We Need to Talk About Sustainable Travel

There’s something that’s been bugging me.

Festering away and boiling up in a quiet rage. The kind that I don’t quite know how to articulate and every time I sit down to the page it comes out all wrong. In fact, this article is one of the hardest I’ve written. I’m still not sure I got it right. But let’s give it a go.

Sustainable travel is the newest buzzword in the travel sphere since United Nations designated 2017 as the Year of Sustainable Travel and Development.

Likewise, Lonely Planet just named vegetarian and vegan travel as next year’s travel trend (read the article here).

These two travel movements seem to exist in almost entirely separate worlds. Yet, to me, there’s a (literal) elephant in the travel room that no one is talking about.

Vegan Travel and Ethical Travel | AlternativeTravelers.com
Or maybe it’s a cow in the room.

Why?

Because the animal industry is the single biggest threat to the environment and the world’s biodiversity – as confirmed by the WWF, the UN, and many others. Read more in our article here.

Quick fact check. Emissions from the animal agriculture industry stand around 18 – 19%  of all emissions – more than all emissions from the entire transportation sector (which is still high at 13%). Emissions from air travel alone are around 2% of all emissions.

This doesn’t mean that reducing air travel isn’t important – it absolutely is – but it’s not the most impactful change that each person can make in their daily lives. Not convinced? Read about the environmental impact of eating a hamburger in this analysis.

Leaving the animal industry out of the sustainable travel discussion is simply not getting to the crux of the dilemma.  

On the flip side, many vegan travelers don’t give a single hoot about the environment and if they claim to care, their behavior says otherwise. Many continue to engage in environmentally destructive practices. Frequent vegan travelers zoom around the globe on multiple long-haul flights and countless short-haul flights per year, proudly proclaiming country visits within a year in the double digits. Even occasional vegan travelers that aren’t contributing as much of a carbon footprint might not be conscious of their plastic use or ignore other sustainable travel practices.

There needs to be far more intersectionality between veganism and sustainability when talking travel.

Sustainable Travel and Vegan Travel - AlternativeTravelers.com

WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL?

Sustainable tourism is simply this – being aware of and reducing your impact on the environment and local culture while supporting the local economy while traveling.

Here are some generally suggested sustainable travel tips:

  • take public transportation over taxis, ubers, etc.
  • reduce your amount of flights (take trains, buses, car shares between cities or spend longer in one place)
  • contribute to carbon offset programs when you do fly
  • reduce plastic waste with reusable items (read our eco-friendly packing list here)
  • choose eco-friendly accommodations – We wholeheartedly recommend and use housesitting almost exclusively, but couchsurfing or staying at a local bnb or hotel that works to reduce its environmental impact would work too.
  • only take part in ethical activities (Visit.org is a fantastic resource for finding them)
  • do your research and beware of greenwashing

These are all great and valuable things to do.

There are other overlapping spheres too, like responsible and ethical travel.

These movements center on being aware of a traveler’s impact on the local communities and cultures and generally trying to avoid contributing to the multinational tourist industry that prioritizes profits over our collective well being. Sustainable travel, responsible travel, and ethical travel all seem to exist in their own separate spheres. However, they cannot be divorced from each other and packaged in different boxes. Small island nations are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change and environmental pollution like the accumulation of plastics in our oceans. By reducing your environmental impact overall, you’re reducing your contribution to the crises that these countries deal with on a daily basis. 

You can’t pick and choose your ethics – that defeats the whole purpose.

It’s much easier to participate in a stint of voluntourism than to make more difficult choices like changing our daily habits. Voluntourism participants feel happy that they’re doing good on holiday without questioning their own choices throughout their stay and beyond.

Travel is often touted as a mind-opener, a character builder, a culture breacher.

But if we never question or challenge ourselves, are we really learning at all?

Sustainable travel should include a conscious reduction of animal product use and ethically questionable animal activities for our enjoyment. It just takes baby steps. 

