No-guilt trips: how to travel sustainably (and still have fun)

Still thinking of an alternative to that package deal you have your eye on? Try sustainable tourism – it can be cool – really

I can predict the reaction now when I tell people I am a travel writer. Ah, that is so cool, do tell more, they say smiling. Then I tell them that sustainable tourism is my bag. Ah, that is not so cool, they say, looking like they just stepped in something unpleasant.

No one really wants to be told that their well-earned break might be doing harm to the planet, to other people or to wildlife.

They want to be given a break, not a guilt trip. So, now I try and skip straight to the good news, which is that sustainable tourism is not all about whether we should fly or limiting ways in which we can explore the world. When you understand it fully, being a more switched-on traveller actually opens up layer after layer of our planet’s most treasured travel offerings.

Sustainable tourism is, of course, a contradiction in terms. The original meaning of sustainability is “being able to meet the needs of present generations without compromising the needs for future generations”, which immediately brings up the whole carbon conundrum. And yes, the minute you fly, drive, train or boat anywhere, you are using fossil fuels.


Which is why I prefer the term responsible tourism. We can all be responsible by flying less, being more choosy about the type of holiday we go on and ensuring that we respect and support local people, their livelihoods and landscapes when we are there. So, the next question on people’s lips is usually, what are the best trips out there that tick all those boxes and that aren’t all hemp, hippy and, well, totally unholiday? So, as soon as I can, I reveal the lovely layers. And the smiles start to return.

The sussed travel companies

An easy short-cut when seeking out the most ethical holidays is if the tour operator has a well-established and highly regarded responsible tourism policy, which informs everything they do. I have had faultless experiences with the likes of Exodus Travels, Intrepid Travel, Encounters Travel or Wild Frontiers, which specialise in small group trips all over the world, some also tailor made, while using the best of local guides, staying in small, locally owned accommodation and always ensuring that local culture plays a major part of every trip.

This could be cycling through Jordan, wild camping in Sudan, hiking in Ethiopia, horse riding in Kyrgyzstan or Rajasthan (or just about all the ’stans in fact), snowshoeing up Sicily’s volcanoes or walking through Kerala.

For putting together my dream safari, my first port of call would always be Tribes Travel, run by Guy and Amanda Marks who know all the communities they visit inside out and have incredible patience for not only creating your dream safari, but keeping it responsible. From Madagascar to the Maasai Mara, gorilla trekking to all things gorgeous in the Galapagos, Tribes is top.

Hiking and cycling holidays that take you from inn to inn, or gite to gite, either in a small guided group or self-guided, will always lead you right up there to the moral high ground when it comes to responsible holidays. Leading experts in this field and award-winning for their commitment to responsible tourism include Inntravel, Headwater, Village Ways and Saddle Skedaddle.

Appetisers on their menus of responsible offerings include hiking along the Amalfi coast or Brittany’s pink granite rugged shores, cycling through Croatia’s national parks, or from one thermal bath to another in Japan’s mountainous magnificence.

They are experts at creating itineraries that take you to small local markets for lunch, a taverna in the middle of nowhere for dinner, to the bar with the best homebrew, and to visit artisan craft workers way off the tourist trail. In other words, into real worlds, not just ones made for tourists.

Village Ways, in particular, takes extra steps on its walking holidays to remote  spots in Nepal, India and Ethiopia, because participating village communities are partners in the business, guided and marketed by head office in the UK, making this a truly unique grassroots travel organisation.

Another shortcut to sourcing responsible and ethical holidays is a website that lists many of the world’s leading travel companies and holidays, including some of the above, in one place – responsibletravel. com. It also has a unique collection of online travel guides to destinations all over the world as well as adventures that you can have there. All responsible and all hemp-free. I know, because I wrote many of them.

Think outside the box

One of the easiest ways to change the way in which you holiday and ensure that you leave a better footprint, more money in the local economy and also have a memorable travelling experience is to think outside the box.

Swap downhill skiing for cross country, hiking for snowshoeing, mainland for islands, coastal for inland, river cruises for kayaking trips or city breaks for just-outside-the-city breaks.

Some of my favourite examples of this are cross-country skiing in Finland’s Kainnu region or Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains with Exodus, where wild, winter wildernesses far from snow cannons and cable cars await.

For snowshoeing, perfect for hikers who want to get out in the snow but not join the piste posers and chalet chic brigades, check out the French Pyrenees with responsible experts Mountainbug or Austria’s East Tyrol with mountain experts Wear Active.

