What is sustainable tourism?

Before we go any further, it’s important to clarify what we mean by sustainable travel. While people often think of sustainability as minimizing our ecological footprint, it is actually much broader and encompassing than that. Sustainable tourism is about finding a balance between economic growth, human well-being and environmental health. It takes into account both the immediate impacts felt today and the longer-term impacts that will be felt by future generations. Contrary to popular belief, sustainable travel is not just about protecting the environment, but also about the impact of tourism on people, cultures and economies.

You’ve probably seen other buzzwords like “ecotourism”, “regenerative travel”, “community-based tourism”, “ethical travel”, or “nature tourism” and wondered: how do they differ from “sustainable tourism”?

Understanding what sustainable travel means is one thing, but putting it into practice is another. That’s why we’ve put together our top 10 tips for sustainable travel. As you read on, consider what practices you can adopt as you head off on your next trip.

1. Get off the beaten path

As a traveller, you can help prevent the resurgence of overtourism by avoiding tourist traps and getting off the beaten path. In fact, it can be even more rewarding to explore places that are less travelled.

Getting off the beaten path allows you to have a more unique and authentic experience while avoiding the crowds. This doesn’t mean you have to pitch your tent in the middle of nowhere, but it does mean doing extra research, or even asking locals or other travellers for recommendations. Instead of staying in major tourist centres, visit smaller towns or head to a more rural area. This will reduce the burden on over-visited destinations, while bringing the benefits of tourism to other local communities.

And if you’re dying to get to a popular destination, consider scheduling your trip during the off-season.

2. Slow down and stay a while

It can be easy to get caught up in trying to do as much as possible on a trip. After all, this may be the only time you visit this destination. While a packed itinerary may look ideal on paper, you’ll probably spend most of your vacation rushing from place to place. Not to mention that this fast-paced, “hit and run” style of tourism is a sure-fire recipe for stress.

Do yourself a favour and give yourself more time to explore your destination; opt for a longer vacation. Once you arrive at your destination, stay in one place for a while instead of jumping from place to place.

By slowing things down, you can really experience the place you’re visiting. When you’re not in a hurry, you can take the time to immerse yourself in the culture, make deeper connections with the locals and learn about the unique charms of the location you’ve chosen. Take a cooking class to sample local flavours and learn how to prepare traditional or typically Quebecois dishes. Spend a day walking or biking around town and you’re sure to discover hidden gems, such as a quirky local café, for example.

Spending more time in a destination allows for more authentic, memorable and meaningful travel experiences. At the same time, it reduces the strain on the cities and communities you visit, while creating greater benefits for the local businesses you support. Added bonus: slow travel is also better for the environment as it reduces the amount of carbon emissions generated by flying or driving between destinations.

3. Use efficient modes of transportation

In addition to travelling slowly, there are other ways to reduce the carbon emissions produced by your trip.

Air travel, driving, and other forms of transportation make up the largest portion of tourism’s carbon footprint. While all modes of transportation require energy, some are more efficient and cleaner than others. How you visit makes a difference.

Once you arrive at your destination, consider taking a bus, train or bike instead of renting a car. If you do rent a car, choose an electric, hybrid or smaller model.

4. Conserve water and energy

When on vacation, do what you can to conserve local water and energy resources. Turn off any electronic devices when you’re not using them. Take a shower instead of a bath and keep it as short as possible. Wash your clothes by hand and hang up the “Do Not Disturb” sign to avoid unnecessary washing.

You can also reduce your environmental footprint by staying in low-impact accommodations or those that use renewable energy and water and energy efficient technologies.

5. Offset your carbon footprint

While you should always do what you can to minimize your energy consumption, some carbon emissions will remain unavoidable. You can offset these unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions through a process known as “carbon offsetting”.

