There’s no doubt that tourism has a big effect on the environment. Tourism is blamed for about 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, and it may also have other negative effects on the environment and society. What should tourists do?
Even though the problems with travel that isn’t good for the environment are well-known, I think things are getting better, knock on wood.
Even though some changes are slow, it’s getting easier to travel in ways that are better for the environment. As travellers, we now have more ways to reduce our impact on the environment, and more tourism businesses are making the changes they need to make to reduce their carbon footprint.
I know that this might make me sound like I have no hope. In the news, especially about climate change, there has been a lot of bad news, which I think is fair. In fact, a few years ago, if you had asked me, I probably would have said that humanity is about 90% doomed. But some things are getting better, so I think we are now, oh, maybe 75% screwed?
This is good news! I am a “glass-quarter-full (maybe?)” type of person.
I’m joking (a little), but since there is already so much bad news to think about, I think it’s worth taking a more positive look at how we can travel in ways that are better for the environment. Now is a great time to think about this issue, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to an end and new possibilities are opening up.
I think that governments and businesses are mostly to blame for the mess we’re in, but I also think that consumer choice and support can help. In this spirit, here are some ways travellers can make less of an impact.
1. Choosing better flights
Aviation is a big source of carbon emissions, and it is hard to make it more environmentally friendly right now for many reasons.
This makes it clear that flying is one of the biggest problems with sustainability in the tourism industry.
I don’t know about you, but when I take a long-distance flight, I always feel a little bit guilty because, in a relative sense, it makes a lot of pollution. I often hear from other travellers that they share my feelings.
But not every flight gives off the same amount of carbon. So, as travellers, we can choose a flight with less pollution and make a difference.
It’s a lot easier to make smart decisions about how flights affect the environment now. For example, if you search for flights on Google Flights, you will see an estimate of how much CO2 each flight will produce.
You can also tell Google Flights to only show flights with “low emissions.” (You can find it in the flight overview under the “Emissions” button.)
Google says that these calculations are based on a number of things, such as “the distance of a trip, the number of stops, the number and class of seats on board, the type of aircraft, and data from the European Environment Agency.”
Most of the time, direct flights are better because most emissions come from taking off and landing. The type of plane is also a big factor, since fuel-efficient planes put out less CO2 than old planes that use a lot of fuel.
Having more information about a flight’s carbon footprint is certainly a good thing. It not only helps us travellers make better decisions, but this kind of openness (and our support) can also encourage airlines to reduce their impact on the environment.
2. Travelling overland
We talk a lot about how bad flying is for the environment, but not enough about how good travelling by land is.
Particularly low-carbon is rail, which is just mind-blowing. In fact, high-speed rail is the best way to get from one place to another… by a long shot.
For starters, it uses very little energy per passenger. Energy, by Vaclav Smil, says that a French TGV can move people around with less than 0.4 MJ/p-km. I’ve been reading very nerdy books (the energy used per passenger per kilometre). For jet planes, this number is about 2 MJ/p-km.
That’s a huge improvement of five times, and that’s just the base efficiency. When carbon emissions are taken into account, the difference is much bigger.
From ThisWorldInData, here are some numbers:
Based on data from the UK government, this chart shows that taking the Eurostar high-speed train is 42.5 times (!) better for the environment than flying domestically. That’s CRAZY!
This makes me wonder: why don’t we talk more about how amazing high-speed rail is?
People should be praised for the good things about travelling by land instead of being scolded for flying, unless they’re being especially wasteful. I fly a lot, but when I can, I also take other forms of transportation. I think many travellers are like me in this way.
So, it’s great news that there are more ways to travel by land. In Europe, rail is even going through something of a renaissance right now. Everywhere you look, you can find new high-speed rail and international (overnight) connections. It’s also getting easier to book tickets, but the prices are often still higher than those of budget airlines.
Even though I know the numbers, I can’t say that I’m 42.5 times more likely to take the train. Flying is often a better and more practical choice. But knowing how well trains work makes me even more glad to take them whenever I can.
3. Staying in eco-accommodation
Another way to help the environment is to stay in places that care about how much water and energy they use, how they get rid of trash, where their food comes from, and other things like that.
