Sustainable Travel: How to leave a smaller footprint

“Take only photos, leave only footprints.” It’s an old saying but the mantra still rings true for travellers today. But to leave a smaller footprint, we will have to make some changes to how we get around.

Sustainable travel, eco-friendly travel, green travel… What does it really mean?

Global travel agent website Booking.com has revealed the latest findings from its global Sustainable Travel Report, clarifying what the term “sustainable travel” means to travellers, how travellers view sustainable accommodations, and what the future holds for the eco-conscious.

What is green travel?

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable travel as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Meanwhile, the World Tourism Organization defines it as, “the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled, while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.”

There are a few factors that make our current mode of travel un-sustainable for future generations.

First, there’s the places we stay and what we do there. Mass tourism can affect the ability of a particular community to meet their own needs in the future, by making the region dependent on income from tourism to certain attractions. Large numbers of tourists can also damage the ecology and physical environment of a region, reducing its numbers of native animals and plants and making the place less attractive than it was before the crowds arrived.

Secondly, there’s how we get there. Planes, trains, and ships all have their own unique challenges when it comes to protecting our environment. Naturally, since us Kiwis live on islands in the middle of nowhere, we’re going to have to make some tough choices every time we want to travel outside of our own backyard.

How many are eco-travellers?

2 in 5 global travellers surveyed by Booking.com (42%) said they consider themselves “sustainable travellers”.

Some countries consider themselves more eco-friendly tourists than others. In China, 72% of respondents said they were green travellers, while in Japan only 25% said the same.

In positive news, 62% of respondents said they now intend to stay in sustainable accommodations on their journeys this year.

And 50% said they have considered a destination they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, because that destination offers more sustainable practices. Sustainable practices considered by respondents to the Booking.com survey included:

  • Protecting the natural environment and wildlife
  • Fair treatment of animals
  • Initiatives in place to help the local community develop

Not surprisingly, 41% of respondents said they would welcome tax breaks for those who chose sustainable travel methods and accommodations.

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How green is green?

The Booking.com survey highlighted just how wide the spectrum is in terms of what travellers consider to be “sustainable travel”:

  • Carbon offsetting your air travel: 32%
  • Sustainable accommodations: 56%
  • Sustainable accommodations that are specifically “eco-friendly”: 68%
  • Staying in a nature reserve or national park: 22%
  • Camping: 16%
  • Going to a destination where you can interact with local wildlife: 14%
  • Buying local crafts and foods: 35%
  • Volunteering in local communities: 14%
  • Staying with an indigenous community and learning about their culture: 12%

Only 5% said they thought sustainable travel was “easy”.

But that doesn’t need to be the reality you choose when going sustainable. Chief Operating Officer of Booking.com, Gillian Tans, explains that sustainable accommodation does not mean you need to stay somewhere with dim lighting, low water pressure, and no air-conditioning.

“Guests may not realize that as they sleep on organic cotton sheets, washed with water heated by energy generated from the hotel itself, they are staying sustainably,” says Tans. “Or that when eating a meal made from ingredients sourced within 20 miles of their accommodations, they are a sustainable traveller supporting local business.”

Sustainable travel isn’t difficult. Booking.com’s database shows that over half of available accommodations (51%) are currently following official sustainability criteria from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

More than 1 in 4 accommodations surveyed (26%) are doing something to protect the environment. Almost 1 in 5 accommodations (19%) support the local community.

Larger properties of more than 36 rooms are naturally more able to cater for sustainable living. A full third of accommodations (33%) are acting to protecting the environment and nearly a quarter (24%) support their local community.

Barriers to choosing sustainable accommodation

A 65% majority of respondents reported that all of this is a new concept for them, saying, “I have not stayed at eco-friendly accommodations before.”

Many didn’t plan to use sustainable accommodations when travelling this year, either. For 39% of these people, this was because they didn’t know such a thing existed. In particular, 39% of Kiwis, 43% of Japanese, and 46% of Germans said they didn’t know anything about sustainable accommodations.

Other reasons they stated for not choosing an eco-friendly stay included perceptions that they were expensive (22%), less luxurious (10%), or couldn’t be trusted to be truly “eco-friendly” (13%).

Ideas for your next sustainably green, eco-adventure

Where to go

As more and more travellers look for a sustainable stay, Booking.com is implementing new ways for them to search out such an experience. Their popular Passion Search platform is continually evolving, including new eco-based interests, making it easier to search for the best destination for certain sustainable initiatives or practices.

EthicalTraveler.org is an invaluable resource when choosing where you can travel sustainably. This organisation researches and rates destinations according to how well a country protect human rights, protect the environment, support social welfare, and protect animal welfare – while growing a positive, community-based tourism industry.