Unethical Souvenirs

This is perhaps this easiest change to make when making your travels more compassionate and sustainable. It may be something you do already.

Products like ivory, rhino horns, or tiger skins should never be purchased. These are the most controversial and problematic, but always do your research on local animal products and avoid buying them. The Guardian has a list here.

We don’t like to accumulate stuff, so my favorite souvenirs are small yet memorable ones, like a tattoo to commemorate my journey on the Camino de Santiago, or a nose piercing in Brighton with a great new friend (who is also a vegan travel blogger – check her out at VeganNomadLife). If you’re not into body mods, why not pick up a piece of jewelry made by a local artisan or some local spices?

Zero Waste Travel in Granada Spain - AlternativeTravelers.com
Bulk spices in Granada, Spain.

If you don’t want to accumulate anything at all, photos are always the best souvenirs. Experiences rather than things make the best memories – which brings me to my next point.

Animal Tourism

Ethical and responsible travel call for an avoidance of problematic so-called “animal experiences,” aka, activities that harm animals for the visitor’s enjoyment.

Happily, more and more people are speaking out against unethical animal tourism. Recognizing the cruelty of elephant riding has perhaps been the biggest success, with social media campaigns and many prominent travel influencers calling for the end of elephant riding. Unfortunately, many tourists are still unaware of the harm that riding an elephant does to the animal (mainly because of the horrific training practices to break an elephant enough to ride it).

Bullfighting is also generally recognized as a cruel and unnecessary sport – yet continues because tourists fill the stands (the younger generation of Spaniards are working hard to eradicate bullfighting entirely). At his job teaching English in Madrid, Veren often gets asked about his opinion on bullfighting – the overwhelming majority of students (and teachers) oppose it.

Yet other so-called animal “experiences” are completely ignored and sadly new ones are popping up all the time.

People still take horse-drawn carriages throughout the streets of New York and countless other cities. The popularity of owl cafes in Japan shows that people are more interested in petting something cute and fuzzy rather than considering the impact on the owls themselves. Owls have extremely sensitive hearing and naturally sleep at night – read more about Owl Cafes on the Guardian here. Imagine keeping someone who has to get up early (like Veren) up at night – trust me you better leave him alone.  

Tiger selfies still happen. Fish pedicures are still a thing, despite the fact that this involves the starving of fish so they get so hungry they’ll eat gross tourists’ gnarly toe skin.  

And somehow, eating snake blood from a LIVE SNAKE is something Westerners want to do in Asia.

Can we please just stop this insanity already?

#RantOver. Read more here on How to Not Be a Jerk to Animals When You Travel and 11 Cruel Animal Experiences to Avoid.

There are plenty of ways to have authentic experiences that don’t involve animal cruelty. If you love animals, consider visiting a sanctuary. Ashley at A Southern Gypsy visits an animal sanctuary in every country or state she visits – see her growing list here. Or if you can, just go for a hike and see animals in their natural environment. 

We Need to Talk About Sustainable Travel: Eco Travels, Sustainable and Responsible Tourism - AlternativeTravelers.com
Stumbling upon a sweet deer in Sequoia National Park.

People search out these experiences because they see them as the ultimate “get out of your comfort zone” experience. What if that meant making an uncomfortable choice that caused less harm to fellow living things on this planet?

If travel is about getting out of our comfort zones, then we need to dig deep into the ultimate comfort zone – what we eat. 

Judging by the annual uproar around the yearly dog meat festival in China, one can safely presume that people get upset when dogs are harmed.

But what about pigs, or snakes, or owls, or horses? It’s very much a cultural thing, and saying that a country is backwards for eating dogs is wildly hypocritical while gorging on mammary cheese smothered beef.

Eating Sustainably While Traveling (and at home!)

It truly shocks me that people still think it’s okay to eat endangered animals. Under the guise of having an “authentic” experience, tourists lap up shark fin soup in Japan and China or rotten shark in Iceland (despite the fact that locals don’t eat it. Read also Landlopers’ post on the Morality of Eating in Iceland). When can a shark get a break around here?

