people we’re visiting.
Because you see, sustainable travel isn’t about “living like a local” or as simple as staying in a local neighborhood or AirBnB (which isn’t necessarily sustainable nor immersive, and can be disruptive to life in some cities). Sustainable tourism is also anything *but* boring—they are packed with meaning and impact, while relaxing.
Apply the eight principles in this post to your travels and you’ll be on your way towards becoming the impactful, mindful traveler that the world needs, contributing to places and people positively, while having the experiences of a lifetime.
Which of these sustainable tourism principles will you apply to your next trip?