Legit sustainable accommodation… and how to find it.

What is sustainable accommodation, really? And how the heck do you find it before traveling?!

 

There’s more to sleeping than meets the eye.

Where you choose to rest your head while on the road is a major factor of your travels’ impact. I’m not just talking carbon footprints—from destroying housing markets to sustaining entire villages, tourist accommodation has the power to transform communities. For better or for worse.

Consciously choosing sustainable accommodation when traveling is one of the best ways to travel responsibly and ensure you have a net positive impact on the place and people you’re visiting.

Problem is, finding sustainable accommodation isn’t always easy, and it’s not always clear what’s actually sustainable.

Being responsible does take more time and critical thinking, but a bit of extra effort on your part can go a long way to support local people. And, you know, prevent further destruction of our (already rather doomed) Earth.

To give you a little nudge in the right direction, here’s how I find—and assess—sustainable accommodation when traveling.

Here’s what you need to know about sustainable accommodation

 

Homestay in Nongriat, India

A Khasi homestay in Nongriat, India. Khasi people, known for their living root bridges, have a deep respect for their environment and go to great lengths to preserve it.

What does “responsible” or “sustainable” accommodation actually mean?

Errrrbody be using and abusing these buzzwords, but many don’t understand what they actually mean in regards to travel.

“Responsible” travel choices are all about making decisions that are good for local people and environments in the short-term.

“Sustainable” travel is the long-term goal, where your travel choices support systems that will benefit locals and their environments for years to come. Truly sustainable systems are ideally run primarily by the locals themselves.

When it comes to accommodation, “sustainable accommodation” often implies environmentally conscious options, while “responsible accommodation” likely describes people-centric or ethical travel offerings.

I’m here to say that sustainable accommodation should benefit locals, have low environmental impact, and  encourage respect and preservation of culture.

… but also, let’s not drown in semantics.  To be honest, I don’t actually give a damn what -able you use, so long as you make choices that support locals and don’t destroy the earth. Words are just words; action is what matters here.

 

Houses at sunrise in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is beautiful—and quite sustainability-minded!—but the city is struggling with unsustainable overtourism issues like Airbnb overuse.

What ISN’T sustainable?

Businesses that are wasteful, damaging to the local environment or culture, and/or exploitative of their workers are not sustainable.

Mega cruise ships are the perfect example of unsustainable accommodation/tourism. They’re wildly polluting—both in their fuel usage and how they dump their waste into the water—they encourage fast-paced, culturally-isolated mass tourism that destroys destinations and has limited benefit for local tourism businesses, and their multinational setups allow corporations to evade labor and health regulations for their workers.

(Can you tell I despise cruise ships?)

Not every kind of unsustainable accommodation is as horrific as cruise ships, but you’ll find similar issues in many hotels around the world, especially those catering to large-scale group tours, generic package trips, and other low-cost, high-volume endeavors.

Urban Airbnbs are a different kind of unsustainable. In popular cities like Amsterdam, the prevalence of (illegally run) Airbnbs is causing a shortage of affordable housing for residents and problems with destructive or noisy guests. Amsterdammers are angry; clearly the setup isn’t sustainable.

Though Airbnb can be useful for finding places to stay in less busy areas, it’s best to avoid it in major metropolitan areas unless it’s heavily regulated.

What makes a hotel, guesthouse, or resort truly sustainable? Here's how to tell if accommodation is legit or just greenwashing, plus more tips on how to find sustainable accommodation when planning responsible travel.
Finding local guesthouses and homestays while traveling isn't always easy, but they're some of the most sustainable kinds of accommodation available! Here's how to find local homestays when planning your trip, to help you travel more responsibly.

How can you tell a hotel isn’t sustainable?

Responsible tourism is like ~*so in*~ right now, and many businesses capitalize on people’s good intentions without doing anything in return.

This is called greenwashing: when a business claims it’s doing something environmentally friendly for marketing but actually isn’t doing sh*t. You know, like those little cards in hotel bathrooms recommending you don’t leave your towel on the floor to save the planet/rainforests/etc.

There are a few ways to assess if a business is greenwashing, but the simplest rule of thumb is: if self-proclaimed “sustainable” accommodation doesn’t clearly state why they are sustainable/environmentally friendly, they’re probably full of BS.