These practices have led to over-exploitation of the land’s native animals.

Take civet cats for example – you may have heard of them. Mainly they’re known for being exceptionally cute and pooping out incredibly expensive coffee beans.

In theory, these coffee beans would be harvested from their scat and turned into a fragrant cup of Joe. However, like anything where humans, animals, and potential profit are involved, things got bad for the kitties real quick.

Suffice to say that this coffee is a novelty many tourists want to try when traveling in Asia. Give something a crazy price tag (like 60 GBP/cup) and people with money to burn will line up. With increasing demand came an increasing need for more civets producing more poo. Consequently, the cats are kept in tiny cages and fed only coffee beans. Read more about the heartbreaking things going on this industry in this article on the BBC.  

This is just one example of how a seemingly benign practice can get out of control when tourism gets involved.

And even when cruel practices are called out, it’s inconsistent.

People love to condemn the dog meat festival in China while participating in the daily chicken, pig, and cow meat festival in North America and Europe year round.

There is no difference between eating a dog and eating a pig – besides our preconceived cultural biases – we just prefer dogs as pets. Pigs can be as sweetly affectionate as dogs and are as smart as three-year-old children.

And while many people are dropping red meat in favor of fish, this still isn’t a solution. Overfishing is a tremendous problem that not only is detrimental to marine ecosystems and biodiversity but in fact, also could accelerate climate change.

And while going vegetarian is a huge step in the right direction, often vegetarians unconsciously up their dairy and egg intake, to compensate for the calorie and fat deficit of not eating meat. It’s just as damaging as the meat industry. Environmental concerns aside, dairy is scary. Eggs too.

Next time you are making a food decision, question it.

Do you really need that lamb stew, pickled egg, or hunk of stinky cheese? Are you just eating out of habit? If not, who are you eating it for? Yourself, a friend, or the idea that you need it to experience a foreign culture?

Change starts with small steps.

Contrary to what most people think (myself included), eating vegan did not ruin my travels – it enhanced my experiences.

We have eaten incredible food everywhere we go because we don’t simply show up to that conveniently placed restaurant with sun-faded food photos in the main square. We have met inspiring people creating their own businesses centered on sustainability and compassion (read more in our restaurant reviews series here).

We have still tried traditional dishes of each country or region we visit. Nearly every country has something that’s naturally vegan in their cuisine or with a small alteration can be made so. Don’t believe me? Then read Veggie Planet by The Nomadic Vegan. In it, she profiles 10 popular world cuisines and how naturally vegan-friendly they can be. Find it on Amazon here.

For more veg-spiration, check out our ever-growing collection of vegan travel guides or read about the top 10 most vegan-friendly cities in Europe.

Most Vegan-Friendly Cities in Europe - AlternativeTravelers.com
Who says you can’t have currywurst in Berlin as a vegan?

Ultimately, we’re not trying to single out non-vegans or make anyone feel guilty about their lifestyle. If you are interested in sustainable and responsible tourism, then awareness of the detrimental contribution of the animal industry to the environment is something you need to be thinking about. It’s easy to throw up “conscious living” on an Instagram bio – it’s a whole another thing to live a life that exemplifies it.

It’s a process, and we’ve been there too. Just remember to take it one small step at a time. We’re still learning how to make our travels more sustainable and we want to share that journey with you.

If you’re looking for more support, why not join our Facebook group, Sustainable Vegan Travel? This is a group for anyone interested in reducing their impact while traveling or at home. You don’t have to be vegan to join, just conscious of and interested in reducing your animal product use. Whether you’re looking for help moving towards a more plant-based lifestyle or want to connect with like-minded travelers wherever you are, we’d love to have you!

