Sustainable Tourism: How to be a Green Backpacker

Sustainable Tourism: How to be a Green Backpacker

It’s fantastic to see how the movement towards sustainable living is gathering pace. But there’s a flipside for those with a deep desire to explore – thinking sustainably forces us frequent travellers to wonder how we can make environmentally friendly choices, while still enjoying what can be the most emissions-heavy hobby on earth.

As travellers, we are fortunate enough to see first-hand how wonderful the earth is. In Australia alone there’s the outback beauty of Uluru, stunning islands like the world-famous Whitsundays, dramatic national parks like Karijini, and of course that most incredible (and fragile) of ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef.

As people who enjoy and appreciate these natural wonders, we should be doing all we can to protect them. But how?

Supporting sustainable businesses

Supporting sustainable businesses is a great way to make your mark as an environmentally aware backpacker. Happily it is becoming easier and easier to make the right choices. YHA, for example, has a handy list of their most sustainable hostels on their website, while also explaining exactly why each has made the list.

Australia has some great accommodation options which feature low-energy infrastructure, water-efficient bathrooms and solar power systems. Many of these hostels also partner with volunteer conservation programs, giving you the opportunity to get involved at a grassroots level.

It’s also a great idea to Google “sustainable cafes, restaurants or bars” when visiting a new place, to see if there are any that have particularly strong eco-motives. Look for evidence that backs up their claims, and if you find it, go and support them!

Eco-friendly tours

When researching tours, it’s important to see what they say in terms of sustainability, but to also check that these claims are based in fact. Checking customer reviews can be helpful, but the presence of eco-accreditations from trustworthy organisations is the best sign that a company is doing things the right way.

For example, the award-winning Ocean Safari, who operate tours from Port Douglas, proudly demonstrate that they are advanced eco-certified and are approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council on their website.

Touching on another aspect of sustainable travel, when travelling to outback or rural areas and partaking in tours, it is a great idea to choose Aboriginal-run companies. Not only do Aboriginal people live a very sustainable lifestyle and focus many of their tours around how they live off the land, but this will provide jobs and income to tour guides and their communities, helping to keep their native stories alive.

Sustainable travel in Australia is just as much about protecting indigenous cultures as it is about protecting the environment.

An example of an Aboriginal-led company, where the guide demonstrates the special relationship that Aboriginal people have with the Australian landscape, is Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Adventures in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Should I go to visit the Great Barrier Reef?

In recent years, public awareness of the condition of the Great Barrier Reef and the impact of climate change upon it has come into ever-sharper focus. This has put the environmentally aware backpacker in an awkward position – should you visit the reef, seeing it while it’s still alive but contributing more carbon into the atmosphere all the while, or should you save those emissions and leave it be?

Happily there is a case for visiting the reef, even for the most emission-minded individuals. There are conservation-first companies who provide tours of the reef with the aim of doing the least harm possible, and who inject their profits back into its conservation. As long as you do your research and choose a responsible operator, you are able to both visit the reef and have a positive impact on its future.

The aforementioned team at Ocean Safari are a great example of this. You can see some of their great work in action below…

Flight travel in Australia

One of the biggest issues with sustainable travelling in Australia is the incredible distances that need to be covered. Driving from Adelaide to Perth is a whopping 2696km, with not much in between.

As a result, internal flights in Australia are popular, despite being what is likely the single biggest contributor to an individual’s carbon footprint. Avoiding flight travel is very difficult when touring Australia, but there are certainly ways to mitigate it.

One suggestion is to travel slower. Rather than bounce from destination to destination in a random order (ie. flying from Cairns to Perth to Sydney to Darwin to Adelaide), try traversing this huge continent in one direction, and seeing all there is to see in a destination before moving on to the next.

If you only have a small amount of time in Australia, try focusing on just one area for this trip – there’ll no doubt be loads to see there – and returning to a different area next time. It’s an incredibly diverse place, so there’s no harm in treating each state like its own country!

Offsetting your flights

In Australia, more than perhaps any other destination on earth, there’ll be times when you simply have to fly – not many travellers have the time and wherewithal to make that three day drive from Adelaide to Perth. But when you do need to take to the air, you should do so in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.