For islands instead of mainland, look no further than home, with the likes of Inishbofin recently winning a clatter of EcoTourism Ireland certifications. Swap the coast of Montenegro for kayaking around its extraordinary Lake Skadar with Undiscovered Montenegro .

Avoid cramming on to Croatia’s packed beaches and head to its stunning and empty inland national parks, where hiking and biking, swimming and rafting await. Cycling Croatia and Huck Finn Adventure Travel are both beacons of responsible tourism in Croatia. And, instead of going on a 4WD safari, go on a walking one.

You can, really ( holidays/walking-safaris). You just need to think outside the box.

Wildlife holidays

Going to see gorillas in the wilds of Rwanda or Uganda, tigers in India, polar bears in Canada, whale-watching in the Arctic, and just about everything watching in Madagascar or the Galapagos are trips of a lifetime for many, our one moment to have an Attenborough-esque epiphany of what life on earth really is about.

Make sure you travel with a responsible tourism operator which works with highly trained naturalist guides, expert trekkers or boat skippers who know how close to go so as not to harm the wildlife, to respect the tranquillity of their habitats and also to support small local communities that are striving to conserve them.

Highly respected companies in this field include Natural World Safaris, Dolphin and Whale Connection, Tribes Travel and Sunway Safaris.

The big no-nos

Another question on many people’s lips is: “What is the worst way to holiday if you want to be sustainable or responsible?” There are a few that jump immediately to mind – and apologies if you have already booked.

First, giant floating hotels in the likes of Croatia, Montenegro, Spain, Italy and, of course, the Caribbean, are cruising for a bruising. They contribute little to the local economy and the pollution levels in biodiverse beauty spots are now well documented. There are lots of other small cruise boat or sailing boat options out there to discover the world from the water.

Second, all inclusive resorts. They might be a bargain and tough to resist, but many multinational-owned, fly-and-flop resorts are low on ethical cred and high on negative environmental and economic impact.

Third, holidays that involve captive animals, such as orcas, dolphins, petting lion cubs or tigers that are chained up, or animals that are trained to perform or entertain, such as elephant trekking, some camel trekking, monkey dancing or even snake charmers. Not good.

Last but not least, downhill skiing doesn’t rate too highly on the ethical league table either, although I always hesitate before announcing that one. Telling avid skiers that their favourite pastime is potentially destroying the landscapes they love is like taking sweets off a child.

However, those sweets have plenty of dodgy E numbers, environmental and economic. These include snow cannons, overuse of water resources, land erosion, litter, overdevelopment as well as tree removal in order to create pistes higher up as climate change forces them up that environmentally slippy slope. The good news is, however, as mentioned above, there are lots of goodies to make up for the baddies.

Follow Catherine’s travel musings on Twitter: @catherinemack


If you have already booked your holidays and they don’t tick all the boxes mentioned in this article, don’t give yourself a hard time.

There are plenty of easy ways to be a responsible tourist no matter what holiday you are on, camping or caravanning, cruise package or charter package. Just remember a few of these W-factors, and think before you book next time.


When a Spanish hotel asks you not to have your sheets and towels washed every day, it isn’t just about money. They really do have serious drought issues.

The same goes for many countries where local people have to pay for water, but tourists have it on tap. So restrict your showers to one a day and use common sense.


If you see any animals being mistreated for tourism purposes, inform a local authority. Use social media to tell tourist boards that you don’t think it’s right to overwork camels, train monkeys, keep dolphins and whales in captivity, chain tigers or ride elephants, just for the amusement of tourists.


Spend your money where it counts. If you are already booked into an all-inclusive resort, find the local market to buy your daily fruit or a local guide to take you kayaking instead of the onsite one. Eat local food and try not to go to Lidl on holiday. You have time to go to the fish stall in the port or the farm shop down the road. Similarly, if you are booked on to a cruise, do take the excursions and buy something made locally.


This covers a lot of areas, from not buying too much “stuff” before you go and falling for the pre-holiday consumer frenzy, to not taking all your packaging with you, as many countries don’t have recycling facilities or have to pay for them if they do.

Also, wherever you are, respect the rules of Leave No Trace ( Please don’t waste the natural resources by switching off lights, air conditioning, heaters and so on.


We come from a culture that celebrates welcoming guests to our country. It might seem obvious, but please remember that you are guests when you travel abroad. Your hosts won’t be too chuffed if you dress inappropriately at a place of worship, take photographs of them without asking or refuse to learn even a couple of words in their language.

Nor will they be overjoyed if you complain needlessly, get drunk and behave badly, trample over private land or simply not take time to smile and tell them how much you love their country. Because, at the end of the day, respect is what responsible travel is really all about.