When assessing whether a hotel/guesthouse/campsite/cardboard box is actually sustainable or environmentally friendly, beware of the following:

  • Large foreign-run/international chains: Big hotel chains are rarely interested in sustainability for sustainability’s sake—it’s a marketing concern at best. International chains are about volume and scale, which are usually enemies of sustainability.
  • Abuses of the phrase “eco” and other buzz words. Again, if a hotel flaunts phrases like environmentally-friendly, responsible, eco-, etc. without saying WHY… they definitely don’t know sh*t. Knowledgeable establishments aren’t afraid to explain why they’re a sustainable choice.
  • Outsiders claiming to be local: Some businesses masquerade as “local” despite being run by outside companies. Be wary of establishments secretly owned by bigger corporations, or outsider-run businesses disliked by the community.

 

Mountain village in Sham Valley, Ladakh, India

The Ladakh region of India is ripe with low-impact village homestay choices for trekkers.

Examples of actually sustainable accommodation 

Confused or unsure as to what I mean? Don’t be!

Finding sustainable accommodation means choosing the option that best supports locals, has minimal environmental impact, and doesn’t destroy local culture.

Don’t freak out if you can’t find an option that checks all three boxes, or can’t afford the one that does. Work with what’s available for you.

For a more practical look, here are several types of accommodation I suggest looking for when searching for sustainable places to stay.

Homestays

Homestays are a kind of guesthouse run by a local in their own home. They’re my favorite kind of sustainable accommodation, and a great way for travelers to get a taste of home life.

Dinner with a homestay family in Phubjika Valley, Bhutan

Dinner with my homestay family in Phubjika Valley, Bhutan.

Why are homestays sustainable?

  • Your money often goes directly to the local family running it, rather than through a corporation, middleman, or booking platform. That means more profit for the family!
  • They’re already part of the local landscape; no need to build big, ugly, or invasive hotels.
  • More local interactions and the chance to learn about cultures straight from the source.
  • Hosts usually serve local, homemade food to their guests, often purchased from other small businesses or harvested from their own land. The less mass-produced or imported food, the merrier.

Examples of sustainable local homestays

Pros of homestays

  • Local everything. What more do you need?
  • Often cheaper than hotels or big guesthouses
  • More personal

Cons of homestays

  • Infrastructure often very basic
  • Less privacy
  • Can cause tensions in local communities if guests don’t behave

Eco lodges, eco resorts, and eco hotels

“Eco-“ can be applied to all kinds of things—sometimes for no real reason at all—but generally it’s accommodation where low environmental impact is at the forefront of its design. Eco accommodation is also often in more remote, natural areas.

Boy relaxing in a hammock at Volcan Eco Resort on Camiguin Island, Philippines

Volcan Eco Retreat is a sustainable dive resort on Camiguin Island in the Philippines, where I stayed with family in 2014. The owners and staff protect coral reefs in the surrounding area from fishing, and have gradually restored them over the last couple of decades.

Why are eco lodges, eco resorts, and eco hotels sustainable?

True eco accommodation makes efforts to reduce waste and energy usage, use renewable energy, avoid using detergents and soaps that destroy the environment, etc. Many also support local conservation efforts, or purposefully employ locals to provide income alternatives to destructive practices such as logging and poaching.

Examples of sustainable eco-lodges

  • Cristalino Lodge – Lodge in the Brazilian Amazon where solar powers rooms and water heating, the organization monitors and funds preservation of tens of thousands of acres of land around it, and offers classes to visitors about local ecology.
  • Atlas Kasbah – Award-winning eco lodge in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains where water is purified on-site, renewables power the establishment, materials are sourced from local communities… and then some!

Benefits of eco-lodges, resorts, hotels

  • In natural areas
  • Often luxurious or well-designed
  • Employ local workers knowledgeable about the area
  • Your money also supports conservation

Cons of eco-lodges, resorts, hotels

  • More expensive
  • Sometimes hard to reach

Accommodation run by or employing marginalized people

In non-NGO jargon, “marginalized groups” basically means people who have been screwed by local society and don’t have the same access to opportunities as others thanks to racism/xenophobia/sexism/etc.