The solution? Offsetting your flights. Most airlines now offer the option to offset the carbon emissions of your journey, and will happily show you the appropriate accreditation that proves they’re holding up their end of the bargain. If your airline doesn’t offer such a service, or there’s a question mark over its legitimacy, use a third-party program like Co2.myclimate.

The most eco-friendly airline

The other option is to pick the best of the bad emission bunch. Research which of the available airlines will be the most eco-friendly, and go with them. While that might sound like a lot of work, and indeed would’ve been in the past, Skyscanner now has a handy emissions comparison feature:

Greener Choice - Sky Scanner
Sky Scanner – the Greener Choice

Road travel in Australia

Road tripping around Australia still emits carbon (if far less than flying), but there are ways to road trip a bit more sustainably. Being organised about your route to ensure you don’t drive unnecessary kilometres is a great first step, choosing a car that doesn’t chug petrol certainly helps (both the planet and your wallet), and you can also carpool with other travellers looking for lifts.

When on the road, try to avoid too much unnecessary plastic, and of course when you are camping (which is a perfectly sustainable way to live and travel!) be sure to clean up after yourself – take only photos, leave only footprints!

Meat culture in Australia

By many measures, the livestock industry is the planet’s largest contributor to global warming. Therefore one of the best ways to become more environmentally friendly – arguably the best way – is to reduce your meat intake. Whether that means that you become entirely vegan or make an effort to have vegetarian meals a few days a week – every little bit helps – decreasing our intake of animal products is hugely beneficial for the environment.

Unfortunately Australians have a bit of a reputation as meat addicts – to the tune of 112kg of the stuff per person each year. As such, many locals will scoff at the idea of a meatless barbie, particularly in places like Rockhampton, Queensland, which thrive on the beef industry.

But you shouldn’t let this perceived peer pressure stop you.

Being a vegan or vegetarian backpacker in Australia

Despite such a meaty reputation, Australia isn’t short of vegetarian options. It’s an incredibly multicultural place, with a similarly diverse range of cuisines on offer. Australia’s major cities have enjoyed decades of migration from all parts of Asia and the world, which has brought about a rich culinary mix of vegetarian-friendly feeds. Some of the best in the world can be found in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania. So if you have chosen a more sustainable diet, don’t despair; it’s pretty easy to eat vegetarian or even vegan And if you’re not vegan or vegetarian but are interested in switching to a more plant-based diet, Australia is a great place to do it.

While it’s simple in the city, it gets a bit more challenging – but by no means impossible – in the outback. Some outback roadhouses don’t have vegan options on the surface, but can generally put together a vegan meal made of sides like grilled vegetables and fries. In smaller outback stores there might not be so many vegan alternatives, but there will always be staples like pasta, tomato sauce, vegetables, beans and rice.

You definitely have to be a bit more creative in the rural areas of Australia, but generally it’s quite an easy country to travel in as a vegan – particularly if you’ve got a gas burner and can whip up your own meals. And remember, even if you want to be vegan but struggle in the outback, eating partially vegan is still a step in the right direction.

Alternatives to Farm Work

If you are vegan or vegetarian, you might not want to work on farms that are focused on animal agriculture. Luckily there are still plenty of ways you can accrue your 88 days of rural work and qualify for a second year visa… don’t forget that specified work for the 417 and 462 visas can include:

  • Plant cultivation
  • Fishing and pearling
  • Tree farming and felling
  • Mining
  • Construction

Eco-friendly hostels

Here’s 5 environmentally friendly backpacker hostels worth checking out:

Apollo Bay Eco YHA, Victoria

Designed from the ground up to be as energy efficient and sustainable as possible, this beautiful hostel could be considered the jewel in the (particularly green) YHA crown.

Habitat HQ, Melbourne

Located in St Kilda, Melbourne’s famous beachside suburb, Habitat HQ is the city’s first – and favourite – carbon neutral hostel.

Sydney Harbour YHA – The Rocks

Location – check. Quality – check. Sustainability – check and check. There’s no more complete a package in Australia than Sydney Harbour YHA.

Huon Bush Retreats, Tasmania

What’s better than carbon neutral? How about carbon positive? That’s exactly what this Tasmanian operation offers up!

Cycletrek Eco Accommodation, WA

An arm of a unique Western Australian bike shop, this remote escape shows off the Australia that is so worth protecting.

