For travelers, sustainability is the word—but there are many definitions of it

Most people want to support sustainable tourism, even though the concept remains fuzzy.

The word “overtourism” is a relatively new term—but its novelty has not diminished the portent of its meaning: “An excessive number of tourist visits to a popular destination or attraction, resulting in damage to the local environment and historical sites and in poorer quality of life for residents,” according to the Oxford Dictionary

As travel recovers from pandemic lows, travelers are once again experiencing the consequences of overtourism at enticing, but crowded, destinations. The UN World Tourism Organization, along with public and private sector partners, marks September 27 as World Tourism Day and uses this platform to discuss tourism’s social, political, economic, and environmental impacts.

This day highlights the importance of sustainable tourism—a framework for engaging travelers and the travel industry at large in supporting goals that include protecting the environment, addressing climate change, minimizing plastic consumption, and expanding economic development in communities affected by tourism.

Getting the facts

A National Geographic survey of 3,500 adults in the U.S. reveals strong support for sustainability. That’s the good news—but the challenge will be helping travelers take meaningful actions. According to the survey—which was conducted in 2019—while 42 percent of U.S. travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future, only 15 percent of these travelers are sufficiently familiar with what sustainable travel actually means. 

(Learn about how to turn overtourism into sustainable global tourism.)

In the National Geographic survey, consumers most familiar with sustainable travel are young: 50 percent are 18 to 34 years old. Among travelers who understand the sustainable travel concept, 56 percent acknowledge travel has an impact on local communities and that it’s important to protect natural sites and cultural places.

The survey has informed National Geographic’s experiential travel and media businesses and sparked conversations for creating solutions around sustainability. Our travel content focuses on environmentally friendly practices, protecting cultural and natural heritage, providing social and economic benefits for local communities, and inspiring travelers to become conservation ambassadors. In short, we see every National Geographic traveler as a curious explorer who seeks to build an ethic of conserving all that makes a destination unique.

Building better practices

National Geographic Expeditions operates hundreds of trips each year, spanning all seven continents and more than 80 destinations. Rooted in the National Geographic Society’s legacy of exploration, the company supports the Society's mission to inspire people to care about the planet by providing meaningful opportunities to explore it. Proceeds from all travel programs support the Society’s efforts to increase global understanding through exploration, education and scientific research.

National Geographic Expeditions offers a range of group travel experiences, including land expeditions, cruises, and active adventures, many of which take place around eco-lodges that are rigorously vetted for their sustainability practices. 

These independent lodges incorporate innovative sustainability practices into their everyday operations, including supporting natural and cultural heritage, sourcing products regionally, and giving back to the local community.

For example, South Africa’s Grootbos Lodge launched a foundation to support the Masakhane Community Farm and Training Centre. Through this program, the lodge has given plots of land to local people who have completed the training, increasing their income and access to local, healthy foods; so far the program has benefitted more than 138 community members.

As a media brand, National Geographic encourages travelers to seek out and support properties that embrace a mission to help protect people and the environment. Not only do these accommodations make direct and meaningful impacts in their own communities, but staying at one helps educate travelers in effective ways to preserve and protect the places they visit.

Supporting sustainability

The travel industry is crucially dependent on the health of local communities, environments, and cultures. As many experts note, we need to invest in the resiliency of places affected by overtourism and climate change to achieve sustainable tourism.

(Should some of the world’s endangered places be off-limits to tourists?)

National Geographic’s coverage stresses the importance of reducing our carbon footprint and encourages travelers to step off the beaten path and linger longer, respect cultural differences and invest in communities, reconnect with nature and support organizations that are protecting the planet. Here are 12 ways to travel sustainably, reported by our staff editors.

Storytelling can help by highlighting problems brought on by tourism and surfacing practices and technologies to mitigate negative impacts. A key goal of our storytelling mission at National Geographic Travel is to dig deeper into the topic of sustainable tourism and provide resources, practical tips, and destination advice for travelers who seek to explore the world in all its beauty—while leaving behind a lighter footprint.

HOW YOU CAN HELP
While on-the-go, keep in mind these ways to travel sustainably. Avoid traveling to overtouristed places when you can. Mitigate crowding at fragile areas when you use social media. When publishing to social media, use generic rather than specific geotags to reduce the chances of a specific site being overrun. If traveling to destinations such as Iceland, New Zealand, Haida Gwaii, and Hawaii sign and adhere to visitor pledges to tread lightly, protect nature, and respect culture.
George W. Stone is the executive editor of National Geographic Travel.
This story was revised and updated on June 28, 2022.

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