9 Ways to Avoid Sustainable Travel Scams

Caucasian male (25 years old) tourist showing a photograph (digital camera) to local man at market. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Andrew Watson/Getty Images

Sustainable travel is on the rise. But with this its growing popularity, the line between what actually is and isn't sustainable can get blurry. The social and ecological systems of travel are delicate and complex, and our actions can implicate both benefits and detriments.

Traveling sustainably is a balancing act and a constant process of negotiating our personal role within greater fluid structures. We are each responsible for holding ourselves accountable to look beyond the face value, do our homework, and take care in where we decide to direct our resources. 

Intentionality is paramount, but sometimes it’s not enough. Even with the best intentions, we may unknowingly perpetuate trends that are more harmful than they appear. Interested in traveling sustainably? Here is what to look for and the decisions you can make to avoid sustainable travel scams.

1.  Support Local Artisans and Vendors

Perhaps, like me, you nurture a fantasy of one day being a quirky elderly aunt with a lifetime of travel stories to tell the neighborhood children. This fantasy is only complete with a house full of tastefully curated artisan crafts, tchotchkes, and memorabilia from around the world.  

Purchasing art, textiles, and handicrafts while traveling is a beautiful way to celebrate culture and commemorate your travels while simultaneously supporting local artisans and vendors.  But before whipping out your wallet at the first cute necklace you see, take time to examine the merchandise and speak with your vendor about the production process.

Is the piece handmade or factory-produced? Was it made locally or was it imported? Where the materials used sustainably sourced? While the answers to these question aren't always readily available or enthusiastically delivered, keeping them in mind as we shop can help us make responsible purchases and avoid falling into tourist traps.  

In many cultures, bargaining is commonplace and can even serve as a playful exchange.  Consider researching bargaining customs and typical price points of your destination before hitting the market to ensure that you properly value the handicrafts and paying your vendor a fair price.  

2.  Avoid “Greenwashing”

Be weary of "greenwashing," a phenomenon wherein companies inaccurately leverage an environmentally responsible image in order to attract business from the sustainability-oriented.  

To avoid falling for the "greenwashing" ruse, ask yourself these questions when selecting a service or accommodation: 

Does the business employ locals and pay them fair wages? Does it hold legitimate eco-certifications? Do it use energy-saving devices and practices to minimize environmental impact?  To they handle waste responsibly? To what extent does the business engage with the surrounding community?  

Verifying compliance with sustainable operations might take a little digging around, especially if you're offered inaccurate information. But it starts with understanding the particular cultural context, engaging in dialogue, and asking the right questions.   (For specific tips on how to select sustainable accommodations, read How to Choose a Sustainable Resort.

3.  Choose Volunteer Opportunities Carefully

"Voluntourism" is a burgeoning industry wherein travelers seek to enrich their travel experiences and give back to communities they visit through volunteer work, typically paying a fee to do so. Though laudable in aim, the irony is this industry often renders more harm than good to the communities the travelers strive to help. 

The steady stream of incoming volunteers, for example, can take away much-needed jobs from locals.  Additionally, the money flow often goes towards maintaining comfortable facilitates for the volunteers rather than alleviating the particular local issues the volunteers work to address.  

In many instances, volunteers work with children who have been abandoned, neglected, or otherwise traumatized. Developing emotional attachments to volunteers, who inevitably end up leaving, can compound the effects of that emotional trauma for the children.  

Though volunteering can be a great investment of time, be sure to choose opportunities and organizations and be cognizant of how much of the work is actually helping, and how much is salving our own guilt. Feeding the local economies as tourists instead of volunteers is often a more sustainable option.    

4.  Be Sensitive to Wildlife

Taking selfies with tiger cubs, walking with lions and riding elephants. Sounds like a cute and furry communion with our four legged friends, right? As it turns out, the best way to show our love for our animal compatriots is to limit our interaction with them.  

Although riding an elephant may make you feel like the Queen of Sheba, and cuddling with a tiger cub might fulfill your childhood Calvin & Hobbes dreams (and make a great Instagram post), the truth is that animal attractions are more often than not harmful to the animals, both physically and psychologically.  

They are often kept in sub-par living conditions that go against their natural needs and inclinations. The processes of domesticating, sedating, and "breaking in" these animals so that they are safe for tourist entertainment (although it's always a risk), can be violent and heartbreaking. The stress alone of interacting with humans can be enough to threaten their immune systems and makes them more susceptible to disease and death.  

Instead, it's best to let the animals be and admire their majesty and cuteness from a distance.  

5.  Resist Participating in Begging Economies

There's a reason why begging economies stay afloat: few things pull at our heartstrings like suffering children asking for help.  Although it's difficult to resist giving money when asked, we can't be certain where that money is going. When we may contribute to the begging economy, we perpetuate the cycle of poverty.  Sometimes, such as in the cases of orphanages that are run as private ventures for profit, the money we give them children will never help them. 

Instead, consider taking that money and donating it to educational initiative and sustainable that address poverty at the root.  

6.  Enjoy Local Cuisine

Octopus in the Basque country, escargot on the French Riviera, Guinea pig in Peru - enjoying cuisine is a common and enjoyable way to soak up the local flavors, literally and figuratively.  When we indulge in tickling our taste buds, "local" is the operative sustainable word. Choosing local options circumvents the carbon emission of importation, and means that the food is fresher and thereby more delicious and nutrient-rich.

If the thrill-seeker in you decides to venture into delicacy or rare meat territory, it's important to remember that often a dish is considered a delicacy because it is rare, i.e. scarce. Be sure to do your research on local meat consumption so you don't unknowingly contribute to the black meat market or the consumption of endangered animals.  

7.       Respect the Natural World and Leave it as you Find It

When visiting animal sanctuaries and nature reserves, abide by the policy of "leave no trace". They are called sanctuaries and reserves for a reason. As beautiful as these pristine destinations are to visit, they won't stay that way if crowds of people come trampling through.  We are all responsible for being respectful and doing our part to protect the integrity of these lands and animals. Pick up after yourself, tread carefully, and the animals and their habitats as sacred.  

8.      Reduce your Carbon Footprint by Choosing Transportation Wisely

Airplane travel is not eco-friendly. In fact, data shows that it is one of the greatest contributors to climate change.  While in this day and age, anyone who wants to see the world will likely take an airplane, once we reach our destination, we can consider more sustainable travel options for shorter day trips and ground transportation. The most sustainable option might just be locally owned bus companies.  But be strategic and book bus trips for busier times -- although it might not smell as good, you won't contribute to your carbon footprint by having a whole bus to yourself!

 Depending on where you're traveling, ride share services such as BlaBlaCar are popular, cheap, sustainable, and can be great networking opportunities.