Defining sustainable tourism: 8 principles to apply to your travels

There’s a unique Jamaican greeting I first heard when I visited Jamrock over 10 years ago. I continued hearing often during the many winters I spent there. Jamaicans as a whole, and the Rastafari in particular, use this greeting in lieu of “nice to meet you,” or when bidding someone farewell, or when expressing gratitude.


When I think of what best defines “sustainable tourism,” I think of that Jamaican greeting.

It’s a simple, yet powerful utterance. Respect for the person you’ve just met. Respect for the work a person does, or what he/she stands for. Respect when you’re being welcomed into a community, a country.

It’s the same idea behind the buzzwords “sustainable travel” or “sustainable tourism.”

For third culture kids such as myself, and for those who grew up abroad, exploring for immersion, exchange and connection with others is our travel modus operandi. It’s how I’ve lived in and visited places for as long as I can remember, even if there was no term for it back then.

For the average American traveler, it’s a more recent concept (and there are many reasons for this which are too deep to get into here).

Respect. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what does that look like when you’re making travel decisions? At a time when our planet is facing numerous challenges, not least of which is climate change, sustainable tourism today goes well beyond cultural immersion.

My 8 sustainable tourism principles

Rooted in and inspired by the Jamaican greeting I heard 13 years ago, I share with you the eight core principles I follow as a sustainable traveler.

These are eight easy, practical ways to make better decisions and experience more meaningful trips—for you and for the destination—the next time you’re planning a vacation.

Rather than bore you with theory, I show you how through my favorite images and examples from this year’s work travels—on assignment, on press trips, sponsored conferences or self-funded visits—to Puerto Rico, Maine, Antigua, Barbuda, the Dominican Republic, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.

1. Respect for direct cultural exchange: Signing up for community-based tours

What are community tours, or community-based tourism? The Caribbean Tourism Organization defines it as: “A collaborative approach to tourism in which community members exercise control through active participation in appraisal, development, management and/or ownership (whole or in part) of enterprises that delivers net socio-economic benefits to community members, conserves natural and cultural resources and adds value to the experiences of local and foreign visitors.”

Put simply, it’s the kind of tourism where communities are the ones creating and offering the experience or product. The kind of tourism where all the funds are pooled and later equitably distributed among that community’s members. Funds also go towards continuing programs or meeting the community’s needs (for example, a new health center).

When you sign up for a community tour or a community-based activity and stay, 100 percent of your travel dollars go directly towards locals.

The catch with community tourism and community-based tours, is that they’re not always easy to find or book online. Furthermore, not all travelers know to find them or where to find them. But they do exist, and it’s a not a new concept.

I’ve spent a good part of my Caribbean travels searching for and signing up for community tours and stays—in Jamaica, Belize, and the Dominican Republic, for instance.

This year, I had new community tourism experiences in Puerto Rico, Barbuda and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Immersing in a community and supporting their business, while also learning first hand about the culture: there’s no better way to experience a destination, nor a more direct way to contribute your travel dollars to a community’s long term, sustainable future.

When you’re heading to a new destination, ask on the ground for community-based tours or experiences. The Caribbean, for one, is home to a good handful of community organizations, women’s cooperatives, and other groups offering community tours and experiences, from food to nature hikes and homestays.

2. Respect for nature: Visiting protected areas and supporting environmental organizations

It goes without saying, but engaging with the outdoors is the best way of supporting the environment, and all those who are protecting it for us.

My most transformative trip this year in terms of the outdoors include my trip to Maine, home to staunch environmental stewards. Barbuda too, impressed me with its locals passionate about their environment and the frigate bird sanctuary, one of the largest in the world. Where would the sanctuary be without its most committed guardian, Captain Jeffrey?

In Antigua, the story of the revival of Wallings and its transformation into a nature reserve, at the helm of a determined local woman, was perhaps the most illuminating message of all: one person can make a difference.

Left to right: Visiting Wallings Nature Reserve in Antigua; Orisha Joseph showing us around SUSGREN on Union Island.

Then there’s Orisha Joseph, a young female executive director of the non profit SUSGREN, based on Union Island, in the Grenadines and doing amazing work restoring lagoons and mangrove ecosystems. I’m currently writing up a print story on this and more incredible experiences in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Stay tuned.

When exploring a destination then, look for protected areas or local non profit environmental groups, and put your funds directly towards these important local expert-managed projects and guided spaces.

3. Respect for women: Supporting women-owned businesses and women’s cooperatives

Women in developing countries are at the forefront of environmental conservation and the management of natural resources. This is because they are often the ones who are out collecting water, gathering food or tending to their farms and families. As a result, they are the most affected by climate change, and conversely the most apt in addressing these issues if given the tools and support.

