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Sustainable European Tourism Tips?

I am a semi-seasoned European traveller, and we love going to Europe once every two years or so. Venice and Vernazza are two of my favorite places, but I am concerned about the negative impact of my visit to those places specifically, and my travel in general.

I would love to hear others' specific tips about sustainable travel. The advice that Rick gives in his books addresses this generally (i.e. stay in small hotels and private rooms, eat and shop locally, etc.) but i'm looking for ways that others have addressed this concern. As an example:

1- We volunteered with SaveVernazza on our last visit, and it was the highlight of our trip... very recommended!
2- We've always travelled on shoulder season to save money, but perhaps we should start earlier/later, even though we'll face more closures and lousy weather.
3- We always enjoy smaller, local businesses, especially for dining and shopping, and we avoid "tourist" shops like the plague that they usually are.

It would be great if Rick would devote some space to this topic in his guidebooks.

Posted by
649 posts

Do you feel guilty for visiting Venice, Vernazza, or any other towns you have visited? Why? Do you feel like you are degrading the environment or the ambiance?

You don't smoke, you only put your garbage in proper garbage cans, you don't touch artwork or architecture, you put on a rubber glove before picking out produce in self service grocery stores in Italy, if gloves are provided, if that is the rule when buying produce; You take only one copy of a brochure or map if you really need it; give at least a small donation to museums if there is a donation box but no required entrance fee; if a donation is recommended but not required for maps and brochures, you give the donation if you take a map or brochure; when outside, you are careful where you eat and where you sit, you follow local mannerisms and keep reasonably quit on public transportation, keep your phone off or on vibrate or turned down, indoors, and so on.

People who serve tourists are making money off you. I don't necessarily see anything wrong with "tourist shops"; I only bought 3 souvenirs in Italy, none in Greece, one in the Netherlands, one in Belgium.

The locals permanent residents degrade their environment way more than you. Any damage to sites, artwork, and architecture is from erosion, other tourists, locals, bird poop, animals, and so on. You don't cause any damage because you said how careful you are.

Posted by
2083 posts

Buying a bottle of mass produced ketchup from a little corner shop is
less sustainable than getting it from the hypermarket.

Helping keep small corner shops alive means that more people can do their shopping within walking distance and don't have to travel far to buy their ketchup.

But I agree that this is arguing about small details. If you want to travel in a sustainable way, start by following these rules:

  • Never fly within Europe.
  • Only rent a car if you can get an electric one.

Once you adhere to those rules, we can start talking about the timing of your trips.

Posted by
12402 posts

Good points from Nick and Badger.

It's not always possible to know exactly who owns a hotel, restaurant or shop? They may not be a "local" - meaning someone who actually lives in that city/town - at all, especially if rising prices due to tourism and/or stress from the mobs have driven too many to less pricey, less over-visited locations, as has happened in Venice.

(Affordable workforce housing is a problem in popular U.S. tourist locations, like Sedona, Vail, Aspen, Cape Cod, etc. as well)

As well, an immigrant who obviously isn't originally from the country being traveled yet works in any of those city/town establishments may be considered a local if actually residing there. So "local" is sort of a nebulous term?

So far, our arguable contributions - and they are arguable so no pat on my own back here - have been in use of public transit: have yet to rent a car abroad, and walk as far/long as our feet will carry us. Longer stays and spending a good amount of time exploring less-visited areas of a city. Trying not to produce a lot of trash and disposing of what we do make properly. Dropping alms in the provided boxes in (often wonderful) churches we've been able to visit for free. Being aware and respectful probably helps with sustainability too: not sitting on the fountains or monuments, feeding the pigeons, eating on church steps, etc. Also trying to keep use of utilities down...although opting for an open window versus air conditioning in Florence once resulted in the worst reaction to mozzie bites I've ever experienced...and I live in Minnesota!

Posted by
4681 posts

I only know of one person who is truly travelling sustainably. He no longer flies anywhere and has ditched his car in favour of bike and rail travel.

Assuming you are flying to Europe, whatever you do there is unlikely to have much environmental impact compared to the fuel guzzled by your aircraft.

How would travelling more off season impact on your sustainability? Why travel to places when the weather is miserable and what you want to see is closed?

Businesses, whether local companies or large multinationals all employ local people and pay local taxes. Most large companies have sustainable environmental policies that smaller local businesses don’t. “Tourist” shops employ locals and pay their taxes. If no one bought their produce, they wouldn’t be in business, so others must have different taste to you.

Train travel is more sustainable than hiring a car, assuming that there is a service to where you want to visit. Electric cars that will become the norm in the next few years will be greener than ICE cars, but I haven’t seen hire companies offering them yet, as they cost so much to buy.

Avoid the advice that I have regularly seen on this forum about packing light then buying produce and clothing on arrival and junking it at the end of the trip.

Posted by
756 posts

Interesting question. I guess if you are sustainable in your home country, then do all those things in Europe. I would assume if this is of vital importance to you, you would practice the same behavior anywhere on the planet. Just be careful not to judge others travel behaviors.

Posted by
200 posts

Chiming in from the PNW-as climate change drives this year's record heat and wildfires earlier each year. Pre- Covid I travelled every summer for 3 weeks at a time on overseas trips. I am so anxious to feel it's safe enough to do so again. While watching my actions abroad to try to be as sustainable away as at home, there was no rationalizing those plane flights.
100% solar, electric car, organic and vegan and only seasonal produce, sourced almost entirely from my local farmer's market, clothes made in US, the list goes on. However- when using the "calculate your carbon footprint" tools? The miles on a plane negated a big chunk of my efforts.
We are all inhabitants of one planet, so your efforts when in the part of it where you live will be a positive or negative impact everywhere? Maybe a different perspective will be useful in thinking about your question- do every. possible. thing. you can at home and as much as you can when not.