It’s great that more hotels, hostels, and eco-lodges are putting an emphasis on sustainability.
But where do you look?
Really, sometimes it works to just look for places that have an eco or hippie vibe. Most of the time, you can learn a lot from the pictures or descriptions. Maybe the place has solar panels or serves breakfast with vegetables from the garden, or maybe it just seems like it cares about the environment. There are also many booking sites that can help you find eco-lodges or eco-resorts.
But not all places that care about sustainability make it so clear. That’s why it’s great to use search filters.
For example, Booking.com just started giving hotels a “green” badge. This badge is based on different measures related to waste, energy, greenhouse gases, water, helping local communities, and protecting nature. You might not notice it, but these places are marked as “Travel Sustainable properties.”
This label is included in the list, but you can also use filters to find them:
Self-assessment surveys are used to decide who gets the badge, so I guess that’s not the most foolproof method. But a property that says it’s sustainable but isn’t would probably get bad reviews, so I think this badge is helpful.
Since more and more travellers care about the environment, some places to stay are making changes just to get this kind of recognition. I found this post from a homestay organisation that talked about how they got their Booking.com badge by putting in solar microgrids, solar water heaters, eco-toilets, and making sure that the food for their guests comes from nearby.
Google Travel or Google Mapquest Directions have also just started using its own eco-certified badge. It is given to hotels that have been “certified as environmentally sustainable by a third-party organisation that Google recognises.” We hope that more travel sites will do the same.
Even though I haven’t used them, there are sites like Nature.house and Ecobnb that let you book eco-friendly places to stay. These sites give 1 to 5 leaves based on a number of eco-friendly criteria.
Your search for and support of eco-friendly lodging can help bring about change in the lodging industry. The more people who stay in these eco-friendly places, the more of them there will be.
4. Supporting ecotourism
Another way to make a difference is through ecotourism. Even if you spend some of your travel money on ecotourism, your trip may still have a negative effect on the environment as a whole. However, ecotourism is very important for protecting nature and preserving biodiversity.
The more ecotourism I’ve done around the world, the more I’m interested in it.
Ecotourism is any kind of travel that helps the environment and the people who live there. People often think of safaris as the first example, but there are many others. I also think of scuba diving, watching whales, hiking, rock climbing, and canyoning as ecotourism, as long as they are done in a responsible way.
In the past few years, many of my experiences have shown me how much ecotourism can help people live off of nature instead of destroying it. For example, I met some park rangers in Cambodia when I went on a wildlife tour there a few years ago. Before the local ecotourism project started, many of them were actually loggers and poachers. They were happy that they could now make a living by protecting nature instead of taking advantage of it, and most of their money came from tourists.
Some people will say that ecotourism is “hypocritical” if you have to fly a long way to get there. After all, how can ecotourism help the environment if your flight is bad for it?
But I don’t think that shows the whole picture. We can’t solve all of the world’s problems at once, and ecotourism needs our help very much. Even though there is still time to make aviation more environmentally friendly, it seems more important to protect the wilderness and wildlife we still have.
The global lockdowns caused by the pandemic showed how important this source of income is in many places, like national parks. National Geographic, among other places, wrote a lot about it.
So, I think it’s great if you want to fly to Costa Rica to see sloths and monkeys. In fact, Costa Rica’s forests have been growing for a long time thanks to money from ecotourism.
When we look at things from a long-term perspective, the nature we protect today can be the start of regrowth in the future, once other problems with sustainability are hopefully solved. In some parts of the world, this idea has already led to rewilding projects.
Adding ecotourism activities or tours to your itinerary definitely helps bring about change, helps pay for nature conservation, and encourages local communities to focus on sustainability.
5. Choosing electric
Even though trains have a small effect on the environment, electric cars are another option that could be used. It’s hard to believe how fast electric cars have gone from almost nothing to the future.
Even though there aren’t that many EVs on the road yet in 2022, it’s safe to say that gas and diesel cars are now officially ancient dinosaurs of technology. It’s only a matter of time before they are replaced. This is good news for people who want to travel in a more eco-friendly way.
Soon, you’ll be able to easily rent an electric car for your next vacation. Last year, Hertz was the first to start the trend by announcing that it would buy 100,000 Tesla cars that would be available for rent over the next few years.