Every region has its own issues, but common marginalized groups include women, refugees, Black and indigenous people, local ethnic or religious minorities.

Homemade food in a homestay in Altit, Pakistan

Homemade meal at a women-run homestay in Pakistan, which I booked through a platform run by a female entrepreneur.

Why is accommodation supporting marginalized people sustainable?

Sustainability isn’t just about saving the environment. For systems and people to flourish long-term, everyone must be taken care of, not just [cis white] men. (The term here is “intersectional environmentalism”—here’s what that means.)

Many marginalized people depend on income or support from unreliable or unsustainable sources:  women depending on men for income, refugees depending on relief schemes, etc. Supporting their businesses with your tourist money is the most sustainable way to support their efforts and their independence.

Pros of accommodation supporting marginalized groups

  • Dismantling sh*t societal systems! Woop!
  • Access to a unique and/or alternative perspective

Cons of accommodation run by marginalized groups

  • Sometimes outside organizations exploit people’s marginalized status for marketing purposes

Examples of accommodation owned/run by marginalized people

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfer watching the sunset at the Edge of the World cliffs in Saudi Arabia

Hanging out with a Couchsurfer at the Edge of the World in Saudi Arabia

Couchsurfing is an online platform where travelers can connect with other travelers to be hosted in their homes free of charge. Or you can just meet for coffee. Up to you. At this point, I’ve used it to meet locals on four different continents!

Why is Couchsurfing sustainable?

Though it has its flaws, Couchsurfing is the most accessible way for budget tourists to interact with locals and share ideas. Surfers can stay in local homes and enjoy local food—no extra infrastructure necessary—and it encourages travelers to value local interactions, rather than selfies or Top 10s.

Pros of Couchsurfing

  • Accessible even for young or budget travelers
  • Easiest way to meet local travelers and stay in local homes
  • Couchsurfing communities are often supportive in countries where tourist infrastructure is lacking

Cons of Couchsurfing

  • Money isn’t necessarily going into the local economy
  • Easy for Couchsurfers to take advantage of their hosts
  • Many hosts in the West expect sex from surfers
  • Can be risky, especially for female travelers, if surfers aren’t discerning when choosing a host

Farm stays

Any kind of accommodation on a local farm property, often with the intent of learning more about the farming process and enjoying local food.

Free range cows grazing in the South Tyrol region of Italy

The South Tyrol region of Italy is full of Agriturismo stays where visitors can learn about traditional ways of raising cows in the pastures, rather than in industrial setups.

Why are farm stays sustainable?

Farm stays educate tourists about the origins of what we eat—an increasingly complex question in this day and age—and help small- to medium-sized farms survive in this era of highly destructive industrial farming. Also, local food!

Pros of farm stays

  • Locally-sourced food and meals
  • Learning about local agriculture practices
  • Supporting local agriculture over mass imports and global systems

Cons of farm stays

  • Often more remote and require a car
  • Sometimes expensive/luxury-oriented

Examples of sustainable farm stays

  • Pri Plajerju – An organic farm stay in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park where guests can sleep on the cheap in a barn!
  • Ranjan’s Farm Villa – Stay in a 100-year-old villa on an organic farm in Sri Lanka
  • Sierra de Grazalema – Organic farm with guest rooms in an old farm house in Andalucia, Spain

Historic and heritage hotels

Old cultural heritage sites—think mansions, palaces, castles, etc.— converted into accommodation. In layman’s terms: dope AF digs.

Narain Niwas heritage hotel in Jaipur, India

Narain Niwas is a small palace in Jaipur, India that was once a country house for an army general, but has since been converted into a heritage hotel managed by a single family.

Why are heritage hotels sustainable?

Heritage hotels help to fund the preservation of cultural heritage, something often overlooked in developing regions. Though other aspects of heritage hotels might not be sustainable—waste generation, offering imported items, outdated electrical infrastructure, and so on—maintaining cultural heritage through self-sustaining means is absolutely sustainable tourism.

