State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Is Green Travel Possible?

By Mikel Alian

The World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) predicts there will be 1 billion international tourist arrivals in 2012, growing to 1.6 billion by 2020.

Imagine if each of the 4.3 million daily commuters on the New York City subway took an international flight. Now think of each of those people on flights spewing jet fuel emissions, guzzling canned soda from plastic airline cups and water from plastic bottles, tossing hotel toiletries into non-recycling bins, blasting hotel air conditioners, using hotel laundry services, consuming local fish, creating waste water, disturbing natural habitats, and so forth. Now multiply 4.3 million people by 365 days per year. Based on the UNWTO’s forecast, we can expect these figures within the decade.

Waste pollution at the garbage beach of Malaysia
Waste pollution at the garbage beach of Malaysia. Photo:

Despite this apparent mess, is responsible travel possible? With education, ingenuity from the travel sector and informed decision making, can tourism’s footprint be cleansed? Most travel enterprises make it easy not to think about this question because after all, isn’t the point of escaping to an exotic locale to leave behind stress?

Here’s what Jen Aston, Regional Director at WHL Travel, says:

“Tourism can be a powerful destructive force, particularly in the hands of those looking for short term gain. When ecologically sensitive areas are not well managed, the results can be dire. Although tourists are becoming more aware of their negative impact, few will actively try to reduce it unless prompted to do so. The rules of travel should be set by the destinations themselves. They need to lead the way by declaring what is and isn’t acceptable and then sticking to it. Tourists will respect natural attractions more if it’s clear that the local communities hold them in high regard.”

Below are three intriguing approaches to reducing tourist impact that combine education, research, and local efforts.

A Corporate Approach: Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions partners with National Geographic in operating sustainable small boat excursions to destinations such as Alaska, Galapagos, and Antarctica. They aim to engage individuals to care about the planet and practice philanthropic ventures in the regions they travel to (i.e. supporting humpback whale research and raising over $4.5 million for conservation in the Galapagos Islands). They partner with the Blue Ocean Institute to select sustainable seafood for their on-board menu. They have even banned shrimp from all meals citing an inability to find a reliably sustainable source amidst the trawling and farming communities.

A National Approach: Costa Rican Tourism Board
Costa Rica exemplifies a country that respects its natural landscape and biodiversity and creates an atmosphere that encourages visitors to do so. Many tourists who come to Costa Rica visit national parks and wildlife reserves (which make up over one-quarter of the nation’s land mass) and engage in local conservation efforts such as volunteering at sea turtle hatcheries. The Costa Rica Tourism Board has created the Certification for Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica (CST), which classifies travel companies according to sustainable practices. Using questionnaires, the CST evaluates hotels and tour operators based on their relationship with the surrounding environment, infrastructure relating to water pollution, energy saving, waste management, and how they engage clients to support their sustainable practices. Hotels and tour operators in Costa Rica can be searched by their sustainability ranking within the directory and can post results on their website, making it easier for travelers to make responsible choices.

A Global Approach: World Tourism Day 2012
The UNTWO’s World Tourism Day will be celebrated this year in Gran Canaria, Spain on September 27th with the theme of “Tourism & Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development”. Governments, businesses and tourists will attend, learn about and debate sustainable energy initiatives and practices in the tourism sector. Topics include: making aircraft lighter to require less fuel, using biofuels to help fuel commercial flights, and key card systems that manage lighting, heating, and cooling as guests enter and leave hotel rooms. The goal is for the tourism sector to do its part towards the United Nations initiative of Sustainable Energy for All by 2030: bring carbon emissions down, protect local environments, carry modern energy services to the world’s poor, cut costs for businesses and create jobs and economic opportunities. For more info, follow World Tourism Day on Twitter.

So yes, travel can be made green-ER.

Travelers can choose companies that educate patrons about how to travel responsibly and that support conservation efforts. They can spend tourist dollars in countries that respect and protect local communities, resources, wildlife, and eco-systems. Travel outfitters and tourism boards will be more inclined to adopt sustainable methods if there is market demand to support it.

Mikel Alian is a student in CERC’s Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. Twitter: @Mikelita.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

i live in Africa where throwing garbage anywhere is almost legal but i have realized that there are some selected areas where it is highly prohibited to litter and people have gotten used to it. since everyone knows its bad i think constant reminder would be a great option.

Hotel Semarang
Hotel Semarang
11 years ago

hotel should be evaluated in order to safeguard the environment

11 years ago

[…] recycle the waste from your trip, and don’t use extra paper. It sounds very, very simple, but an article I recently read asks us to think about some new numbers: apparently, there will be one billion international […]

Wilford James
Wilford James
10 years ago

Tourism trash is becoming a huge problem around the world and the leaders of each country where it’s more pronounced should pay more attention and try to find solution to the problem otherwise it will continue to affect the planet in a very negative way. Poor countries need tourism minus the trash it generates.