6 Easy Ways to Make Your Trip More Eco-Friendly

Travelling has a way of making us feel alive. Like we’re really out there in the world, experiencing it firsthand instead of merely living on our laptops. It makes us feel connected to the planet, its landscapes, its people, and in turn ourselves. 

But as good as leaving home can be for us, it can prove disastrous for the Earth. Pre-pandemic, tourism was responsible for about 8 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. A non-negligible amount considering emissions need to be cut in nearly half by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

More and more people are becoming aware of these issues. A 2022 survey by The Vactionner, an online travel resource, found that more than 87 per cent of American adults say sustainable travel is either “somewhat important” or “very important” to them. The only thing is: More than half of respondents said they’d only make more eco-friendly travel decisions if it didn’t inconvenience them. “Unfortunately, we are still mostly talk and no action when it comes to sustainable travel in 2022,” says Eric Jones, The Vactionner’s co-founder.

But contrary to what you might assume, travelling sustainably doesn’t have to mean roughing it in the woods or giving up holidays abroad entirely. It’s about becoming a “much more intentional traveller,” says Dr. Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager of Intrepid Travel, the world’s largest adventure travel company. Simply put: “The world we love is threatened, and if we want to continue to explore it, we must first protect it.” 

Here’s how you can help.

Choose the roads less travelled

An easy place to start is with your destination selection. Many places around the world are “over-loved,” says Paloma Zapatas, CEO of the NGO Sustainable Travel International. A high concentration of travellers in one spot, especially if it’s small, can put a serious strain on resources. Think of several large cruise ships arriving on a tiny Caribbean island or in Venice, Italy. “I encourage people to go off the beaten path and visit other places that may not be receiving so much tourism,” says Zapatas. “There are tons of places that could use the support.” It also helps to stay put in your destination rather than hopping from city to city, which ramps up emissions. “Plan for a big long holiday and really experience the destination. Doing things more slowly can be very rewarding.”

Move with intent

Nearly half of the emissions brought on by tourism are caused by transportation. So before setting foot on a plane, “consider if you really need to fly,” says Etti, who suggests switching to “slow” transport means, like trains or cars, when possible. If flying can’t be avoided, there are still ways to reduce your impact. Fly coach instead of business, as a first class passenger’s footprint is around 5.5 times larger than that of an economy passenger. And fly as direct as you can, minimizing layovers, which also add to your journey’s footprint. 

Once you reach your destination, try getting around by bike, foot or tuktuk. If you’re thinking of hopping on a train for longer distances, find out what energy source is used in the area, as trains run on the grid. Need to rent a car? Consider making it an electric vehicle rather than a large SUV. 

Several online resources, including Sustainable Travel International’s website, provide handy carbon calculators that can help you make greener choices by comparing the impact of, say, a boat versus a plane or car. “Google Flights also has an ‘Emissions’ filter option, which is a great feature for those looking to book low-emissions flights,” says Jones. “I think more companies need to implement features and filters like that.”

Pack wisely

The amount of the things you travel with also impacts your carbon footprint, as fuel emissions go up with the weight of the aircraft. “People constantly take more clothes than they ever wear—there’s no need,” says Zapatas. 

Just as important as what you don’t pack, is what you do. Instead of buying multiple plastic water bottles throughout your trip, make a habit of toting a reusable one. “You can even buy water purifiers that filter out everything—including viruses—making bottled water less necessary,” says Etti. “When you’re out shopping, simply hand your bottles over and ask people to fill them up. You’ll be starting conversations and reducing landfill, too.” Keeping reusable cutlery and a metal or bamboo straw handy is also a good idea. 

Last but not least are toiletries. Travel-sized plastic bottles often don’t get recycled because their small size means they get missed by sorting machines. So unless you’re bringing them back home with you and refilling them for your next trip, they’re definitely not the most eco-friendly. You also want to avoid disposable, non-biodegradable wipes, which will only end up in the landfill of the place you’re visiting. Your best bet is opting for packaging-free products, like shampoo and skincare bars, or staying in a hotel that offers toiletries in large refillable pumps rather than individual minis.

