Traveling is a wonderful way to unwind, see spectacular sites and expand your cultural horizons. Whether you are walking on the beach or exploring a new city, tourism leaves an indelible footprint. Putting time and effort towards more sustainable travel can help mitigate negative environmental impacts.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism sectors outpaced the economic growth of the world’s GDP in 2018. That same year, the industry generated a record $8.8 trillion, 319 million jobs and 10.4 percent of all global economic activity.
For all of the positive growth it brings, travel also has an outsized negative global impact. A 2018 study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” found that between 2009 and 2013, tourism accounted for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The impact of travel goes beyond emissions. Because the tourism industry is such a global economic force, travelers can have a significant impact on the economic, social and cultural well-being of an area. No matter where you go, there are conscious choices you can make to travel more sustainably.
“Some destinations will have that more readily accessible, but if you are intentional about it you can minimize your impact and do good pretty much anywhere you go,” said Eytan Elterman, co-founder of Lokal Travel, Inc.
Fly sparingly and consciously
There’s no two ways about it: flying is bad for the environment. A National Geographic report outlining the carbon emitted for a trip from New York to Toronto using different transportation methods showed that the flight emitted nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide per passenger than the car ride. Air travel emits other harmful particulates to the atmosphere, like sulfates and nitrogen oxides, which have an outsized atmospheric impact at high altitudes.
In some cases — whether it is the destination or the specific needs of the passenger — flying is unavoidable. If you have to fly, choose your flight wisely. Meghan Aftosmis, senior PR and media network lead at Impact Travel Alliance, said that some airlines, like Norwegian Air, have invested in newer, more fuel-efficient planes. You can also check the type of plane before you purchase tickets using search engines like Seat Guru.
“Newer aircraft are more fuel efficient,” “Direct flights are better in terms of reducing emissions as well.”
When you buy your flights, consider purchasing carbon offsets, which allocate funds to carbon reduction programs like forest conservation and renewable energy.
“Seek out ways to offset the emissions from your travel,” said Kim McCabe, U.S. public relations manager for G Adventures, Inc. “Organizations like Sustainable Travel International can help you do that.”
Choose sustainable travel and transport options
If possible, opt for carbon-friendly alternatives to flying, like train travel, or other unconventional transportation options that have even less of an impact.
“Increasingly number of tours offered on sailboats,” McCabe said. “They’re wind powered. That’s extremely sustainable.”
After you arrive at your destination, try to use your car as little as possible.
“Use the power of your own feet,” McCabe said. “Hiking, cycling and other physical activities — again, that’s less carbon that you’re using to get around.”
Or, become familiar with the local bus or train system.
“Once you’re in a destination, public transportation is always the best way to go, and it helps you connect with the local people,” Aftosmis said.
Say no to plastic
When we are away from home, it is easy to seek out quick, disposable dining options. Make the conscious choice to allocate luggage space for eco-friendly products, and inform establishments (even airlines) that you will be using your own bottles, bags, containers and cutlery.
“Don’t forget your reusable water bottle, reusable tote bag and, if you can, straws and reusable silverware,” Aftosmis said. “Those things come in handy.”
Depending on your destination, you may buy water in plastic bottles to avoid getting sick from drinking water contamination.
“That’s a valid concern,” McCabe said. “We advise bring a reusable water bottle and seek out hotels and restaurants with filtered water where you can refill.”
Aside from choosing local restaurants, you can dine more sustainably by picking local ingredients and dishes.
“A lot of tourists want to go to their comfort foods,” said Caitie Goddard, co-founder of GOOD Travel. “[Consider] the amount of carbon of getting a hamburger in Fiji, where there is amazing fish and vegetables. It’s discouraging locals from cooking and celebrating their incredible local food. Be open-minded, if your needs permit.”
Travel during the off season
Whether it is due to school vacations or beautiful weather, travelers often flock to certain locations at the same time. These busy months can stress local businesses and infrastructure as the number of people demanding limited services increases significantly.
“Be mindful of the time of year you travel,” Goddard said. “[Going to] certain areas in the summer months really stresses the local communities.”
Some travel agencies, like Off Season Adventures, will help you plan trips at more opportune times for the communities you are visiting — and your pocketbook.
“There will be fewer tourists and more affordable pricing, so it’s a benefit to the traveler as well as the destination,” Aftosmis said.
Consider animal welfare
One of the most exciting aspects of traveling to new locales is the opportunity to see flora and fauna that you do not find on a daily basis in your yard at home. Respecting wildlife, however, is essential to ensuring it will be there for future generations.
“Animals are not for our pleasure and our recreation,” McCabe said. “While it’s exciting to get a selfie with a monkey or an elephant, keep your distance. Never feed them.”
If you can, opt for experiences that show animals in the wild, sanctuaries or preserves instead of kept in captivity. Avoid certain wildlife experiences all together for the sake of the animals’ well-being.
“As a general rule, you shouldn’t be riding on elephants or swimming with dolphins,” Aftosmis said. Research shows that these experiences can cause psychological duress and physical harm to the animals involved.
Research sustainable travel guides, tour operators and accommodations
The options for tour guides and hotels seem limitless when you are traveling. Checking a company’s website for information about their efforts towards sustainability is a good way to pick the best option.
“Always go to the website of the company,” McCabe said. “Read about their practices on their website. Usually you can find this in the ‘About’ section. If they’re making this information too hard to find, it’s a red flag.”
McCabe also said to consider the broader definition of sustainability when investigating a company’s bonafides.
“Make sure that you do a little investigating,” she said. “Some say, ‘We avoid washing towels every day to reduce water.’ Well, that’s great, but are you employing local people?”
Such scrutiny is especially important for wildlife experiences.
“Learn more about the way that they’re interacting with animals,” Aftosmis advised. “Sometimes, they have conservation relationships, like relationships with scientists.”
Travel with a sustainable travel agency
Travel agencies with an eye towards ethical and sustainable travel like G Adventures, Lokal Travel and GOOD Travel will do the research for you. Just like when looking for a sustainable tour guide or hotel, though, be choosy and scrutinize the website.
“What travelers should look for is transparency,” Goddard said. “Read the language on the website [and make sure it’s] not just lip service. They should give examples of how they’re positively impacting the tourist industry.”
Try a staycation
Staying local is one of the best ways to have a low-carbon holiday that contributes to a community you already love: your own.
“I highly encourage staycations,” Goddard said. “When it comes to environmental impacts, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
To make a staycation feel like an adventure, Goddard recommended planning activities that you do not normally do.
“To really make a staycation feel like you’re on holiday is to intentionally plan something that you wouldn’t do every weekend, like taking a hike or a bike ride” she advised. “Pack stuff for the weekend, turn off your phone and choose to make it a more intentional weekend.”
Goddard said to look to local newspapers or visitors bureaus for staycation ideas.
“I would say your local newspapers and websites that are supporting the region are always great places [because they are] good at trying to feature things that are happening,” she said. “You can also look at local tourism organizations.”
Depending on where you live, there may be travel agencies that help you plan the perfect staycation, too.
“I recommend Urban Adventures,” Goddard said. “They support local communities, do great work in areas they represent and are environmentally-friendly. They’ll help you see your city in a different way.”
Goddard said that one of the most important considerations when reducing your travel impact is not to feel shame about things you have done in the past. She said to recognize when you make good choices, and make an effort to do more in the future.
“It’s about educating and appreciating when people try to do things better,” Goddard said. “The worst thing you can do to change behavior is to shame. It’s about encouragement.”