Pros of heritage hotels

  • They’re cool as hell, what more do you need?!
  • Help to maintain cultural heritage sites

Cons of heritage hotels

  • Expensive
  • Sometimes run by larger corporations definitely not interested in responsible tourism

Examples of heritage hotels

 

Homestay host mother in Shaimak village in eastern Tajikistan

My homestay host in Shaimak, a remote and little-touristed village in eastern Tajikistan that I learned of through the local tourism office.

How to find sustainable accommodation for your trip 

Until sustainability becomes a norm rather than a niche—don’t hold your breath—you might have to do some digging to find sustainable accommodation in your destination.

Sustainable accommodation websites and booking platforms

Not always helpful when going off the beaten track as I do, but these options work well in more touristed areas.

  • BookdifferentOnly lists eco-certified hotels from a list of transparent and rigorous certification organizations they approve of.
  • HomestayLists homestays all around the world.
  • Earth Changers: A collective of sustainability-focused tourism professionals who curate international travel opportunities that benefit locals as much as possible.
  • Bio HotelsEco-hotels in parts of Europe with a heavy focus on organic food offerings
  • Farmstay Planet: Farmstays in Europe
  • Responsible Travel: Responsible tour booking website that also has accommodation-only options.
  • EcobnbB&Bs and guesthouses ranked on how many criteria points they meet

Searching for sustainable accommodation online

The best sustainable accommodation options are usually specific to the country or region, and even then they might not show up in searches if they don’t know about SEO.

Some common tactics I use to find sustainable accommodation in more offbeat areas:

1. Googling any or all of the following:

  • Homestays in…
  • Indigenous-run hotel in…
  • Family-owned guesthouse in…
  • Eco lodge/eco resort/eco guesthouse in…
  • Women-run hotel in…
  • And so on and so forth. Be creative!

2. Reaching out to the local tourism board.

It’s literally their job to help you find what you’re looking for, and they should be happy to help you find locally-run businesses/accommodation. To find local tourism boards, search “Tourism in X” or “Travel to Y” and contact the most official looking page. They might not always respond quickly, but they know best. Hopefully.

3. Looking for hotels in weird/remote places on Google Maps.

You’d be surprised how active people are on Google Maps, even in the middle of nowhere. I’ve found a few family-run guesthouses purely by chance in strange places just by perusing Google Maps.

4. Reading up on responsible tourism in the region.

Though not accommodation-specific, blog posts and articles about responsible travel should include recommendations for a few homestays or guesthouses.

5. Waiting to see what happens.

Many small businesses don’t have a good grasp on digital marketing, and rely on handing out flyers, business cards, and other printed materials to local businesses. Keep an eye out for them in places like hostel lounges, cafes, restaurants, etc. They’re a great way to find more offbeat options.

Clouds over Mechuka, Northeast India

In Mechuka, a small village in Northeast India, I found my homestay simply by… showing up and looking for signs saying “homestay”. It worked!

Finding sustainable accommodation on major booking platforms like Booking.com and Airbnb

Though their main goal isn’t to be sustainable—it’s actually to squeeze as much money out of people as possible—there are still sustainable options on major hotel booking platforms if you know how to look.

Booking.com is my main go-to for finding last-minute accommodation, and it’s possible to find sustainable accommodation there. I found all kinds of homestays and locally-run guesthouses through Booking while traveling in Georgia and Uzbekistan, for example.

When searching for responsible options on Booking, I often check the following filters:

  • Guest Houses
  • Homestays
  • Bed and breakfasts
  • Farm stays
  • Country houses

The results won’t be perfect, but using these filters will help you find options that are more likely to be locally-run.

TripAdvisor now has a GreenLeaders program where they clarify if a hotel is eco-friendly. However, hotels are the ones responsible for requesting the classification, and they’re not very transparent the process nor whether they check to validate claims. Use at your own discretion.

Homestay hosts in Armenia

Hosts of a homestay I found via Booking.com in Yeghegnadzor, Armenia. (I ended up sitting down with them to help with setup and explain how the system works.)

Is is Airbnb an ethical way to find sustainable accommodation? 

Airbnb is another platform I use occasionally—mostly because I’m a sucker for good web design—but I try to avoid using it in big cities. Airbnb is known to cause all kinds of problems for locals in cities, including inflated rental prices and accommodation scarcity.