We Need to Talk About Sustainable Travel | A Discussion of Vegan Travel, Sustainable Travel, Responsible Travel, and Eco Travels | AlternativeTravelers.com
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  • Really love this article! I wholeheartedly agree about “animal experiences” and souvenirs. I’ve grown very wary of anything involving animals and think research needs to be done before participating in anything (I’ve even heard some things about places claiming to be sanctuaries). I love the idea of hiking or just being in nature! Seeing animals in their natural environment is such an incredible experience.

    But you also made some great points about eating meat. I’m “semi” vegetarian and am working towards eating less meat. You’ve definitely challenged me to move further in the direction of going veg. 🙂

    I also love this: “Travel is often touted as a mind-opener, a character builder, a culture breacher. But if we never question or challenge ourselves, are we really learning at all?” Yes, yes, yes. This is so true. You can travel around the world and hardly interact with other cultures. If you don’t push yourself outside of that comfortable bubble, travel can even reinforce stereotypes.

    The one thing I would say I disagree with is the definition of sustainable tourism. It’s more all-encompassing to include the impact on local culture and the local economy, in addition to the environmental impact. (Though I do think the *connotation* of “sustainability” is about the environment for most people.)

    Really love the article though – will be sharing!

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment Naomi!!

      I completely agree – I have certainly come across people that have traveled a ton and don’t seem to make any changes in their detrimental habits. I’ve met a decent amount of Americans/Brits that travel (even frequently) and just end up annoyed everywhere they go because it’s not like what they’re used to. Which just reinforces their stereotypes and beliefs that their country is better than everywhere else. It boggles my mind sometimes!

      And great point about the definition I had on sustainable tourism, you’re totally right. I’m gonna edit it right now! I think I may have fallen into the very point I was trying to argue against in this article – focusing just on one aspect of sustainable travel. Thanks for pointing that out. Which reminds me that I also wanted to make a better point about how reducing one’s environmental impact helps local communities as island nations and third world countries are usually the ones that deal most directly with the impacts of climate change and plastic pollution. So much to unpack in this topic!

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts! <3

  • Wonderful article, Sam! I just spent three months traveling around southern Africa, and I was shocked to see how many restaurants were serving the dead bodies of zebras, warthogs, impalas, kudus, etc. I know that it’s no different ethically from eating a cow or a pig, but I can’t understand why even people who eat meat would want to eat the very animals that they have paid all this money and traveled all this way to come and see!
    I did have some wonderful wildlife-viewing experiences, and even had the privilege of going on a walking safari with a local vegan guide. He grew up in a small African village where raising and killing animals was part of daily life, and yet he became vegetarian when he was just 10 years old. Watching wild animals with someone who has such a deep love and respect for them was an incredible experience.
    I also visited an elephant nursery, which is a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for orphaned baby elephants. The nursery itself is doing great work, but I was very disheartened to hear our guide promote elephant riding at Victoria Falls! It turns out she’s an American who used to work for Animal Kingdom at Disney World, so she was very personally invested in her belief that using animals for entertainment is ethical. Fortunately, more and more people are realizing that’s not true.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experiences Wendy! I can only imagine what 3 months of travel in Africa is like. I had no idea that zebra and other African animals are eaten, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised unfortunately. I don’t understand the logic either — I have a friend who loves bison but still eats them. I don’t get it. Some strong cognitive dissonance going on.

      That’s so fascinating about your safari guide, he sounds like such a strong person to become vegetarian so young in such a meat-centric culture. Would love to hear more about your safari experience (I’m sure all the blogs are coming!)

      And yeah, I get so frustrated when I see people promoting elephant riding too. I’m always frustrated and saddened when I come across blogs saying that elephant riding is okay. But luckily yeah, more and more people are starting to realize that it’s not, which is great to see.

      • Yes, lots of blog posts about Africa will be coming! Unfortunately my phone was stolen right after that safari with Mogale, the vegan guide, so I lost some great photos and video from that part of the trip. Nick still has some that I can use, though. I really want to share Mogale’s story so more people can be inspired by it!