In 2016, Ethical Traveler’s Top 10 List of Ethical Destinations is as follows:

  1. Cabo Verde
  2. Dominica
  3. Grenada
  4. Federated States of Micronesia
  5. Mongolia
  6. Panama
  7. Samoa
  8. Tonga
  9. Tuvalu
  10. Uruguay

Ethical Traveler also organises Ethical Journeys, small group tours that adhere to the highest environmental, fair trade, and human rights standards; educate travellers on sustainable and ethical travel; and maximise the benefits to host communities.

How to get there

Since we live on an island, travelling anywhere outside our own country is bound to involve some amount of pollution, whether that’s fumes from a plane, cruise ship, or dinghy. I guess you could swim but the water’s a bit cold, and then there’re the sharks…

So what is your best option?

Basically, it’s planes against ships – global warming through CO2 emissions versus global cooling through sulphate aerosol pollution.

Is flying a big deal? Well, it only produces 2% of global CO2 emissions, compared to 14% from agriculture or 26% from energy production and supply (Air Transport Action Group, 2016).

And since 80% of aviation emissions come from flights over 1,500km long for which there is no practical alternative method of transport, it’s hard to imagine doing away with planes altogether at this stage.

There are even scientific studies that show that while flying is bad for the atmosphere in the short term of 5 years or so, over the long-term the results actually reverse themselves. Over 20 years, the nitrous oxide pollution from aircraft engines has been destroying the methane in the air, which begins a global cooling process. Over 50 years or more, flying becomes greener per kilometre than driving a petrol or diesel vehicle.

So flying may not be all bad. Here’s some ways you can make your flight greener:

  1. Vote with your wings. Choose an airline listed near the top of the list for fuel efficiency (consider the International Council on Clean Transportation’s list of 2010) and a newer aircraft. The difference between the most efficient and least efficient airlines is 26% of their emissions – a significant impact.
  2. When you can, choose to fly during the day because the airplane’s contrails reflect sunlight, limiting the amount of warming caused by its emissions.
  3. Carbon offset your flight. There are calculators available online that can work out how much you need to offset in emissions. You can offset your flight by paying your airline to purchase the carbon offsets, or you can purchase them directly through an energy supply provider. You could even plant some trees in your backyard, or at your workplace or school. (Just check with your local council first about any restrictions on the height or type of trees allowed.)
  4. Take a non-stop flight, since that is more fuel-efficient.
  5. Pack light. Not bringing a few extra books or pairs of shoes can make your flight lighter and more fuel-efficient. According to Delta Airlines, if each customer packed 2 pounds lighter, it would make the same impact as taking 10,500 cars off the road for the year.
  6. Make your voice heard. JetBlue’s Head of Sustainability, Sophia Mendelsohn, suggests travellers offset their flight, then tweet or Facebook their airline to let them know you’re doing it. “And that you care. Customer comments on social media send a message.”

What about ships?

Shipping causes short-term sulphate aerosol pollution. While these aerosol particles remain in the air, they reflect sunlight away from the earth and cause global cooling. Over 20 years, shipping pollution and electric trains combined can cause such an overall global cooling trend that it offsets the global warming caused by cars, planes, and buses combined. If you can stand breathing in that kind of pollution every day, that is.

On the other hand, numbers are often bandied about that show that ships also cause more CO2 emissions per passenger than airplanes do. Once again, many of the same principles apply – you can offset your trip, and choose a cruise company that is transparent about its approach to offsets and sustainability.

If you need some ideas on where to start looking for a cruise provider, check out our list of 7 amazing cruises leaving New Zealand in 2016.

The bright future of sustainable travel

There’s good news ahead for eco-friendly travellers.

First, there’s the hybrid plane designed by easyJet that in 2016 is trialling the use of hydrogen fuel cells and energy-absorbing brakes, meaning every landing creates and captures reusable energy. This system will reduce carbon emission and fuel consumption for flights, saving up to 50,000 tons of fuel per year. Happily, this also lowers the cost of a ticket for passengers.

Secondly, there’s the emissions-free cruise Ecoship designed by NGO Peace Beat, expected to take its maiden voyage in 2020. This 55,000 ton “green” cruise ship features 10 retractable sails covered in solar panels and an aerodynamic hull for better fuel efficiency. Its hotel and propulsion energy needs are powered by renewable energy, which adds up to zero emissions and zero sea dumping.

We look forward to seeing what the best engineering minds of the world can come up with next. In the meantime, make sure your travel needs are covered by comparing your travel product options with CANSTAR.

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