What is Sustainable Travel?

Chris Braunlich

Our volunteers are conservation advocates who enjoy both voluteering and travelSustainable travel is currently a hot topic in the travel industry. As CEO of Conservation Volunteers International Program, I have been thinking a lot about the sustainable travel discussions, because our conservation volunteer projects are entwined with the travel industry.

ConservationVIP® organizes volunteer trips to some of the world’s greatest landscapes and cultural heritage sites to engage in conservation projects. Our trip participants are conservation advocates who enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from volunteering on important projects and they are people who like to travel. Our mission keeps us focused on the volunteer projects, but travel is an important issue for us. Our volunteers have to travel to participate in our volunteer work and the travel is one of the features that attracts volunteers to our projects.

Sustainable travel has become a theme in the travel industry because awareness has increased about the environmental damage and negative social consequences caused by an explosive growth in international travel. Much to their credit, many ethical travel service providers are examining their operations to minimize the negative effects of the travel they promote. Like any hot trend though, there are others who just short-cut to marketing slogans. Touting that they offer “sustainable travel” may be as close as they ever get to offering a responsible travel experience. How can consumers choose responsibly? Will they weary of the discussions and just choose the company with the biggest “Sustainable Travel” sign on their ad?

Travelers must decide where to go, when to go, for how long, what to do on the trip, how to get there, how much to spend, . . . that doesn’t leave a lot of time to devote to evaluating claims about sustainability. Nor is it easy to evaluate. For the occasional traveler, what does “sustainable travel” mean anyway? Not using single-use plastics for water? Staying at one site for multiple days rather than moving about every day in energy consuming vehicles? Planting trees to reforest a landscape rather than riding a zip line in a forest? There are many actions, from small to large, that contribute to “sustainable travel”, and enough variation in understanding that it is easy for travel providers to claim the high ground.

I applaud the current focus on sustainability in the travel industry. But it concerns me that despite all the interest in sustainable travel, one key element of sustainability is seldom mentioned. I hear very little discussion about how the activities which people engage in during their travels are very important. I want people to know that joining one of ConservationVIP’s volunteer trips is a great way to choose sustainable travel, because our activities are focused on protecting and preserving landscapes, habitats, biodiversity, and cultural sites which are threatened by the travel explosion. But I don’t want to simply post a “sustainable” label on our trips, like a marketer who sticks a “Gluten Free” label on the outside of a junk food package so hapless consumers can make a thoughtless decision. I want to engage in more meaningful discussion.

Sustainability is not a new concept for ConservationVIP. It has been in our mission statement since 2012. We are “dedicated to helping sustain some of the world’s greatest landscapes, cultural heritage sites, and biodiversity.” We use the term “sustain” rather than “conservation” because we want to acknowledge that only by incorporating the needs and concerns of the local constituencies in the destinations we serve, and working with them to help them meet their pressing needs, can we truly help the special places we love.

Many good questions can be raised about sustainability and sustainable travel. What is it? What are we doing about it? How do we reconcile our travel with the concerns about overtourism and climate change? I hope you will take a few minutes to read through our page on sustainable travel and sustainability to read our thoughts on these and other questions. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but with the support and help of our volunteers, we expect to continue to learn and improve.

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