Implementing these 17 sustainable travel tips will often lead to enriching and positive travel experiences that benefit both you and your destination.
If you don’t believe me, take it from Ben Salt. Who, in contrast, to his experience with over-tourism in Bagan had a transformative experience in the Salar de Uyuni during the off-season when he embraced many of these 17 principles and you can see the rich experience he had because of this.
“I stayed within desolate huddles of basic, brick buildings, inhabited only by a few families. I walked beneath volcanoes, across vast, barren plateaus, beside colour-changing lakes, gurgling geysers and strange, petrified rock formations, on dirt, sand, rock, snow and salt. But I’d had the sort of meaningful experience that can only come from the connection I now felt to both my indigenous guide and driver and everything I’d learnt about the land to which these people are inextricably linked. Without those shared moments and meaningful cultural exchanges, travel has always felt increasingly hollow for me – at times, even colonial, voyeuristic and harmful.”
View this post on Instagram
1. Engage all Three Pillars of Sustainability
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, this is a good reminder that no visit to a UNESCO site can be considered sustainable without targeting all three pillars of sustainability. Before your trip, you should be able to identify all the ways you are benefitting the socio-economic well-being of the local community and the surrounding environment. For an easy way to do this, I make a Venn diagram and flesh out each section. If you are unsure – email your tour company or accommodation and ask them how they benefit all three! If any of your circles are missing details, ask yourself how you can do better? I always say that it will be almost impossible not to have some negative impact, but as long as the good outweighs the pat and you can identify positive impacts in all three categories – you, my friend, are on your way to becoming a responsible traveler to UNESCO World Heritage sites.
2. Go Against the Grain
You hopefully picked up on a theme here – one of the biggest problems is overtourism.
There is a concept in conservation science called carrying capacity. Tourism managers increasingly use this equation to determine a sustainable capacity for the number of visitors per day. Many sites that suffer from overtourism operate well above the carrying capacity with large groups of people showing up at the same place and time thus reducing the quality of education, management, environment, and experience.
Diffusing mass tourism may be one of the most meaningful and impactful things you can do to reduce your impact – and it is one of the easiest! To help alleviate the pressure from overtourism, you should go against the grain. Visit World Heritage sites off-season. This is a great way to enjoy a location without the crowds. I visited Meteora and Delphi in the middle of January and the locals were so friendly and welcoming our experience was much more relaxing than fighting our way through crowds in peak season.
UNESCO World Heritage Delphi, Greece
Visit the lesser-known UNESCO sites that might be suffering from under tourism. Under tourism puts UNESCO sites at greater risk from other threats as places may not see the benefit in preserving them. Every UNESCO site has something unique to offer, and you’ll gain a rich cultural experience from diversifying your itinerary. Try not to think of this as missing out on a popular site or being an inconvenience to you – think of it as gaining a rich and unique cultural experience.
When visiting lesser-known sites, be mindful of…
You are setting the tone for tourism development in the region. Sites that suffer from under tourism may see you as an opportunity to attract more like-minded visitors. If you give them the impression that tourists want to commodify culture, treat locals like a photo booth, buy cheap souvenirs, drink Starbucks, and stay in large multi-national all-inclusive hotels – then that very well may be the future of this location. As an early visitor to these sites, it is your duty to set the standards. Let local communities know you are interested in authentic local food, homestays, local guides, the natural beauty, the real-life of locals, traditional language, song, dance, and stories. Let them know you are ok leaving the comforts of your home behind and want to engage and learn authentically. Let them know you care about nature and the people.
My husband was one of the first Australians to enter Uzbekistan on their new e-visa system, at a time when the country was just opening up to travel. We both considered ourselves to be responsible for shaping the tourism industry. We were respectful, generous, and engaged with locals in meaningful ways.
UNESCO World Heritage Bukhara, Uzbekistan
If local communities and governments see the economic benefit of community-led sustainable tourism, they are more likely to adopt this going forward.
So go forth and be a sustainable steward for these lesser-known destinations. You can feed two birds with a scone – diffuse mass tourism and set the foundation for sustainable tourism development.
