Tourism is almost back to pre-pandemic levels – which is good news and bad news. However much holiday destinations rely on them, no one wants badly behaved tourists blocking views, partying wildly in the streets or pricing local people out of their own cities. Overtourism, carbon emissions, nature depletion and plastic pollution are all huge concerns. But that doesn’t mean you have to cancel your holiday. Here are 28 ways to be a better tourist this summer.

Think experience first

When planning a holiday, the first thing most people do is pick a destination. But Justin Francis, the co-founder and executive chair of Responsible Travel, says: “Ask not: ‘Where do I want to go?’ but ‘What do I need from this holiday?’ It might be excitement, relaxation, learning … Think back to your favourite trips – what made them enjoyable?” Anne de Jong, co-founder of the Good Tourism Institute, says: “What kind of traveller do you want to be? What sort of experiences are you looking for? You might think you want to go to Barcelona, but maybe San Sebastián is a better fit for you.” This approach could lead you to alternative cities to the overcrowded tourism hotspots.

Make a positive impact

Some residents in Barcelona have taken action against overtourism by getting a bus route removed from Google Maps – the buses would often end up too packed with sightseers for people to get home from work. But that is not to say the city is off-limits. Dr Peter Robinson, the head of the Centre for Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett University, says: “It’s not as simple as saying: ‘You shouldn’t go.’ But try to understand what is driving the protests and upset of local people. Your responsibility is to make a positive contribution to the destination.” Francis says: “You can travel anywhere with a desire to reduce the negative impact of your trip and increase the positives.”

Local is best

“Think local about everything you do and be sensitive. This isn’t just the right way to travel – it’s the most enjoyable,” says Francis. He recommends hiring a local guide. “They will help you to avoid the crowds, for example by taking you on night walks; they know the best views and the cruise ship timetables [when the city will be flooded with extra visitors]. They can also help you avoid unintended consequences, such as causing offence in religious places.”

Show respect

Do research before you go – you’ll get more out of the destination and it will be appreciated. “Remember you are taking a holiday in someone else’s home,” says Francis. “Travelling with respect earns you respect. Learn a few phrases of the local language – it’s a gesture, but gestures do matter.” Robinson adds: “A little bit of understanding goes a long way.”

Explore through food

‘Food is a gateway into culture and history.’ Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

“Food is a fabulous gateway into culture and history,” says Francis. Look out for local ingredients and dishes on menus; visit markets, food festivals and farms; consider a cooking class. De Jong says: “I did a food walking tour with Alternative Athens and we went to hidden restaurants, street-food spots and the guide’s favourite cafe – places I would never have found otherwise.” She also recommends the app Localvore, which has restaurant offers.

Time it right

The World Travel and Tourism Council encourages people to travel off-peak and year-round. Julia Simpson, the president and CEO, says: “The goal is to maintain the equilibrium between residents’ quality of life, the traveller experience and the environmental health of popular destinations.” It’s not always possible to avoid peak season, but Robinson says even considering the days, times and areas where overtourism is more of an issue can make a difference in crowded cities such as Amsterdam.

Don’t day trip

Day trippers contribute to overcrowding and tend to spend little, so bring few benefits. “Stay overnight, in a hotel rather than a holiday rental – they take housing stock out of the market and contribute to enormous increases in the cost of renting and buying,” says Francis. Tourists benefit from staying the night too – in Sicily, say, you can have dinner in Monreale when everyone else has gone back to Palermo, then visit the cathedral in the morning before the first coachloads of day trippers arrive.

Be a slow tourist

“Slow tourism is about spending more time in a destination, engaging in the local culture and getting to know local people,” says Robinson. Instead of a city-only break, try to spend time in the surrounding countryside, too. In Venice – which in April became the first city in the world to charge an entry fee – Francis suggests visiting the city’s traditional craftspeople with Venezia Autentica, then spending a couple of nights in an agriturismo in the Veneto region.

Take the road less travelled

Paris and Rome will always be on tourists’ bucket lists, but part of the joy of travel is researching lesser-known destinations, says Francis. “I love the Robert Frost quote: ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’” Richard Hammond, the founder of Green Traveller, says: “When I went to New Zealand, instead of hiking the 10 Great Walks, I researched 10 alternative walks. There was almost no one on them and the scenery was still pretty amazing.”

