Is Sustainable Island Travel Possible?

Island vacations are touted by the travel industry as the ultimate paradise. There’s perfect weather and nothing to do but lounge around all day and take in beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, I have always been rather skeptical of island tourism, as I’ve seen and heard about the negative results of such travel — mainly pollution and damage to indigenous economies and cultures.


I’ve had several friends who have honeymooned in Hawaii and heard about how “everything was great, except this one beach was just covered in garbage.” This was always followed by recommending other beaches and islands — never by talking about efforts to clean up that beach.

I think this is a great example of a harmful tourist mindset. We want to go to beautiful places, we feel entitled to have a garbage-free vacation, but we feel no obligation to contribute to making that environment beautiful or analyzing how our own actions contribute to the pollution that ruins nature’s paradises.

As someone who wants to be an ethical consumer, I don’t see vacations as the time to give up your values. If anything, it’s a time to adhere to them even more, furthering your passions and views on how you think the world should be. So I’ve put together a list of ways you can visit islands in ethical, sustainable, and self-aware ways.

Educate Yourself About Potential Destinations

Here’s the thing about popular vacation destinations: usually, they are beautiful locations that a bunch of Westerners realized other Westerners would love. Sometimes setting up an infrastructure for tourism can be beneficial to local residents and the economy. Other times, it can destroy natural resources, bring in outsiders to work jobs instead of employing people who live there, and compete with already-existing local businesses.

It’s important to do your research about the places you want to visit. If you’re planning on visiting an area with coral reefs, you’ll quickly find that tourism has had a drastic negative impact on coral, mostly due to negligence and pollution. This shouldn’t stop you from visiting, but you could try to find an opportunity to give time or money to a cause that educates people on how to prevent damage to reefs.  You can also educate yourself on how to ensure that you don’t contribute to the negative impact.

This may seem like homework, but ultimately it will result in you crafting a vacation that has more meaning to you in the long run. Researching the culture will allow you to prepare for the full experience rather than doing the same things you always do but in a different location.

Support the Local Culture and Economy

Learn about the traditional culture and find accommodations provided by people contributing positively to the community. This could mean choosing lodging with long-time residents, looking up reviews on the impact your hotel has had on the local economy, or deciding to camp in publicly owned areas where it’s allowed.

Make sure to try restaurants owned locally, and be sure that the souvenirs you by are locally produced/sourced rather than ordered and shipped from countries with poor labor regulations. If you’re participating in recreational activities like surfing, be sure to brush up on your etiquette and look up any cultural differences that may exist in how to interact with people in public.

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Leave a Positive Contribution

Traveling for a break or just for a new experience is completely legitimate. But when you can combine your “travel for pleasure” with “travel for a purpose,” you go a long way in battling unsustainable aspects of the travel industry. From a sustainability perspective, the more you accomplish in a trip, the less resources are used than accomplishing multiple things by different people on separate trips.

There are many ways you can bring purpose to your travels. You can look for opportunities with organizations like the Peace Corps and take trips specifically for the purpose of helping others. Or you can look for volunteer opportunities that work with your schedule. Maybe there’s a beach cleanup scheduled for dates when you’ll be around or local businesses that offer incentives for litter cleanup.

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Sustainable island travel is possible, but like most environmentally minded solutions, it takes effort and intention. What are your experiences with eco-friendly island travel? Share in the comments!

Guest Author

AveryAvery: Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves exploring the U.S. mountains of SW Idaho and examining human interactions with the greater world at large. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.​

You can follow her here

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