Conservation organisations with live-in volunteer programs

Conservation Volunteers Australia

With perhaps the widest range of live-in conservation opportunities in Australia, CVA gives you the opportunity to do all manner of work, be it planting trees, caring for animals or cleaning up ecosystems.

Bushcare Group

The Australian outback is one of the world’s most unique and precious wonders, and Bushcare aim to keep it that way by offering a wealth of rural volunteering opportunities.


The most famous name on this list, Greenpeace offer opportunities to volunteer both in-office and outback.

Marine Conservation Society

Surrounded by water, Australia has a special relationship with the ocean – one that you can help to maintain by volunteering with the Marine Conservation Society. 


Another famous name, WWF offers volunteering opportunities across the conservation spectrum, including some truly unforgettable experiences.

Travel destinations that fund sustainability projects

Philip Island Penguin Parade, Victoria

World leaders in not just penguin conservation, but of seals and coastal birds too, Phillip Island Nature Park rangers and local community groups work together to monitor, protect and rescue a number of native animal species, and offer up unique encounters with the wildlife.

Australia Zoo, QLD

The good work of Mr Irwin carries on through his family, who inject your ticket proceeds back into wildlife and wilderness conservation. This also just happens to be one of the best zoos in the world!

Daintree Discovery Centre, QLD

Every bit as historic and precious as its ocean neighbour – the Great Barrier Reef – the Daintree is the world’s oldest rainforest, having spent longer with dinosaurs than it has without them! With the help of your donations, the Daintree Discovery Centre does all it can to keep this stunning ecosystem thriving.

Earth Sanctuary World Nature Centre, NT

Located in the heart of Australia, Earth Sanctuary has managed to become a leader in sustainability. Enjoy the unique landscape and the clear air (perfect for star-gazing) in the knowledge that your proceeds are helping not just the area, but the planet as a whole.

Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, SA

Who knew sustainability could be so thrilling? Great white shark attack survivor Rodney Fox has a unique level of respect for these beautiful creatures, and has built his company to be as eco- and animal-friendly as possible.

Environmentally-friendly tour operators

Pumpkin Island Eco Retreat

Named Australia’s most sustainable hotel in 2018, you can enjoy a guilt-free stay on the Great Barrier Reef at Pumpkin, which offsets 150% of its carbon emissions.

Uluru Camel Tours

With a commitment to conserving both the environment and culture of the red centre, you can enjoy Australia’s most famous rock in sustainable style with Uluru Camel Tours.

Sydney Harbour Boat Tours

In 2019 Sydney’s oldest and most famous boat tour became EcoTourism Certified, thanks to its work in cutting emissions and waste, and conserving penguin habitats.

Barefoot Downunder

Based in Sydney, BFDU offer perfectly sustainable small group trips in the city and surrounds.

Groovy Grape Tours

Sometimes a backpacker has to treat themselves – in an eco-friendly way, of course. What better than a sustainable tour of the famous Barossa Valley Wine Region with the team at Groovy Grape?

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Australia

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a landmark or area of cultural, historical or scientific significance, which will (generally) have stricter controls on conservation, making these great places to visit for the environmentally-minded traveller. As of 2019 there are 20 such sites in Australia, including:

  • Fraser Island
  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Greater Blue Mountains
  • Kakadu National Park
  • Sydney Opera House
  • Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Melbourne
  • Tasmanian Wilderness
  • The Ningaloo Coast
  • Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
  • Wet Tropics of Queensland

Sustainable travel in Australia

While there are some challenges to eco-travel in Australia – many unique to the country – it is generally a good place to practice sustainable tourism. There is a strong green movement in Australia, and many businesses are very eco-minded. From the coast to the outback, the tourism industry is beginning to understand the need for harmony between the environment and our activity within it, and responsible businesses will continue to grow with the support of sustainably-minded tourists. Australia is a great place to try a more plant-based diet, and there are plenty of peaceful protests and campaigns that backpackers and locals alike can get involved in.

So come to Australia, enjoy a more sustainable backpacking trip, and do your bit to protect the natural wonders and rich heritage of this unique country. By doing so you’ll ensure that it’s around for backpackers like you to enjoy for a long time yet!