While Passion Passport seeks to bridge communities and expand experience through travel, we’re aware that adventuring to far-off places can leave quite the carbon footprint. Our Sustainable Travel Series celebrates eco-travelers, low-impact ways of living, and explorations that honor both people and places. We hope it inspires you to travel with the environment in mind.

City-breaks can be expensive, unhealthy, and all too predictable. While touring the sights of the world’s famous urban landscapes can be fun, it’s often better to escape the glass canyons and head for the hills. A weekend spent outdoors, breathing in the clear air of the countryside, will clear the head and the heart in no time. However, in doing so, you might be contributing to the erosion of the natural spaces you’ve come to enjoy. Today, we’re looking at the ways in which travel can be detrimental to the locations we visit and developing some strategies for reducing our impacts on the environment and ourselves.

Photo by Jack Ng

Part I: The city

There’s nothing quite as exciting of jetting off to roam the streets of a far-away city. Soaking in new sights, tasting the local cuisine, and treating yourself to a few nights in a boutique Airbnb can be a much-needed respite. In fact, research shows that, in Europe, city-breaks have become on par with, if not more popular than, other types of holidays. The rising prevalence of city-breaks is believed to be partly due to lower-cost airfares offered by budget airlines. As air travel becomes more accessible, urban tourism across the continent is experiencing a boom.

Photo by Steve Brock

This presents destination cities, and the travelers who come to see them, with a problem: overtourism. Renown can often mean over-saturation. Busy monuments, crowded piazzas, and long lines are now commonplace across capitals and cultural hubs. Overtourism has become a focus issue for popular cities like Barcelona, many of which have taken measures to curb the number of tourists that visit their city. Masses of tourists clog transport lines, leave behind more trash, and create burdens on a city’s services. This overcrowding has an effect on travelers too, as it has been suggested that crowded cities are more detrimental to our wellbeing.

Photo by Reza Fitriyanto

Paying the price

On top of the increased numbers of tourists, iconic urban destinations, such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, have become more expensive to visit in response to this rising demand. This means you’ll be paying more to eat, lodge, travel, and sightsee. Furthermore, the more of us that visit any one city at a time, the more smog and waste we leave behind as byproducts of our travel.

While all of this paints a rather grim picture, city-breaks can still be incredibly fulfilling. We don’t need to deny ourselves the opportunity to explore new urban landscapes. The potential trade-offs to our wallets and health can be mitigated, in part by practicing a more mindful approach to travel. For example, exploring lesser-known or up-and-coming districts can relieve some of the burdens that popular areas experience. And when moving about within a city, using public transport helps offset your contribution to pollution, while traveling by foot remains the best way to experience a location and get a bit of exercise while doing so. It also helps to disperse tourist flows more widely across a locale, as walkers will visit the streets and districts that exist between the must-see sights connected via public transport. Additionally, breaking up the distribution of visitors has the dual benefit of decreasing the overall pressure of their presence and increasing the scope of regions that benefit from more spenders.

Photo by Bal Bhatla

Increasing the range of our urban exploration can also address the apparent commonality of our travel experiences. The Instagram account @insta_repeat shows us a picture of how eerily similar our journeys are becoming. This is, in part, because bigger, more established destinations attract exponentially more visitors by way of their fame. This creates a sense of predictability that may detract from the novelty of traveling in the first place. When choosing a city to visit, opting for smaller or greener alternatives can be refreshingly different, especially when we’re seemingly all following in others’ footsteps. Using the “search by lowest price” feature on sites like Kayak and Skyscanner to get a map of destinations with cheap tickets available can help us discover cities that are just as rich in culture and beauty, while less likely to suffer from overwhelming numbers of camera-wielding weekend travelers.

Part II: The country

If you’re not the type for urban escapes, then heading for the countryside can seem like a cheaper, healthier, and more fulfilling option. However, hitting the trail might not actually be more economical, as it often contributes to the diminishment of the natural environment in the long term.

Photo by Kyle Huber

Stay on the beaten path

Enjoying the natural world can be beneficial for your physical and mental health, but it’s important to also be mindful of the effect your presence has on the environment you’re visiting. Temporary residents of a locale are less likely to be attuned the minutiae of its ecological and environmental interactions. To combat the degradation of natural environments, many outdoors enthusiasts live by the “leave no trace” approach, which helps prevent major disruption to the wildlife. But, unfortunately, any incursion by humans into the wild has an effect. Our presence on trails and in camp and recreation sites leaves wild animals scarpering and plants unable to grow deep roots as footfall disturbs the soil. The reality is that the environment fares better without us.

This is not to say that we should abandon the opportunity to experience the natural world. As stated above, enjoying the environment works wonders for our health, but for it to remain beneficial in the future, it must be preserved. Every visitor to a natural space is instrumental in its conservation, so we should see ourselves as caretakers, protectors, and partners of the non-human environment. One step you can take to reduce your footprint while traveling is to try more eco-focused holidays that promote more sustainable ways of enjoying the outdoors. Alternatively, you could take trips that focus on giving back to the local community or environment. As well, you should always read up on the region you’re visiting ahead of time to gain a better understanding of the latent ecological issues affecting it.  

Traveling in the outdoors can be just as expensive as in the city. Regardless of the kind of getaway you’re after, whether it’s thru-hiking or just a weekend romp, at the very least you’ll need a vehicle to get to there. This poses a barrier to those without ready access to a car and increases the footprint of your travel. If you’re looking to save a bit of money and reduce your environmental impact, maybe try a staycation. There’s an adventure to be had around every corner, and you don’t need to travel miles and miles to find it. A staycation is a great substitute for an outdoorsy holiday, without the hours spent in the car or on a train.

Skyline of San Miguel de Allende
Photo by Alice Ford

While both urban and natural vacations have their issues, that doesn’t mean we need to abstain from either. Traveling brings myriad benefits. At the very least, it expands explorers’ sense of connectedness to other societies and their appreciation of the natural world. Travel is beneficial to our lives and a privilege to undertake. As such, the best course of action is to try and mitigate the impacts on our global and local environments, our health, and our wallets. Being mindful of the effects of one’s travel helps reduce these impacts while not denying us the enriching experiences our adventure can impart.

Header image by Dannyel Spasov