But wait, is that really something good?
Some people still don’t believe that electric cars are better for the environment and argue against it. I’ve learned a lot about this subject (for things other than this blog), and the answer is yes, they are better.
Some companies, like the ones that still make those old cars, try to spread doubt and confusion, but EVs are better for sure. There’s no question that making them causes a bit more CO2 to be released, but their high efficiency quickly makes up for this.
Even if you use electricity from a dirty coal plant instead of clean, renewable energy to power an EV, it’s still a step up. In a typical gasoline-powered car, only about 25% of the energy from the fuel is used to move the car. The rest is lost as heat. That’s kinda nuts! EVs don’t have to worry about this.
EVs also need less maintenance, last much longer, and almost all of their batteries can be recycled when they die. I like what I hear.
Electric cars are mostly found in developed countries, so if you’re travelling in Sri Lanka or Bolivia, it won’t help you much right now. But I can’t wait to rent an electric vehicle and see more of them on the road around the world.
Every time you see one, it means that things are getting better.
Just watch the great series The Long Way Up to see that it’s already possible to drive around the world in electric cars. In this documentary, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman ride electric motorbikes and drive electric cars all the way from the southern tip of Argentina to Los Angeles.
They did have to put in some of their own charging points in order to finish this journey, but they left these for other travellers to use.
In the future, it will be as easy to find a place to charge your electric car as it is to find a gas station. Using electric cars will speed up this wave of change and reduce the amount of pollution caused by transportation around the world.
6. Reducing waste
This point is so obvious that it probably doesn’t need much explanation: wasting money or travelling too much is not a good way to live.
For example, if you take long showers during your trip, it will add to the demand for resources, especially in a place where water is scarce. Using a water bottle that can be refilled is also much better than always using single-use plastic bottles. In tropical countries, where you might go through several bottles a day, this can add up quickly.
These are just two examples; I’m sure you can think of more.
I think the idea of not wasting as much can be applied to the whole trip. Taking three separate weekend trips by plane is a waste of money compared to going somewhere by plane and staying there for a week. If you take the average of all the days you travel, the amount of waste you make will be less if you take longer and slower trips.
You might be able to stay at your destination longer and do more if you combine your trips or use the option to work from home.
7. Compensating your emissions
Last but not least, you can make up for the CO2 your trip caused. This will pay for things like planting trees or putting up solar panels. You’ve probably heard of these kinds of offsetting programmes, but they aren’t without their critics.
When it seemed like there wasn’t much else you could do, I was in favour of offsets, but a lot has changed in the past few years. Now, I worry that consumers buying offsets will let companies off the hook and make them less likely to switch to more environmentally friendly options. Some of these offsets may also not work as well as they say they do.
Now, I think it might be better to choose companies that have promised to offset CO2 emissions for every single customer (while they switch to more environmentally friendly methods) than to leave it up to each person to do it on their own.
Even if offsets don’t have a clear effect, you can make up for your own emissions in more direct ways. It’s already pretty easy to choose to eat less meat, get your electricity from renewable sources, or give money to organisations that work to protect nature. If you want to invest, you can choose funds that don’t waste energy like bitcoin.
When it’s time to vote, you can choose to vote for political parties that have strong policies for the environment. This may be the best “offset” you can make.
A sustainable future for travel?
Overall, I think that sustainability has come a long way in the last five years. As I said, I might be the type of person who sees the half-full glass.
It’s probably not realistic to think that every traveller will be a strict purist about how their trip affects the world. It’s hard to do everything in a sustainable way, unless you choose to walk everywhere and never use any kind of vehicle. But I do think that if each traveller makes a few small changes and chooses more carefully, it can add up to a big change.
I don’t know what travel will be like in the future. Maybe one day we’ll fly around in planes that run on hydrogen, or maybe we’ll have to completely change the way we travel internationally. I do think that, for now, everyone can help by choosing to travel in ways that are easier on the environment, better for the destination, and often more fun as well.
Do you think about sustainability when you plan your trips? In the comments below, you can tell us what you think. And if I got any facts wrong, please let me know if you know more.