This goes for some of the more popular and well-established sites as well. It is essential to talk with your money and actions to prove that sustainable well-managed sites can be profitable and worth everyone’s time.
3. Change Your Travel Style
Most of us who have been traveling throughout the last decade+ can probably say we are guilty of rolling up to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in a massive bus of young backpackers. We all stumbled out to take our photos dragged around for a few hours by a non-native tour guide before loading back on the bus for our next stop.
Sound familiar? I know, we’ve all lived and hopefully learned – or are learning.
A growing body of research says the longer tourists stay at a destination, the less impact they have on the local and natural environment – in some cases almost tapering off to a neutral impact – how cool is that? Staying longer, traveling slower, and touring in a small group led by a local significantly declines your impact.
A great example of this is at Machu Picchu – most people just visit the main site, which causes erosion and degradation of the Andean Cloud Forest ecosystem. But, the Peruvian government and local tour operators are committed to dispersing tourism and more people are taking the time to explore the region at a slower pace visiting places like Choquequirao and Vilcabamba to alleviate the pressure from overtourism.
UNESCO World Heritage Tivoli, Italy
Ensure you always visit sites with a small group led by a local guide or by yourself with a local private guide. Stay longer than a few hours hopping on and hopping off a bus at places like Pisa. Find a homestay, locally-owned, or eco-hotel check-in and allow yourself time to soak in the true beauty of these sites and their surroundings.
Even if the site is only big enough for a day trip, like Tivoli in Italy, you can still take time to explore the rest of Rome and the surrounding region slowly, soaking in the cultural highlights. This helps add context to the site you visited and enhances your learning experience.
While taking public transportation is great, you might want to reconsider visiting these sites in large tour busses or cruise ships owned by multi-national companies with non-native guides.
Can you reach your destination by train? If so give it a go! If not, can you reach there by direct flight? Use Google flights to calculate a low-carbon flight route.
4. Local, Local, Local
Locally driven tourism initiatives are more sustainable because they support and foster healthy and happy communities. Make sure you book a local hotel or accommodation. Use resources such as Homestay, Couchsurfing, or read a hotel’s about page to find the owner and their commitment to the local community.
Book and hire a local guide. Some locations, such as Angkor Wat, actually make this easy. To visit Angkor Wat, you must now utilize the services of a certified Cambodian guide. However, in places like Venice, this can be more complicated, and you need to go out of your way to find a local guide. If you ever find yourself in a position where you can’t find a certified local guide – reach out to the tourism board or check the UNESCO heritage site website to see if they offer tours with a local guide.
UNESCO World Heritage Ephesus, Turkey
We hired several private guides committed to sustainability for our sustainable itinerary in Venice. Based on talks with other travelers, we had a very unique and special experience. We also used local guides in Turkey and appreciated an inside look into the country’s culture, history, and rocky future.
In summary, everything you do at these sites should be local: local accommodation, guides, restaurants, food, products, souvenirs, and more.
5. Stop the Tourism Leakage
The more you support local initiatives, the less tourism revenue leaks out from a destination – so these two go hand in hand. These sites are the ones buckling under the pressure from tourism, and therefore they are the ones that need the income to help manage these threats. At the end of the day, the locals are the ones cleaning up your trash, breathing your pollution, or paying to repair erosion. Your money, if kept locally, can help create sustainable locally-driven management and infrastructure development.
Learn all about tourism leakage and how to stop it, in my comprehensive guide.
6. Respect and Appreciate the Authentic
Often, before we visit these sites, we might have a picture in our head about what our experience might be, what the locals might look like, and what the surrounding nature will look like. Saying things like, “I am definitely going to see a wild tiger in the Sumatran rainforest,” or “I saw this cool photo of people fishing in Hội An – I can’t wait to get that exact photo too!” These images are shaped by other travelers, social media, and blogs.
If we go to UNESCO sites with these images in our heads, we begin to expect them, whether authentic or realistic. There is a chance you won’t see a tiger in Sumatra. If you expect that to the point of expressing severe disappointment in your reviews – locals might be tempted to bait a tiger so you can see one. This impacts the behavior and physiology of wildlife and can contribute to the wildlife trade.
