The UN’s World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts.” The idea behind it is to ensure that future generations can visit and enjoy a given destination. It includes supporting local economies, social development, and environmental conservation. It can involve such practices as hiring people from the local area, recycling waste, and/or selling locally produced products at gift shops and restaurants.
Ecotourism is a related but narrower concept that stresses biodiversity and environmental protection. The ecotourist also wants to learn about plants, animals, and indigenous cultures as well as protect them.
One book on sustainability snarkily advised, “Stay on your own continent.” Unfortunately, there’s a large element of truth to that. The farther you travel, the more energy you will use. As environmentally friendly as biking and walking are, you can only use such methods to travel relatively short distances.
A staycation can be a very environmentally friendly option, especially if you live in a big city like New York that has a good public transportation system. Not only are there probably attractions you haven’t seen, but you likely know where they are and the best way to get to them. Your main challenge will be to sort through the possible attractions to pick the ones with the best environmental practices.
What if you need to go on a business trip, or you have your heart set on going to Hawaii? Unfortunately, traveling overseas is, so far, not environmentally friendly. As of 2015, airplanes are the world’s fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. A round-trip flight between Los Angeles and New York produces about two tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. Someone driving a Prius would have to drive 10,500 miles – or the equivalent of two round trips between Los Angeles and New York – to produce that much carbon dioxide.
Cruise ships are also problematic; a big one can use as much as 250 tons of gasoline every day. They can also produce about 80,000 liters of sewage every day – and the less responsible lines have been known to dump their sewage in the ocean. A Japanese company called Peace Boat has been working on a more sustainable cruise ship called the EcoShip that will be at least partly powered by solar and wind power. It will need 50 percent less electricity and emit 30 percent less carbon than conventional ships. It is scheduled to take its maiden voyage sometime in 2020.
Overland transportation options include cars, buses, and trains. The best choice depends on the distance traveled and the number of passengers. City-to-city buses like Greyhound, for example, can be a surprisingly good choice. While the bus itself may get a pitiful six miles to the gallon, it can carry upwards of 50 people, and city-to-city buses are typically at least 70 percent full. Trains can get as much as 56 mpg and are therefore another good choice. The main problems with driving a car are that people tend to drive alone, and they don’t always choose cars that get good gas mileage. Driving a car can be a good choice if the car is a fuel-efficient hybrid and you’re traveling with other people.
Traveling with a tour company has advantages. They make all of the hotel and transportation arrangements; you just have to meet them at the appointed time. Some are ecotourism companies that stress sustainability. Such companies follow practices like hiring locals as guides, reducing waste, and conserving water and energy.
Intrepid Travel, which was established in the late 1980s, might be the grandfather of the eco-tour companies. It is also one of the largest and offers itineraries in over 120 countries. Like many such companies, it emphasizes “small group” expeditions. Not only does this provide travelers with a more personalized experience, it also reduces the amount of resources used during the tour. Small groups also enjoy easier access to smaller restaurants and sites, and they have an easier time interacting with locals. By contrast, a big group of 40 or 50 people is limited to places that can accommodate their numbers.
Some companies focus on specific places. Rainforest Expeditions takes people on tours of the Amazon rainforest in Peru, and it works with locals to protect native species. Undiscovered Mountains concentrates on the French Alps. They make a point of hiring locals as guides and instructors. Similarly, they work with independent hotels who support the local economy by buying food and other goods from local suppliers.
Green hotels will often be certified as such. They may have earned LEED, Green Leaf, and/or Green Seal. Such hotels will have often used recycled materials in their construction. They will also conserve energy and water and have recycling programs.
The organization Green Globe certifies companies that run sustainable accommodations. Its website includes a directory of its members that are organized by region and country. Clicking on a specific hotel, lodge or resort will take you to a page filled with information about that particular accommodation – including how it earned its certification. A hotel in Madagascar, for example, is the world’s first hotel to run solely on solar power.