Beware ‘destination dupes’

The TikTok trend for diversifying via “destination dupes” – Bratislava instead of Budapest, Madeira instead of the Maldives – might seem like a good idea. But, says Francis: “We risk creating the same problems of overtourism elsewhere.” Try to look beyond social media when researching alternative destinations.

Rediscover home

If you are tight on time or money, rediscover your own region. “The UK is an ancient land – it has some of the oldest national parks, beautiful landscapes, great food, a huge coastline,” says Francis. He suggests walking one of the National Trails in England and Wales. “If you’re more into culture, there is a list of old British crafts and traditions that are being lost and need your support at Heritage Crafts.”

Be climate-smart

In 2020, Responsible Travel partnered with academics to calculate the biggest carbon emissions of holidays. “The top three were transport to the destination, energy use in the accommodation, and food – not necessarily in that order,” says Francis. “If you eat a very meaty diet on holiday, that could be the biggest. So flight-free travel, staying somewhere off-grid and eating vegan would be the lowest-impact holiday.” Hammond points to West Sweden, which is trailblazing “climate smart holidays” – where everything is more sustainable, from food to transport.

‘Coolcations’ are questionable

The emerging trend for “coolcations” means that more tourists are heading to Scandinavia to avoid the Mediterranean’s searing temperatures, droughts and wildfires. While diversification may be a good thing, simply flying north instead of south isn’t. “If you fly to Scandinavia, you will have exactly the same effect on southern Europe as if you’d flown there – the carbon you emit is the same,” says Francis. Then there are the ethics of abandoning countries to deal with the effects of the climate crisis that tourists have helped create. “There is an argument that places that have been damaged by some sort of natural disaster need tourists to generate revenue and help with recovery,” says Robinson.

Don’t be a ‘last chance’ tourist

Robinson highlights the disturbing emergence of climate crisis-related “last chance tourism”. “Huge numbers of tourists are descending on places, that are not designed for such numbers to see them, before it’s too late: the Galápagos Islands, coral reefs, glaciers, Antarctica …” Don’t be one of them.

Do you really need a drone?

Selfie sticks are on their way out, but there is still plenty of antisocial behaviour in pursuit of the perfect picture, including drone photography. A number of countries have already banned them, including Morocco and Madagascar. Maybe just buy a postcard instead?

Visit national parks

‘The mindset should always be “leave no trace.”’ Illustration: Mark Long/The Guardian

A simple way to support nature is to visit a national park, staying on the paths and paying any entry fees. Your money will help conservation efforts and support livelihoods. “The mindset should always be ‘leave no trace’ so as not to disturb fragile ecosystems,” says Jessica Blotter, the CEO and co-founder of Kind Traveler.

Beware wildlife attractions

“Up to 550,000 animals are being held in welfare-compromising conditions for the sake of tourist entertainment, according to World Animal Protection,” says Blotter. Kind Traveler lists 14 animal attractions to avoid, including elephant riding and swimming with dolphins. “The best way to experience wildlife is in the wild, through responsibly led tours or sightseeing experiences where nature is left undisturbed.”

Tread carefully with conservation holidays

It might sound tempting to fly to Borneo to bottle-feed orphaned orangutans, but you have to be sure that the benefits outweigh the carbon cost. Helping out closer to home is usually a better bet. “The 2023 State of Nature report showed that one in six British species are in danger of extinction,” says Hammond. “Look at what is happening on your doorstep; look at the work that The Wildlife Trusts are doing. There are lots of great nature holidays in the UK.” Francis recommends a visit to the Knepp Estate, a rewilding project in West Sussex.

Have a self-powered adventure

“Adventure travel is one of the best forms of travel to do in a low-carbon way, on foot or by bike, visiting small communities,” says Robinson. De Jong suggests canoeing or kayaking. “You don’t need all your own equipment and it doesn’t need to be hardcore. You can go on a week-long adventure with the entire itinerary mapped out for you.”

