With its rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning natural landscapes, Portugal has become an increasingly popular destination, which means it’s never been more urgent to make sure sustainable tourism in Portugal is at the top of everyone’s agenda.
As a Portugal travel planner, consultant and blogger, I aim to encourage my clients and readers to visit in an enjoyable yet sustainable way. This is not just about protecting the environment but also respecting and supporting local communities.
When planning your trip to Portugal, here are some ways to make your impact a positive one all round, from choosing suppliers with sustainable tourism certifications, to keeping it local or carefully considering the best time to travel to Portugal.
Many of my suggestions apply not just for Portugal travel but for trips anywhere.
1. How to choose eco-friendly accommodation
One of the best ways to practise sustainable eco tourism in Portugal is to choose eco-friendly and responsible accommodations.
Many hotels and guesthouses, not only in Portugal but around the world, have implemented sustainable tourism practices such as using renewable energy, recycling systems and reducing water consumption.
Some hotels even have their own organic kitchen gardens or source their food from local producers, reducing their carbon footprint and supporting the local economy.
You can find a growing number of eco-lodges, glamping sites, and sustainable farm stays that all aim to offer a unique and eco-friendly travel experience. However, you don’t have to go rural to find lodgings that protect the environment. City-based hotels are doing their bit too.
One of my accommodation partners, Booking.com, has introduced an internationally-recognised and independently-vetted Travel Sustainable Programme. This is not just a greenwashing vanity scheme.
For a hotel or guesthouse to become a part of this programme, they must demonstrate that they are making a positive impact in 5 key areas: waste, energy and greenhouse gases, water, supporting local communities and protecting nature. If they can prove this, they can display the Travel Sustainable Badge on their booking page (just below the accommodation type section).
Clicking on the ‘Read More’ link shows you in more detail what exactly the property does to enhance sustainability.
You can filter your search to show only Travel Sustainable properties, making it easier to feel confident in your selection.
If you book your stay via my special link(s), you’ll also be indirectly contributing to environmental projects – as a proud 1% for the Planet Business Member, I am committed to giving at least 1% of my revenue to vetted organisations.
2. How to be a more responsible traveller in general
As well as choosing sustainable accommodations, there are other things you can do to reduce your negative impact as a visitor to Portugal, or anywhere else.
Most guests are used to following the basic sustainable hotel protocols such as flushing the toilet properly, i.e. half flush when possible, or leaving towels on the hook to be used again instead of replaced every day.
However, there are extra things you can do to reduce your impact on the environment.
- When planning your itinerary, if possible stay in one accommodation for multiple nights, thus saving on luggage transportation and laundry.
- Save paper by downloading tickets and using apps instead of printing them out.
- The tap water in Portugal is perfectly drinkable so a refillable bottle is a must have.
- Stay on marked trails when in the countryside, especially in protected areas, to avoid damaging the local wildlife.
- It should go without saying that you take your litter with you or dispose of it in the correct recycling bins provided.
- Never disregard fire warnings. Portugal suffers from severe forest fires every year, most of which are caused by human activities. Tossing cigarette butts from car windows or having an outdoor barbecue in unauthorised areas are big no no’s.
- Consider taking small group van tours instead of private ones to reduce your carbon footprint.
- Use Ecosia as your default search engine (install a Chrome extension) and plant a tree for every web search you make.
3. How to choose sustainable tours
There are many things you’ll want to take into consideration when choosing the right tour for your trip (group size, accessibility, etc.) but you can also check to see if the tour operator follows sustainability guidelines. Admittedly, ecotourism in Portugal is a work in progress and such information is not always readily available but we’re getting there, slowly!
To make your role as a responsible traveller easier, tour booking platform Get Your Guide offers some eco-certified activities that have been vetted by third-party sustainability certification agencies.
Many of these agencies use criteria from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to evaluate which tours providers meet global standards for sustainability. These measures include Effective Sustainable Management, Social and Economic Issues, Environment and Cultural Heritage.
For the tours that meet this criteria, you’ll see the green eco-certified logo situated just below the images.
Other tour operators mention that they use an eco-catamaran, for example, or other such earth-friendly methods, but these may not be verified or certified yet.
If you’re booking directly with a tour operator, dig around on their website to check their policies around Responsible or Sustainable travel. These can often be found in their About section or the bottom of the page. You could even email them if you can’t find this information – it may prompt them to take action.
4. How to travel around Portugal sustainably
The rail network is very good in Portugal, relatively cheap and, if you’re moving between large towns or cities, these are fairly straightforward journeys.
I strongly advise you to only use the official rail website, Comboios de Portugal, to book tickets, rather than third party sites which may or not be legit. There’s an English version and if you book well in advance (up to 60 days before the date of travel), the tickets are often cheaper.
