Sustainable travel: four smart ways to make a positive impact

Inspired by Greta Thunberg? You can take practical steps to limit your environmental impact while travelling

Even if you strive for a sustainable lifestyle at home, it may be tempting to avoid thinking about the effect your travels could have on the environment. No one wants to feel guilty on holiday.

But the effects travelling has on the environment are significant. A study published last year by the University of Sydney found that global tourism accounts for eight per cent of total carbon emissions, three times higher than previously thought.

“As global travel is becoming cheaper and more accessible, the usage of aeroplanes, cruise ships, trains and buses is increasing and giving off a tremendous amount of carbon and other harmful substances,” said Samantha Bray, managing director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit organisation that supports sustainable tourism practices.

However, being a sustainable, or green, traveller – one who considers the impact travel has on both the physical and the cultural environments visited – is not as inconvenient as it may seem. Here are some practical steps travellers can take to limit the potential harm that comes from exploring the world.


Hit the rails

How you choose to reach your destination may be the single most important decision when it comes to your trip’s environmental impact.

According to the European Environment Agency, aircraft produce 13 per cent of all greenhouse gases generated from transportation in the European Union. Emissions from cars and other vehicles account for an even greater total percentage.

If where you’re heading is accessible by train, consider taking one. “It’s a great way to see a destination and has a much lower carbon impact than flying,” said Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, a travel booking agency that specialises in sustainable tourism.

Avoiding flying altogether is often not an option for travellers, but the idea is to eliminate unnecessary flights when possible. “Shorter flights and stopovers are more polluting per passenger-mile than longer flights as take off and landings generate a significant part of the total emissions per flight,” Francis said. “Try and avoid internal flights within a destination – use local public transport where possible and travel on foot or by bike to explore smaller areas.”

Other ideas include taking fewer but longer holidays and flying direct as often as possible.

Stay in sustainable lodging

Where you choose to sleep at night also plays a key role in being a green traveller. This part requires some legwork and research, however.

“Hotel sustainability practices have grown tremendously in recent years, especially through certification programs that follow international best-practice standards,” Bray said.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) recognises certification programmes for hotels and tour operators, Bray said. Travellers can visit its site to see lists of these programmes, which include The Rainforest Alliance and Earth Check, and hotels that are accredited will typically show a GSTC certification logo on their own websites and marketing materials.

But hotels that are not officially recognised for their green efforts can still be sustainable, which is why you should inquire with a hotel you’re considering before you book. “Always ask your holiday provider for their responsible tourism policy – if they don’t have one then they are not taking it seriously and you may want to reconsider,” Francis said.

Key aspects to look for in a responsible tourism policy include environmental, social and local economic effects, from waste, water and energy. You should also look for the hotel’s commitment to its local community and the fair employment of local people, Francis said.

Respect your hosts

“As soon as you remember that you are visiting people’s homes, and see them as hosts rather than homogeneous holiday providers, you become more responsible tourists,” Francis said.

Bray suggests following the mantra of "leave no trace"when visiting a destination, as the creation of solid waste – particularly plastic – has significant environmental effects. "Travellers can help reduce their waste production by carrying their own reusable bags, straws, utensils, and takeaway containers," Bray said.

Tourists can also choose to spend their money with businesses that source locally. “This may be through eating locally grown foods or purchasing locally produced handicrafts. Often times, making the more sustainable and locally beneficial choice is actually more enriching,” Bray said.

When visiting a destination that is facing a specific issue, whether it’s an environmental crisis like a water shortage or an economic hardship, consider ways you can contribute to the community, and enjoy your trip while enriching the place that’s enriching you. However, not every approach is a good one.

“Sometimes giving back while travelling can have unintended consequences,” Bray said, like increasing communities’ dependence on tourism or charity, or channelling work away from locals and to seasonal workers.

Bray suggests contacting the ministry of tourism for the destination to find out how to best support the issue. You can also ask your hotel or tour operator if they have recommendations for how to best get involved.

Know your tour operator

Some tour companies are better than others regarding environmental conservation, protecting wildlife, supporting cultural heritage and employing local guides. In general, choose operators that are transparent about their support for the communities they visit.

“Many are doing this very well, even becoming carbon neutral, and now have responsible travel policies that guide how they interact with and support communities,” Bray said.

If a tour company is not clear about its policy, ask them directly if they employ locals and how else they connect with the community. There are also nonprofit advocacy groups like The International Ecotourism Society that require their member organisations to follow sustainable tourism practices.

On wildlife tours, “feeding, touching and any altering of natural behaviour should never take place,” Francis said. “If you’re encouraged to do any of these things on your trip then we would advise reporting tour operators who encourage this kind of behaviour and holding them to account on social media or review sites if needs be.” – New York Times