Sustainable Travel vs. Responsible Travel: What’s the Difference?

  Maggie Fuller  |    May 18, 2021  |     4 min read

“Sustainable” and “responsible” seem to pop up everywhere when you’re booking a trip, but what do they really mean?

The word “sustainable” has become ubiquitous in our everyday lives, and in most contexts, it’s pretty self-explanatory. When you see it on a food label or clothing line, you can be reasonably assured that the product you’re buying is, in some way, better for the world than its counterparts.

But “sustainable” has also become a buzzword in the world of travel, where its definition gets a little more complex. There are so many facets to the industry that when you see the word in a tourism brochure, on the website of a travel company, or in a blog post, it doesn’t always tell you much. Are we talking about sustainable energy usage in a particular hotel? The carbon footprint of a flight? The absence of plastic water bottles? All of the above?

And then there’s the phrase “responsible travel,” which further confuses the issue. While it often appears alongside or even instead of sustainable travel, the two concepts are actually different, even if the distinction isn’t always clear to even the most conscious consumer. 

So we’re breaking it down for you. Here’s a brief primer on what you need to know about sustainable and responsible travel, what they are, how they’re different, and what all that means for your future travels.

Travel and the Environment

No trip is inherently sustainable. From the carbon footprint of air travel to the excessive amounts of water many hotels use to wash linens to the damage that overcrowding wreaks on delicate habitats, tourism is bad for the planet.

“Sustainable and responsible tourism are both alternative forms of tourism that aim to mitigate the negative effects of tourism,” explains Elsewhere co-founder Craig Zapatka. Both are defined by governing bodies of different countries and involve practices, projects, and guidelines for all different players in the tourism industry. But the two types of tourism differ in their scale. “The way we see it, sustainable tourism is all about the big picture impacts of travel while responsible tourism involves the individual.”

Sustainable Travel

As defined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), sustainable tourism “takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” In this way, it often operates at a more national level, where tourism policies and guidelines are developed to make positive, long-term economic, social, and environmental impacts on the destinations. According to Craig, travelers might see this in:

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for hotels, signifying the compliance with a set of standards for environmentally responsible design, construction, operation, and maintenance
  • Natural area planning (paths, trails, signs) to protect flora and fauna in green spaces and national parks
  • Permitting and visitor caps to reduce overtourism at popular attractions

But sustainable travel isn’t always regulated from the top. You might also find examples of sustainable tourism in:

  • A tour company that pays fair wages to guides, drivers, and staff
  • A travel marketplace like Elsewhere that reduces economic leakage in host communities and ensures that more tourism dollars stay in the destination by connecting travelers directly with local travel professionals 

Responsible Travel

Responsible travel also seeks to make a positive impact on the economy, society, and environment. “But the difference,” Craig points out, “is that this relates to the individual traveler, local expert, hotelier, or driver who interacts with the destination.” It’s about living your values, such as: 

  • A hotel that opts to go plastic-free
  • A tour guide who doesn’t offer visits to captive wild animals
  • An activity outfitter that’s committed to following Leave No Trace principles
  • A traveler who refuses to participate in dehumanizing poverty tourism

These individual choices may seem to only help on a small scale, but in reality, they are important acts of advocacy that can spark meaningful change.

The Beginning of a Better Kind of Travel

For many travelers, the increasing interest in sustainable travel and responsible travel marks the beginning of a revolution. The phrases themselves were actually only coined recently: The UNWTO officially defined sustainable tourism in 2017 and still has yet to define responsible tourism. But already many destinations and travel companies have adopted one or both terms and committed to their concepts. 

Of course, because these phrases are new, some players in the travel industry are still figuring out the lingo. You’ll probably continue to see the two used interchangeably, and you may even see unscrupulous businesses exaggerating or falsifying claims of sustainability to benefit from its popularity—a practice called “greenwashing.” 

But growing pains aside, the simple fact that “sustainable travel” and “responsible travel” are becoming more and more common is a sign that travel is changing for the better—and that is due, in large part, to consumers like you. As a conscious traveler, your decisions have the power to affect change. You can continue to make the world a better place through travel by demanding better practices across the industry by supporting companies that are focused on doing good, and you can set an example for other travelers by continuing to live your values and reflecting on how to improve your individual actions while traveling.