Clockwise: Anne Marie cuts black pineapple roadside in Antigua; Odd Alewives’ brewery co-owner in MidCoast Maine; Tia Yesi runs a guesthouse in mountainous Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic.

Because of gender inequality and social exclusion, it’s critical to support women today and invest in their initiatives. While there are organizations doing so, such as the UN Global Environment Facility, you can also make a difference by supporting women-run initiatives and businesses during your travels.

Left to right: Emma Paul, co-owner of Jeremy’s on Beef Island, British Virgin Islands; owner Virna of local “fonda” restaurant Deaverdura in Old San Juan; owner of The Dreamcatcher and Finca Victoria in Puerto Rico, Sylvia De Marco.

Not only does it improve a destination’s sustainable future, but it also supports entire families and communities. There are many more valid reasons why women should support each other.

Even when it comes to those female entrepreneurs who are in a privileged position, they tend to hire local women and pay them better than their male counterparts might.

4. Respect for heritage: Learning from the right source

Who is telling the story? Who are you learning from?

Sustainable travel is about immersing in culture, but before you absorb the stories being told, ask yourself: who’s the expert? And whose voice and perspectives are missing? As much as possible, seek to hear from those who have lived and are living their heritage on a daily basis. Those whose history might be advertised on tourism pamphlets, yet aren’t given the opportunity to train and guide tourists. Learn from the right source.

Earlier this year, I stumbled on one of the most remarkable travel experiences I’ve had to date in the Dominican Republic. It wasn’t lead by a typical tour company (again, a lack of opportunity issue), but rather by a university professor with deep knowledge of the slavery days in the DR, including the former plantations of the south. Finding out about it wasn’t easy. But once I do, I can pay it forward by sharing that knowledge with future visitors. We each have the power and the platforms to do it. And yes, I’ll be writing about this soon (I’m still catching up from all this year’s amazing experiences).

In Saint Vincent, when I wanted to learn about the Garinagu and the village of Rose Hall, I put in my own money to spend the day there with its community leader, Selwyn Patterson. I still have chills thinking of the landscape I got to witness.

Who can best tell the story? Be picky. Choose the persons whose ancestral roots begin and continue in the place you’re visiting, or who’ve studied in depth and share balanced perspectives. Most people are good and just want to share their culture and country with us; let’s give them the opportunity to do so.

5. Respect for local food: Eating from the source

When you’re sourcing your food locally—i.e., shopping at markets or dining at a spot that buys its food products from locals—you are supporting the local economy and supporting local producers. Why does that matter?

Because local producers thriving translates into food security, which is critical for countries facing the most dire effects of climate change, in particular the Caribbean. Many of its destinations are still far too dependent on imports. Supporting local sources also means less fossil fuels use, less plastic use, and more local wealth.

Clockwise: Uproot Pie owner in MidCoast Maine; fresh oysters during oyster to plate river cruise; Maine lobster fisherman in Bristol.

It’s equally important in industrialized nations. Supporting fishermen or oyster farmers who supply direct from sea to table in Maine, to a mobile pizza maker who crafts her menu solely relying on the week’s available fresh produce, food security is key to a thriving, sustainable future.

6. Respect for green businesses: Choosing responsible hotels, floating or otherwise

How do we get more businesses ditching plastic, operating on clean energy and sourcing their products locally? By supporting those that already do this and spreading the word about them. By asking questions of the ones that aren’t green yet.

When more lead by example, more follow.

In Puerto Rico, I stayed at the stunning Finca Victoria–a botanical farm house hotel where all food is sourced or grown locally, including the souvenirs and apparel sold on site, made by boricua artisans. Suites had patios with mini organic gardens, no TV or electronics, and fresh mountain air for A/C.

A handful of all inclusive resorts in the DR have also begun greening their practices, and a handful are Green Globe Certified. Research which, and stay there.

While sailing the US and British Virgin Islands on The Viramar earlier this month, a private yacht chater, life was green. The yacht is part of a green, membership-based initiative spreading in the sailing industry, whereby charters pledge to implement and follow green practices year round. We even received a Green Guide on what to pack and not pack that’s environmentally harmful when coming to spend a week at sea. Imagine if all non-floating hotels did that for their guests.

There was absolutely zero plastic on board The Viramar. Guests are given a metal water canteen, with a color band so you could recognize the one you used and keep reusing the same one for the rest of their trip (then take it home). Reusable cups. Eight solar panels on the boat; the generator is turned off during the day until the evening. Silicon reusable straws. Even wooden toothbrushes and sulfate-free, glass bottled Bite toothpaste tablets were provided. Sulfate free shampoo and reef safe sunscreen. Woven beach totes for use offshore. And your own reusable thermos to take home at the end of your stay.