Posted by
2083 posts

Assuming you are flying to Europe, whatever you do there is unlikely
to have much environmental impact compared to the fuel guzzled by your
aircraft.

Maybe, but replacing a transatlantic flight is a lot harder than replacing e.g. a Berlin-Vienna flight.

Posted by
6697 posts

It's probably a paradox for a tour promoter like Rick to offer advice that will minimize his business opportunities (i.e repeat tour business). It would help to define "sustainable" since the examples you used may or may not be sustainable...but let's make it simple and say it means better for the environment/ reduces global emissions.

Here are some things one can do:
- Fly less altogether (make longer duration trips but go overseas less frequently)
- Use public transit as opposed to private options
- Don't go to the same crowded places which are well-known to be overwhelmed by tourism, especailly multiple times
- Avoid buying things for the sake of having tourist souvenirs
- Practice water, waste, and energy conservation like you see in many European hotels (e.g. many people would leave the air running all day in the room or the lights on while they're out - if they could)

Posted by
1009 posts

I know many people don't like to hear this but the best way for sustainability is not travel so much or so many times. Transatlantic flights are a big contributor. Go for longer periods of time and don't only go once a year to Europe or every other year.

If like many people on here, that's a no go, then the best thing you can do is live a sustainable life at home and "splurge" on a trip/

Posted by
221 posts

Excuse my ignorance if this is obvious, but how does traveling in the off season effect sustainability?

Posted by
2083 posts

If like many people on here, that's a no go, then the best thing you
can do is live a sustainable life at home and "splurge" on a trip/

But still try to be as sustainable as possible on your trip. Just having flown across the Atlantic is not an excuse for polluting even more.

Posted by
692 posts

Unfortunately, as some of the others said, the least sustainable part of traveling overseas is the flight itself, which is kind of hard to avoid unless you have lots of time on your hands and can rent a sailboat to cross the ocean. But there are choices you can make:

  • Save your vacation time and make fewer, but longer trips. Taking two two-week vacations with international flights will have twice the carbon footprint of one four-week vacation.
  • There are trustworthy organizations where you can figure out the carbon footprint of your trip and compensate by donating for environmental projects. One that is usually recommended here by neutral consumer organisations like Stiftung Warentest or DZI is Atmosfair. Hope it's o.k. for me to post that here as an example. I am not connected to them in any way, and of course there are other reliable ones.
  • Within Europe, travel by train instead of by plane. In many cases, you are not really saving a lot of time by traveling by plane anyway. You have to be at the airport hours before takeoff, airports usually are somewhere out in the boondocks, and it will take you much more time and costly taxi rides to get to town. Train stations usually are pretty much in the center of things, so you arrive right where you want to be.
  • Unless you need to get to really inaccessible small towns, travel by train and public transportation instead of by car. In big cities, a car is a hassle anyway, you spend more time trying to find parking than actually getting anywhere.
  • Avoid cruise ships! They use pretty much the environmentally worst fuel there is (Heavy Fuel Oil). If you are interested in saving towns like Venice, this is especially important; Venice is really suffering from the cruise ship industry. Plus, you are adding to your travel enjoyment: Look at towns like Fira on Santorini - the cruise ship tourists get the worst of everything. Within walking radius of the cruise ship port, food for instance is worse quality and more expensive than anywhere else on the island. Also, it's kind of hard to ever escape the crowds when you are bringing the crowds right with you.
  • Quite honestly, traveling in shoulder season is going to make traveling more sustainable for your wallet, but it doesn't make much of a difference for the places you are traveling to. It may be a good idea for other reasons anyway. The weather is not necessarily better in peak season; depends on the place. In some places, it's way too hot during peak season. And the locals usually are more relaxed when they are not being overrun by tourists.
  • Supporting smaller local businesses is a great idea. Eat out at a small mom-and-pop place instead of at the fast food place with the big yellow M. Stay in a small hotel run by locals instead of the big international chains where the money goes somewhere else. Avoid "all inclusive" offers which keep you within their gated area and keep you away from exploring local restaurants.
  • Be an unobtrusive but clear role model for others. In every Greek mini market for instance, people would look at us like we were from Mars when we would take off our backpacks and store our groceries in there instead of accepting a plastic bag for almost each individual orange. If you have ever seen a bird or a turtle suffocate on a plastic bag it mistook for a jellyfish (I have), you will be happy to return those looks with a big smile.
Posted by
12252 posts

The concept of sustainable travel has to do with one's own travel style apart from the philosophical considerations.

I don't fly within Europe either, only did that a few times in the '70s and '80s.

No rental car for me either since basically I am not interested in driving once in Europe. I take public transport, the bus, train (day or night trains), the subway, light rail but no Uber, and the super rare taxi if absolutely no other choice is available I avoid the tourist shops, the obvious ones, most definitely.

I go in the summer, stay in local small two star hotels or Pensionen, plus a private independent hostel now and then. I don't stay in US hotel chains in Europe.

Posted by
2083 posts

Great list by Anna.

Regarding "Supporting smaller local businesses" I'd like to add "Make sure you spend some money when you do day trips". Tourism can be a problem in popular day trip locations when tourists arrive en masse and since the rise of social media don't even buy a post card any more. The city/town is still stuck with street maintenance while the tourists spend their money on hotel rooms in the bigger nearby city.

So if you do a day trip somewhere make sure you spend some money in that destination. Buy lunch from a local restaurant, but maybe do some other shopping as well. If you're going to the Netherlands e.g., don't buy a box of stroopwafels in Amsterdam, buy them when you are on a day trip to Haarlem instead.