However, Airbnb also makes marketing more accessible for small business owners in many places—an important part of sustainable tourism—so I hesitate to shun it completely.

It’s best to stick to hotels/official rentals in cities and use Airbnb for more remote or unique searches if you want sustainable accommodation that doesn’t cause problems for locals.

Regional websites for finding the best sustainable accommodation

Many countries and regions have lists or accommodation networks that you can tap into… if you know they exist, that is! This list is by no means complete, but here are some regional recommendations for finding sustainable accommodation:

Sustainable accommodation in Europe

Sustainable accommodation in Central and South Asia

 

Loktak Lake, India at sunrise

I wrote a post about India’s Loktak Lake in 2017, including mention of Mr. Maipakchao, a homestay host who also works on conservation efforts in the area. In years since, countless people have stayed with Mr. Maipakchao because of that post!

How to support sustainable local accommodation in the long-term

Supporting sustainable causes doesn’t stop once your trip is over! There are many small but impactful things you can do to support local businesses from the comfort of your own home:

  • Leave them a review. Reviews on platforms like TripAdvisor, Google, and hotel booking websites can make a HUGE difference for small businesses. Same goes for blogs—writing a post about your time and providing contact information for the business can change everything. I know firsthand.
  • Share your photos. If you stayed in accommodation that could use a little boost with their digital presence, consider emailing or messaging the owner with some of your photos. Some photographers get territorial about free photos, but I personally don’t mind sharing some photos with small businesses who likely wouldn’t be able to afford my rates. It’s a small but valuable token of thanks that costs me nothing.
  • Recommend them to other travelers. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing. If you come across a particularly awesome sustainable business, tell people about it! Gatekeeping isn’t cool, especially when it comes to supporting businesses doing things right. Tag businesses you love, write down recommendations for others, share locations. You know the drill.
  • Offer help with their internet presence (while there). I’ve helped sort out Booking.com issues for homestay owners from Georgia to Uzbekistan to India, advised guesthouse owners on social media marketing, and given website advice to countless more. Getting setup online can be intimidating for a fledgling business—especially when it’s all in a language you’re not fluent in—and you never know when a bit of help might be appreciated.

 

Alex Reynolds with a local family in Hatiya, Bangladesh

When you’re a guest in someone’s home or country—like I was here on Hatiya island in Bangladesh—it’s important to respect local culture and acknowledge what’s possible before setting any expectations. The same goes for accommodation.

A final note: what NOT to do as a guest

After years on the road, I’ve seen too many people have fits over things like squat toilets, local food, and uncomfortable beds… thus totally missing the point of seeking out “local” experiences.

Sustainable accommodation options aren’t always the shiniest or smoothest places to stay, but that’s all part of the fun. Responsible tourism and sustainable practices need to be encouraged, not defeated.

If you’re staying in local accommodation and you want to complain, think before you speak:

Why do you find it unpleasant? For example, do you dislike food because it’s too spicy/salty/oily/something else compared to your local food? Would catering to your needs be easy for your host, or would it require buying alternative/imported products that aren’t as sustainable as local goods? If the latter, deal with it and remember you’re not in your home country.

Is it reasonable for you to demand change? Mattresses and Western toilets might be reasonable requests in a city or high-end eco-resort, but asking a budget homestay in a remote village to install an expensive ceramic sit-down toilet? No, bro.

Polite, constructive criticism is useful for business owners, but if your tourist problems require unsustainable solutions, sometimes it’s best to keep your woes to yourself.

Homestay in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan

A community homestay in Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan

More posts on responsible travel and sustainable tourism

 

 

Have you stayed anywhere particularly memorable—and sustainable—in your travels? Tell me in the comments!

 

Booking sustainable accommodation is one of the best ways to start traveling more responsibly. But what is truly sustainable accommodation? This guide has everything you need to know, from what makes a hotel or guesthouse sustainable to best kinds of sustainable accommodation to regional recommendations for finding more sustainable accommodation.
Booking sustainable accommodation is one of the best ways to start traveling more responsibly. But what is truly sustainable accommodation? This guide has everything you need to know, from what makes a hotel or guesthouse sustainable to best kinds of sustainable accommodation to regional recommendations for finding more sustainable accommodation when planning your trip.

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

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