7. Respect for creativity: Supporting small entrepreneurs

From locally owned and hosted AirBnBs to a made-in-Maine arts and crafts store and a craft brewery run by a young couple, I came across a range of inspiring creatives this year.

Entrepreneurship continues to boom wherever we travel. That’s a good thing because these hard working, independent men and women are improving our lifestyle, creating jobs, inspiring social change and innovation, generating wealth and contributing to the economy. More often than not, entrepreneurs also double as social activists and get involved advocacy for the benefit of their communities.

Clockwise: Maricruz Rivera, founder of COPI in Loiza and Afro Puerto Rican leader; Don Ruiz’s son carries on the coffee tradition in Puerto Rico at his cafe in Old San Juan; ceramics at Alison Evans’ store in Boothbay, Maine.

It’s a great time to support small businesses, and you should look for them when visiting a new place, whether in the US or elsewhere.

8. Respect for socio-economic context and for accuracy

I have no respect for people who judge countries they’ve never visited, or that they’ve never lived in long term. If you’re one of those people who boycotts places based on governments and politics, my guess is you live in the middle of the ocean on an uninhabited plot. Not in reality, that’s for sure. The world is big, messy place.

Meeting people from that place and interacting with them is what helps us see beyond what’s painted in the media as a story that sells. What happened to the Dominican Republic this year is a great example of that.

Bavaro Beach, facing the Occidental Punta Cana; front desk team member Arabeli Vasquez.

We can all learn from the complexities of life in a country by educating ourselves on the geography, economics, politics, and social class issues in that destination. By visiting in person and talking to locals. Smearing, insulting and judging places on social media helps no one. Worse, the result is often the demise of every day workers who lose their jobs because hotels are suddenly empty, for no proven reason.

Sustainable tourism, then, is also about not pointing fingers or preaching. Instead, it’s about educating, learning how to travel smarter, and supporting others in doing so.

Beyond the buzz words: one small travel choice at a time

Let’s recap what a sustainable trip looks like:

+ You sign up for community-based tours
+ You visit protected areas and support environmental groups
+ You supporting women-owned businesses
+ You learn from the right source
+ You eat locally sourced foods
+ You choose green hotels, yachts, and businesses
+ You support small entrepreneurs
+ You learn about your destination’s socio-economic context

Why do all of these choices matter? Because despite leisure tourism being one of the largest economic sectors in the world, it’s still a privilege of the few. That’s why it’s critical for those of us who can, to bring balance to the destinations we visit. Our planet needs it, desperately. The Caribbean too, needs it badly.

The good news is that each one of us can make a difference with our travel decisions. In the hotels or all inclusive resorts we pick for our annual vacations, or the tour guides we support. In the way we tell our stories or share information online. In the voices we choose to hear and learn from. Every single decision gives us a chance to play an important role in shaping our trip and in making a positive impact on the places and people we’re visiting.

Because you see, responsible tourism isn’t about “living like a local” or as simple as staying in a local neighborhood or AirBnB (which isn’t necessarily sustainable nor immersive). And it’s anything *but* boring. You’ve been following my travels: this is how I make my trips one-of-a-kind. Packed with meaning and impact, while also relaxing (though I’m not good at sitting still).

Apply these eight principles I share to your travels as well—to the Caribbean and beyond—and you’ll be on your way towards becoming the sustainable traveler that the world needs. Impacting places and people positively, while having the experiences of a lifetime.

Which of these sustainable tourism principles will you apply to your next trip?

For more sustainable tourism stories from around the Caribbean and beyond, including travel tips, subscribe to my blog and read my published articles. If you’re heading to the Dominican Republic or Belize, don’t forget to pick up a brand new edition of my Moon guidebooks.

I look forward to sharing new stories and images of places through culture, nature and people with you this coming year. From the Caribbean but also well beyond. I also have two big projects in the making that I can’t wait to share with you. Stay tuned, because there’s lots of travel inspiration to come.

Thank you so very much for your continuous support throughout 2019. For choosing to be here and read my work. I wish each of you a fantastic 2020! Happy new year, Feliz ano nuevo, “bonne annee l’argent!”


  1. This is one of the best articles that I’ve read about sustainable tourism (and great photos too!). You are so right about the need to support women-owned businesses in developing countries – this is true all over the world, not just in the Caribbean. I’ve not visited Puerto Rico yet (I was was about to book flights in March but then the coronavirus pandemic put paid to those plans) so I guess that won’t happen until next year now. But I do know now where I want to stay – Finca Victoria looks like a wonderful spot. And I think I’m going to have to add the Dominican Republic to my travel plans too!

  2. Thank you, Donna! I’m glad it was helpful. I highly recommend Puerto Rico and the DR – easy to get from one to the other since they’re neighbors. But yes, hopefully when the pandemic blows over eventually. I will be sharing more “green” tips in the meantime, so stay tuned.:)