Expecting your preconceived ideas about what local costume, song, or dance is before you experience it can contribute to the decline of traditional stories, loss of respect for elders, and other cultural degradation.
UNESCO World Heritage Hội An, Vietnam
So, my best piece of advice here is to throw everything you think you know about a UNESCO site out the window and go in with an open mind. Then, when you arrive, respect the authentic culture, nature, and landscape for what it is and enjoy learning about culture and nature from a local through an authentic experience. I even stopped looking at social media before I go to places like UNESCO sites, it helps me go in with that open mind and enjoy the experience I am given with no expectations.
Take a minute to read through some of these TripAdvisor Reviews of UNESCO site Hội An: Some of the more negative reviews include a rant about the tourist fee to enter the old town and how to avoid paying. These fees can go a long way to help locals maintain the site’s integrity.
Additionally, some of the reviews complain that all the shops are just tourist traps, or the site lacks authenticity. I can only shake my head at these comments – not because they are wrong, but because we tourists can be our own worst enemy. By not respecting authentic local culture and life, these sites can turn into “tourist traps,” causing other tourists to complain about a said tourist trap.
7. Be a Rule Follower
Let’s return to the concept of carrying capacity and those “annoying” entrance fees mentioned in the TripAdvisor reviews. Let’s say the carrying capacity for the Alhambra is 500 people a day. This means that as long as no more than 500 people visit per day, only minimal or manageable degradation will likely happen. Most tourists will have a pleasant experience. Smaller groups of people are easier to monitor and manage. Guides can ensure there is quality education happening.
Many sites under threat from mass tourism may limit the number of people visiting by charging a fee, requiring reservations, setting a daily capacity limit, introducing time slots, or keeping people in small manageable groups.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Alhambra, Spain
These aren’t done to piss you off, even if that is what happens. Trust me, as a spontaneous traveler, I know how frustrating these restrictions can be. They can also exclude groups of people who are unable to buy tickets in advance. However, the very reality is without acknowledging the carrying capacity of a place there might not be a future. These capacity limits can also help improve experiences like Ben’s stressful sunset watching in Began.
Please make sure you respect these limits and restrictions. Don’t sneak into the area, duck under ropes, complain about fees, or go off-trail. Not knowing the rules is not acceptable. You should take time to visit visitor centers, read websites, and ask questions. Respect all rules and regulations to ensure you don’t unknowingly cause damage.
Since capacity limits can be frustrating, to avoid missing out on an experience due to restrictions, make sure you research your planned UNESCO site ahead of time. See if you need tickets, a certain time slot, or to budget for an entrance ticket. Alhambra is a notorious UNESCO site that is hard to get tickets. Planning and preparing is your best bet to ensure you can see these sites while respecting capacity limits.
8. Value Craftsmanship
There is a time and place to haggle, but with artisanal craftspeople at UNESCO World Heritage Sites is not one of those times or places. The authentic handcrafts and traditional styles are part of the region’s heritage. People spend entire lifetimes perfecting their skills, often through backbreaking working conditions. If you can financially visit these sites and choose to take home a souvenir, you can value the product with your money. Even though Uzbekistan was easy on my budget, one of the most expensive souvenirs I own came from the World Heritage site in Samarkand. I bought a beautiful display plate painted with a traditional style – that took years for the artist to master. I happily paid the price and then even tipped the artist.
Hand-crafted plates at UNESCO site in Bukhara
Your certified local guide might suggest a vendor or have a tip on how to spot authentic pieces. When I was in Venice, our guide reminded us to look for stickers on the window certifying traditional craft skills.
Additionally, you should research your souvenirs. Many products may be made using endangered species such as Hawksbill turtle shells, fragile corals, or wood from an endangered tree. You should always ask about materials, know which are protected, and avoid buying souvenirs with materials sourced from animals. Even traditional practices are regulated in line with internationally recognized endangered species and wildlife trade – so there is no excuse to buy a keepsake that is produced with unethical materials as there are plenty of traditional options that are ethically sourced.
