Estimates suggest that the travel sector accounts for approximately 8% of carbon emissions — a number that is expected to grow by about 4% every year. Airplanes are notorious polluters, and hotels use gallons and gallons of water for guest rooms, pools, laundry, and landscaping. And while travelers have plenty of opportunities to make sustainable choices while on vacations abroad, there are many factors beyond our control.
So, in light of this, can we ever claim that travel is truly environmentally friendly? Yes and no.
The reality is that nearly everything we do has some impact on the environment — the question is to what extent. Much of the debate comes down to the choices that we make.
Unless you’re walking or riding your bicycle (which, let’s be honest, isn’t the case for most vacationers), your method of transportation from point A to point B is going to generate some emissions — and there’s little you can do to control that. A single round-trip flight between New York and California generates about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that the average car emits in a whole year. However, flying less, non-stop, and mainly for long-distance trips can help, since airplanes burn less fuel during cruising than during take-offs and landings.
When flying is unavoidable, many airlines and other organizations offer passengers an opportunity to offset their carbon emissions. In most cases, this comes in the form of a donation to a sustainability program, like a wind farm, tree planting, or conservation efforts.
When you’re traveling within your destination, walk as much as possible. In addition to being as eco-friendly as you can get, walking often gives you an entirely different perspective of the place you’re visiting — it’s offers so much more of a local feel than speeding through with a car. If you need to travel a little further, consider opting for public transportation (depending where you are, this can be a real adventure!).
If you want to minimize your impact on the environment, it’s also best to avoid cruising (unless it’s on a small sailboat or catamaran). Taking a cruise triples your carbon footprint, and cruise lines have come under fire for discarding trash, sewage, and fuel directly into the ocean — and that’s in addition to the exhaust fume pollution. A UK-based group also found that one cruise ship can emit as much pollution as 700 trucks and as much particulate matter as one million cars. Under no circumstances can cruising be considered ok for the environment.
There are lots of hotels that claim to be ‘green,’ but in many cases this is nothing more than a marketing tactic. Truly eco-friendly accommodations have specific policies in place that aim to conserve resources and use alternative energy, including:
- Relying on solar power
- Using local resources (materials, food, etc.)
- Recycling and composting programs
- Harvesting rainwater
- Using energy-efficient lighting and low-flow toilets
- No daily housekeeping and sheet/towel changes
In the U.S., some hotels are LEED certified, which means they meet certain criteria for sustainable site development, material selection, water savings, and energy efficiency. Other countries have their own programs, such as EarthCheck in Australia, Rainforest Alliance in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the UK’s Green Tourism Business Scheme.
When it comes to ‘green’ activities, the options are nearly endless. From sailing or kayaking to snorkeling, diving, or biking, nature activities are almost always good choices. The exception is when they are tours run by companies with poor practices. If you’re doing water activities, always choose a biodegradable sunscreen that won’t harm wildlife and corals, and never touch anything. Remember the saying: take only pictures, leave only footprints. Avoid any activities that include interaction with ‘wild’ animals, such as elephant rides and photos with tigers or monkeys. If you’re visiting a local market, bring your own reusable bag.
The Bottom Line
The answer to the question of whether travel can truly be eco friendly is complex. Can you travel without making any impact? No. But you can make better choices that make less of an impact — and if everyone does that, the impact would be huge.