Study your accommodations

When it comes to lodging, emissions tend to be highest in resorts and large hotels that offer modern services. A sprawling beach compound often also means damage done to the surrounding land, such as the razing of mangroves and seagrass, plants that are essential to coastal ecosystems. Huge properties also call for huge amounts of resources like water for things like pools and golf courses.

But that doesn’t mean all big, brand-name hotels are bad. These types of chains are often the ones with the economic means to innovate, retrofit and implement energy-saving technology. So look into environmental initiatives they may have introduced. 

To help guide your search, some booking sites, like booking.com and kayak.com, have a “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” box you can check. Airbnb also has options to filter properties that are off the grid or qualify as nature lodges. For the most part, these kinds of home stays, guest houses and sustainably-minded accommodations generate lower emissions, but you’ll want to do a bit of homework before hitting confirm, says Zapatas.

“Some places might say they’re an eco-lodge, but they might be diesel-generated and run on non-renewable energy.” Or some apartments that might appear to be locally owned when really outside investors have bought the building, thus taking away housing from local communities.

After you’ve selected your accommodations and checked in, try to be mindful about your energy consumption. Power off the lights and air conditioning when you leave your room for the day. To put things into perspective, a review of Caribbean tourism found that AC alone accounted for nearly half of the energy used by hotels in Barbados.

Leave behind a positive mark 

Traditionally, tourism has tended to be extractive, meaning it takes away instead of giving. Now, a new buzzword in the industry is “regenerative tourism,” which encourages visitors to leave their destination in a better condition than how they found it.

To do so, you can donate to a local environmental organization or visit nature parks and protected areas whose proceeds help fund conservation efforts. When exploring your surroundings, avoid touching or interacting with wildlife, and stay on designated paths, being careful not to trample plants. Etti also advises bringing your trash home, even if it’s biodegradable. The same can go for recyclables, as some places might not have robust recycling programs.

That’s the environmental part of the puzzle. The other is the people. Tourism can displace local communities, hinder their livelihood—for instance, fishermen being moved out by the construction of a seaside resort—and threaten local culture. There can also be a lot of economic leakages with international investors coming in and reaping the rewards, rather than having tourism benefit the local population.

To support locals, make an effort to eat in mom-and-pop-style restaurants rather than big chains. Buy art or other goods from local artisans and vendors. “You’d be surprised by how many trinkets are sold as a souvenir, but are actually produced in China,” says Zapatas. Learn about customs and traditions by enrolling in a cooking workshop or other locals-run activities, from guided tours to sound baths and wine tastings (Airbnb Experiences can be a great place to find these kinds of things). That way, your host earns a fair income and you get to experience your destination in an authentic way while helping to preserve local culture.

Offset your emissions

While there are ways to reduce the emissions produced by a trip, these efforts can only go so far. “This is where carbon offsetting comes in,” says Zapatas. Essentially you buy carbon credits that serve to finance initiatives that remove carbon from the environment—usually through reforestation—or promote renewable energies. Some airlines have a carbon-offset box you can tick. You pay a bit more for your flight and then those dollars go toward sequestering the carbon it takes to get you from point A to B. 

If the airline itself doesn’t offer offsetting, you can purchase carbon credits from other sites to make up for your journey. Sustainable Travel International’s website, for example, helps you tally up the emissions of plane and boat rides as well as car trips, and then buy credits to offset these. They’re currently working with booking engines to embed the calculator in their platforms and offer automatic offsetting at the time of purchase.

Of course, all of this comes with additional costs, which can be a major deterrent. “For a family on a budget, it’s not yet feasible to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more on environmentally friendly lodging options, car rentals and flights,” says Jones. The good news, though, he says, is that “people will be willing to pick sustainable options as they become more affordable and convenient.”

Ultimately, the onus is on the industry and governments to evolve greener, more reasonably priced alternatives, say the experts. But still, we all have a part to play. “It’s definitely possible to travel sustainably, and there are definitely destinations that are hurting from these past few years of no tourism that could use people’s support,” says Zapatas. “You just have to be conscious of what you do.” 

 

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