Don’t miss this guide to sustainable souvenirs and why they are a great gift for your friends or family back home – or to keep as a travel memory.
9. Reduce Waste and Consumption
Tourism is a significant drain on resources and contributes to an increase in solid waste (litter and trash) and even raw sewage. The impact can be severe in some locations, especially in developing countries that already struggle with waste management. Waste, sewage, and resource depletion reduce the quality of life for locals, strain municipal budgets, and contribute to biological changes in the ecosystem such as eutrophication and impacts on wildlife.
UNESCO World Heritage Istanbul, Turkey
You should do your best to avoid all unnecessary consumption. Pack your water filter bottle like Lifestraw, so you can drink the local water. Visit local markets for plastic-free snacks for the road. Never throw your trash in an overflowing bin or on the ground. Avoid buying extra things you don’t need, and make sure you do adequate research to ensure you pack everything you need. Ask your guide for local waste-reduction tips. You should always look for and respect local recycling initiatives.
10. Take Responsible Clicks
You must implement responsible photography at UNESCO sites. In Hội An staged fishing photos that use locals as props for photoshoots (regardless of whether you pay them or not) is a massive ethical issue. This transforms authentic cultural experiences by commodifying the people as objects for your pleasure. Even if the locals seem enthusiastic, it does not make this type of engagement ethical or economically stable local term. It can have a cascading impact on the cultural integrity of a region. I suggest you read some tips on responsible travel photography to find authentic ways to capture moments.
It doesn’t help that these staged photos sell. This award-winning photo is highly controversial as it was part of a coordinated photoshoot. Remember that there are real people on the other side of your camera. No number of Instagram likes are worth engaging in this behavior. When photographers pass these images off as captures of a lifetime it paints an unrealistic picture of culture in the region. Focus on trying to capture natural moments, the colors, the details, and the real sights of a UNESCO site without standing in line for a staged opportunity.
UNESCO World Heritage Mostar Bridge, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Additionally, when it comes to natural UNESCO sites, make sure you are never on a photo tour that baits and provisions wild animals for your pleasure or to capture a photo. If you see a wild animal in its natural habitat without assistance from any human – excellent – take that photo mindfully. However, suppose you don’t see wildlife. In that case, it is ok! Know some happy tiger family is off snoozing blissfully. Many tours that focus on ethical wildlife experiences will never promise animal sightings and will instead promise traditional story-telling so you can still learn about the local ecology.
11. We Definitely Need Some Education
You should visit UNESCO World Heritage sites to learn. These aren’t just bucket-list destinations to smash through and collect destinations like notches on your belt. You are doing yourself and these sites a disservice if you do not learn something. Take time to learn about why these sites exist, their history, success, and threats. You can do this by again working with a knowledgeable and certified local guide, visiting museums visitor centers, reading educational sites, and most importantly, taking the time to learn instead of just blowing through quickly.
UNESCO World Heritage Medina Azahara, Spain
When I visited the Medina Azahara I noticed about 80% of the guests didn’t visit the museum/education center or have a local guide. A quick look through Google Reviews revealed many complained the ruins lacked context and were confusing. This could all be solved by taking the time to learn about the site. I visited the museum before seeing the ruins and gained a deep contextual understanding of the civilization behind the ruins. Additionally, it provided a great base of knowledge for my slow travel journey through the rest of Andalusia.
Ask yourself why you are visiting? If your answer is for an Instagram photo or just to check off a bucket list item, reconsider your motives. Ask yourself how both you and your destination can benefit from your presence.
12. Check your Shoes, Clothing, and Bags for Hitchhikers
Tourists are one of the world’s biggest vectors for the spread of harmful non-native invasive species. Harmful invasive species can significantly reduce the biodiversity of a region and threaten the most endangered and unique species at UNESCO biodiversity hot spots. Invasive species can spread through the dirt in your shoes, bugs in your backpack, spurs in your clothing, ballast systems in cruise ships, kayak paddles, and the non-native food if you litter. Before and after you enter any UNESCO natural site, you should clean your shoes of all dirt, wash your clothing in warm water – or check for any straggling seeds, and check your gear for any tagalongs. Never throw food scraps on the ground, no matter how “harmless” it might seem.
