We as travellers made over 1.3 billion international trips in 2018 and by 2030, it will be nearly 2 billion*. We are clearly not going to stop travelling – for work, for rest or for play – but we also clearly need to act NOW to help sustain our planet. How might we embrace or indeed go beyond sustainable travel so we effect real change for ourselves, others and our planet?
First up, decide where you stand on the thorny issue of flying. For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from Europe to Asia creates a warming effect equivalent to 5 tons of carbon dioxide per person flying economy. From Europe to New York, its 2.3 tons in economy class and 4.4 tons in business class. The average European, generates 10 tons of carbon dioxide a year and the average American generates about 19 tons. When it comes to sustainable tourism, travel using fossil fuels isn’t good for the environment and needs to be genuinely and urgently curbed. But benign human interaction in other places can be a force for good, and often the only way to achieve this is by short and long haul travel. Most eco travellers, benign business people, governments who seek to do good and green campaigners are not going to stop flying. The trick is to fly less, and when you do fly, make it count by giving back. Do your research when it comes to carbon offsetting – it’s seen by some as just another way for humans to avoid doing anything at all about climate change.
Next, where do you travel to? It’s a good idea to avoid travelling to countries that violate the human rights. There are more than 90 of these in the world, many of which are tempting holiday destinations which are not deemed dangerous for travellers. Many advise it’s probably a good idea instead to choose countries that care for our trips – those that are doing their best to help sustain people and our planet.
Trouble is, with the exception of Canada, this means taking our trips to countries in Europe and avoiding the more exotic, further-flung places that some of us might associate with ‘real travel’. Not only might this become tiresome, but when it comes to sustainability, we’re no longer just talking about saving trees, oceans and animals, but saving people and whole communities too – most especially all the hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world (and those exotic countries) who live in poverty and/or who rely on tourism and the travel industry for their main source of income.
So we do need to keep travelling to these more exotic places – but to make our trips count when we do. This means making our flight count, choosing ethical tour operators, buying local when we’re on the ground, and having the courage to stand up and speak out when we do see unethical practices. We also need to stay in genuinely sustainable hotels (asking them oodles of questions before we book), and even move beyond the concept of green hotels by continually pointing out to them what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and making suggestions of what they could be doing better, all in the name of sustainability and sustainable travel.
We also need to remember that some of the most beautiful, unusual places on earth are hugely affected by conditions created by climate change. From the Great Barrier Reef to Madagascar, from the Arctic to the Maldives, many destinations are disappearing, and we need to put pressure on the travel industry and governments to step up and protect these environments for the good of all.
Over-tourism, and travelling at peak times has also damaged many a destination. We need to be mindful of where we go, consider off season travel as an alternative, and support and salute those countries that have stepped up and taken control of the situation. These include The Galápagos Islands, who now regulate their tourist industry, and Bhutan, whose ‘low volume, high-value’ tourism policy has helped the country to thrive.
In many ways, we’re already heading towards a more sustainable travelling future simply by making sensible choices that save money, avoid huge crowds and offer us more exciting travel experiences. Australian-based travel trend experts and tour operators Intrepid Travel have noted that for 2018 many of us are planning to travel off-season to save the money incurred by the insane cost of flights and hotels during peak holiday times, and to travel to less predictable destinations to avoid the crowds. So we’re happy to head to a ski resort in the summer to enjoy flowers and sunshine instead of snow; and to Moldova instead of Tuscany, or to Portland instead of New York, to see something different.
They also add we are all feeling the pull toward more adventure – to destinations where we can immerse ourselves in a local culture and an experience rather than staying put in a hotel that looks just like all the other hotels we have stayed in before. In all these ways, one sustainable choice fuels another. Let’s keep making those sustainable choices and make more of them.
* Quote from United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).