Go camping

“Traditional camping should be low-impact,” says Robinson. “If you are somewhere that allows wild camping, choose your locations carefully. Try to walk or cycle there rather than driving.” Not all campsites are equal, so it pays to do your research. Francis says: “I’m going to The Secret Campsite in Sussex this summer, which is incredibly nature-friendly and gets local families involved.”

And (possibly) glamping

In general, glamping is also a good choice. But, as anyone who has seen the recent film Evil Does Not Exist will know, it can be problematic. “It’s good to be mindful of possible issues around glamping,” says Francis. “These may include woodland destruction; water use; sewage and waste disposal; access issues for residents; and light and noise pollution.” Robinson adds: “Some glamping tents feel like hotel rooms – they have patio heaters! Dig down into eco claims to ensure they are not greenwashing.”

Choose hotels or homestays wisely

De Jong recommends Ecobnb as a good source of more sustainable accommodation, and the app FairTrip for homestays. “A genuine homestay can be an extraordinary experience and beneficial to local families,” says Francis. “If visiting disadvantaged communities, ask in advance if there is anything they need.”

Take the train

“If you can seek an alternative to flying, take it,” says Hammond. The recent deregulation of the European rail network means prices are coming down – the train from Barcelona to Madrid now costs as little as €7. Book in advance – Hammond suggests setting up a ticket alert with Trainline or Rail Europe – and use split tickets or break up your journey. De Jong uses Byway, a flight-free travel platform, and Interrail.

And be ambitious. “It’s not just Paris, Lille and Brussels that can be easily reached by train these days,” says Hammond. “You can get the train to Bari or Brindisi in Italy and then a ferry to Greece, Croatia or Albania. In the summer, you can get to Corfu overland from the UK within 48 hours.” The Man in Seat 61 is invaluable for route planning and Back-on-Track Europe has a useful map of Europe’s cross-border night trains.

Consider the coach

“Coaches aren’t considered a luxury way to travel, but modern coaches have reclining seats, wifi – and, on a recent journey from Basel to Paris, they even sold ice-cold Czech beer,” says Hammond. “Coaches are especially good for lesser-known city-to-city travel.” Useful companies include FlixBus, which operates in Europe, North and South America and Asia, and BlaBlaCar bus in Europe.

Boycott cruise ships

No sustainability expert has a good word to say about cruise ships. Francis sums it up: “Per passenger/km, cruise ships are the most carbon-intense way of travelling. They burn a very dirty fuel: the sulphur emissions of Europe’s 218 cruise ships are equivalent to 1bn cars. Staff often experience poor conditions and have few employment rights. And then there is the overtourism, with a lot of people descending on a place but not spending much money, as they eat and sleep on board.” Less harmful alternatives include river cruises, small ships and sailboats, and Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal express that is working towards zero-emission cruises by 2030.

To offset or not?

Carbon offsetting is a thorny issue. Francis says: “Offsets distract people from the need to change their behaviour.” Hammond shares this view: “We have to look at everything else before falling back on offsetting.” A Guardian investigation into offsetting last year found that more than 90% of forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s biggest certifier were worthless.

That is not to say you can’t donate to worthy carbon-capture projects. De Jong cites Justdiggit, which is “regreening” landscapes in Tanzania and Kenya, while Francis is on the board of a safari company in Kenya that is helping to restore grasslands.

Support social schemes

If booking with a tour operator, choose one with a community-impact programme, such as Responsible Travel’s Trip for a Trip, which offers funding for disadvantaged children to go on days out. “As tourists, we get to visit the best bits – but in Brighton there are kids living 5km inland who have never been to the beach,” says Francis. Other examples include Kind Traveler’s Every Stay Gives Back scheme, or environmental partnerships such as G Adventures and Planeterra, or Exodus and Rewilding Apennines.

Take a pledge

Good resources include Sustainable Travel International’s explainers on everything from turtle tourism to greenwashing, and the Rise Travel Institute’s short courses covering topics such as voluntourism, travel photography and digital nomads. Blotter recommends watching the 2021 documentary The Last Tourist. Tourists can then make a commitment to “travel better” with a personal pledge, or before visiting countries with their own pledges including Iceland, New Zealand and Palau.

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