Carbon offsetting allows you to balance the carbon footprint of your trip by reducing emissions elsewhere in the world. Simply calculate your carbon footprint using an online carbon calculator, then purchase offsets equivalent to the amount of CO2 you produced. The money from your offset contribution will be invested in projects that reduce carbon and other greenhouse gases. Carbon offset projects can also generate benefits beyond reducing emissions, such as creating local jobs, improving health conditions or conserving endangered species.

When offsetting your carbon footprint, be sure to use a reputable provider to ensure you are creating the greatest impact possible.

6. Keep your money local

Many communities are suffering from last year’s lack of tourism. You can help them rebound by making sure your money stays in the local economy.

The best way to ensure that host communities reap the benefits of tourism is to support local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Consider staying in guesthouses, unusual or experiential accommodations in natural settings. Dine at local restaurants and enjoy traditional dishes prepared with locally-sourced ingredients. Step out of your comfort zone and have fun browsing the local market. Buy spices grown by a local farmer or items made by a local artisan. While haggling is expected in many cultures and is acceptable, don’t be stingy. Pay a fair price. If you are booking a tour package, choose an operator that favours local suppliers.

Going on a nature tour? Book your trip with a local guide who knows the best places to go and can give you interesting information about the wildlife you will see.

>> Consult our Ethical Charter for travellers in Quebec (infographic)

7. Respect local communities

One of the incredible things about travel is that it offers a glimpse into other traditions, beliefs and ways of life. Take this opportunity to expand your horizons by embracing differences and immersing yourself in the local culture.

Start by diving into other cultures by learning about local history, traditions and etiquette before your visit. Download a language app and learn a few phrases in the local language. Be aware that certain gestures, clothing or words are considered offensive in some destinations. Be especially careful when visiting religious or spiritual sites. Only go to sites where tourists are welcome and follow proper protocols.

Wherever you go, remember that the destination you are visiting is someone else’s home. Follow local laws and guidelines, from traffic laws to health and safety measures. Do your best to leave the place as you found it, so that future generations of travellers and residents can enjoy it, too. A little respect doesn’t hurt. Be considerate of the residents and treat them with dignity. This includes respecting their privacy and asking their permission before taking their picture.

8. Avoid single-use plastics

In recent years, an increasing number of consumers, businesses and governments have begun to reject single-use plastics. But in the past year, single-use plastics have made a comeback, as the pandemic has led to an increase in the consumption of plastic gloves, take-out containers, and the like as an extra hygiene measure. With the increase in plastic dependency due to COVID, it is even more important to reduce your own consumption when travelling.

Bringing a reusable bottle on your trip is a simple practice that can go a long way, especially since the quality of our water in Quebec is excellent. In the worst case scenario, or if you are in the backwoods, bring a water bottle with a built-in purifier.

Another easy way to reduce plastic waste is to change your eating habits. Eat fresh, local food or drinks on site rather than taking takeout in single-use containers. Another good practice is that some travellers choose to bring their own reusable containers and utensils.

9. Visit parks and protected areas

Regional and national parks, marine sanctuaries and other protected areas play an important role in protecting the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity. Entrance fees help fund the conservation activities needed to protect these areas while providing income to local communities.

When planning your post-COVID trips, look for protected areas in your destination and add one to your itinerary. When visiting a natural area, be sure to minimize your impact by acting responsibly. Avoid disturbing sensitive environments or wildlife, follow all visitor guidelines, and follow “Leave No Trace” principles.

10. Choose sustainable accommodations and operators

Our final tip focuses on how you can influence companies to change their practices and help make sustainable travel mainstream. The best way to influence the industry is to look for companies that reduce their environmental impact and contribute to the well-being of local communities.

Remember: just because a company advertises itself as “green” or “sustainable” does not mean it is. Look for information about specific practices and policies it has implemented, and ask questions to show that you are considering sustainability in your purchasing decisions. What energy and water conservation practices have they implemented? Have they eliminated single-use plastics? How do they promote diversity and inclusion? Do they hire local people for leadership positions? Do they give preference to local suppliers and producers? Do they encourage responsible interactions with wildlife?

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