Unfortunately, much of the inland rail network fell into disuse many years ago and lines have been ripped up, or made into cycle paths, such as the Ecopista do Dão in Central Portugal. It’s a gorgeous route but the closing of lines also means that train travel simply isn’t possible to many parts of the country.
The other main forms of public transport are the network of national and regional bus routes. Most areas are well catered for and costs can be considerably lower than train fares. However, if you can book your train tickets well in advance, as I mentioned above, there’s not much price difference and the train is usually quicker.
Long-distance buses have luggage holds and will either have a toilet on board or make stops during the journey for a comfort break.
It’s important to note that local bus services, both rural and urban, are scheduled around schools and workdays so services can be severely limited at the weekend, evenings and during school and public holidays. Factor this into your planning as you may need to use an alternative means of transport.
Renting a car, of course, does give you greater freedom to explore the off the beaten track parts of Portugal. Options to hire either full electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles are increasing but they are not the norm. They are therefore more expensive and may be in short supply at certain times of the year.
Charging points are not yet an integral part of Portugal’s infrastructure although this is improving all the time. There are apps that will help you plan your journey successfully, such as ABRP. However, if you’re travelling extensively in rural areas, I wouldn’t yet risk a fully electric vehicle as there won’t be many charging points around.
Discovercars and Rentalcars are car hire booking platforms that make it easy for you to find alternatives to the usual fuel-driven cars if you wish. Simply filter your search for Zero emission, electric or hybrid vehicles, depending on your needs.
If you decide to use a petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicle for whatever reason, consider offsetting your carbon footprint, or learning more about how to reduce it. Several car rental companies provide carbon offset schemes at checkout but you can also use an independent service provider that allows you to factor in your other activities, at home and abroad, and offset in bulk. I’m using Carbon Footprint TM.
Use your feet!
Portugal has many beautiful walking and cycling trails that allow you to explore the countryside while reducing your carbon footprint, as well as being a perfect way to keep healthy!
There are countless walks in Portugal to choose from, whether you want to spend less than half a day on a trail or over a week walking from village to village.
5. How to support local businesses and communities
Supporting local businesses is an important aspect of sustainable tourism in Portugal. By choosing to eat at local restaurants, preferably ones that source local produce; staying in locally-owned accommodations instead of international chain hotels; and purchasing souvenirs from local artisans instead of cheap imported tat from city shops, you can help to support the local economy.
This in turn will encourage more people to stay in, move to and be part of a thriving community instead of migrating to over-populated cities and turning villages into ghost towns. You’ll also be reducing the environmental impact of your travel in many ways.
One of my trusted partners for walking and cycling holidays operates in the rural north of Portugal where they have strong ties to the people and places. Their programmes value local providers and facilitate genuine, mutually respectful connections, encouraging visitors to seek out authentic experiences and products. Working with such a tour operator makes it easy for you to be a responsible traveller.
6. How to take part in conservation efforts in Portugal
There are several conservation organisations in Portugal that offer opportunities for tourists to get involved. From working in a wolf sanctuary to tree planting, there are many ways in which you can contribute to the preservation of Portugal’s natural resources and leave a positive impact on the places you visit.
Take a look at these volunteering opportunities to see what type of activities you could get involved in.
7. Travel out of season
The summer holiday months of July and August see a massive influx of visitors to Portugal, especially to coastal areas. May, June and September are also very popular months. The resulting pressure on local infrastructure is huge.
For locals trying to go about their daily lives, having their town or city overrun with tourists can be frustrating and interfere with their already overloaded schedules.
There are many small businesses that would be more than happy for your custom at quieter times of the year, when things are less hectic and income less bountiful. You’ll also benefit from cheaper accommodation prices and shorter queues!
I also find that the cooler months are more comfortable for sightseeing and wandering around towns and cities. Don’t let the chance of a little rain put you off – there are plenty of indoor activities to keep you entertained.
Learn more about the best time to visit Portugal in this article.
8. Swap the tourist hotspots for calmer destinations
The streets of downtown Lisbon and Porto, as well as other key destinations in Portugal, are bursting with tourists during busy months. While there are important sights in these places, you could consider basing yourself in alternative locations and using public transport to visit the major cities.
For example, instead of staying in Porto, you could use Matosinhos, Vila do Conde or Braga as a base. An alternative to Lisbon might be Santarém or Vila Franca de Xira to the north or Setúbal to the south.
It’s also important to know that the Algarve is not the only place where you’ll find amazing beaches, nor is Sintra the only destination for palaces. With a little research, or insider recommendations, you can have all the experiences you want without having to travel very far.