UNESCO World Heritage Pyrenees, France/Spain
13. Remember, People Live Here
You are entering someone’s home when you visit many of these sites. Often, World Heritage sites are located near vulnerable groups of people such as Indigenous tribes, war-torn communities, low-income families, or other marginalized groups. You are in a place of privilege, and you should treat these sites, the people, and nature with the utmost respect. Don’t crowd and invade local space. Don’t stand in the middle of the street to take photos. Don’t assume people are there to serve and please you. Don’t be loud and trash the place—research and respect local customs and dress codes. You do not have more rights than the people that live there.
14. Choose Your Food Wisely
Eating authentic and local cuisine is a great way to engage in cultural exchange. Local, seasonal, traditionally cooked, and ethically sourced food is the best way to go! However, local food does not always mean ethical food, be careful you are not consuming endangered species or foods that are internationally banned or caught illegally with unsustainable practices. To reduce your tourism leakage, don’t go seeking out Mc. Donalds, and try something regional! Many UNESCO-heavy destinations, such as Italy, are embracing a slow food movement – and let me tell you, enjoying the experience of eating pasta while the sunsets over a Tuscan vineyard during a local homestay is an incredible experience.
Cacio e pepe – Authentic Italian Pasta
As a vegetarian myself, I sometimes have difficulty finding authentic vegetarian food, but there is usually always a unique local vegetarian food worth trying.
15. Research Risks and Threats
Before you go, you should research the site, especially the threats. I can recommend the UNESCO site, open-source academic papers, reliable news sources like The Guardian, The Conversation, WWF, and the website of the place you are visiting.
UNESCO World Heritage Jungfrau, Swizterland
While I have given a wide variety of threats from tourism to numerous sites, this list is not exhaustive, nor does it apply to each site. Every site is unique, and you should treat it as such. If you are visiting a site under threat from mass tourism – ask how you can visit off-season. If you are visiting a site at risk from environmental degradation, ask how to reduce your impact. If the location is at risk from logging, ask how your presence can deter industrial activity and foster sustainable tourism.
16. Give Back
Instead of traditional offsets, I take the time to donate to local causes. For example, are there any causes relating to that list of threats you just made that could benefit from your donation? If you learned that your nature-based tour experiences threaten Osprey populations, can you donate to an Osprey conservation group IN ADDITION to changing your behavior to be less invasive to the species?
UNESCO World Heritage Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Does tourism often contribute to the cultural degradation of an Indigenous group? Do they have a cultural center that you can make a donation to support? If you are struggling to find good causes, then donate to the UNESCO World Heritage directly. They use the funds to help the cultural integrity of these sites. No matter how big or small, donating is a great thing to do for anyone visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites responsibly.
17. Share Your Story, but do so Consciously
Whether you consider yourself a travel blogger, content creator, photographer, influencer, or just a travel enthusiast, you have influence! How you share your experiences matters.
If you perpetuate exploitative behaviors on social media or through your photography, you contribute to a negative social norm surrounding these behaviors. If you pay a local to stage a photo for you or glamorize harmful images touching animals, pretty soon everyone will be doing this questionable behavior. If you write captions that perpetuate colonial mentalities, you uphold this system.
UNESCO World Heritage Salzburg, Austria
Think carefully about the stories and images you choose to share.
To have a positive impact – do what I love to do after visiting a UNESCO or any other special place invite friends and family over for an evening of culture. Cook a recipe you learned, play traditional music from the World Heritage site, and share your responsibly captured travel photos and stories. Tell your friends about the people you met, the unique species you learned about, the food you tried, and how excellent your local guide was. Share the threats and daily behaviors they can adopt at home or during their next trip to reduce those threats.
Practice story-telling responsibly on your blog and social media.
View this post on Instagram
This is something I strive to do, but I am always learning to do better. Please follow along on my journey