How Sustainable Travel Works

Image Gallery: Paradise Sustainable travel can include relaxing on a hammock at an eco resort. See pictures of paradise.
Image Gallery: Paradise Sustainable travel can include relaxing on a hammock at an eco resort. See pictures of paradise.

Worldwide, the economic and environmental impact of travel is enormous. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates that industries dealing directly with tourists contributed more than $1.7 trillion to global GDP in 2010; add indirect contributions and that figure soars to $5.7 trillion [source: WTTC]. The mileage logged by travelers is also impressive. In 2008, Americans alone traveled 6.5 billion miles (10.5 billion kilometers) on domestic flights and another 3 trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometers) on the road [source: RITA]. Travel within and among other countries undoubtedly adds trillions of additional miles, resulting in an extraordinary amount of greenhouse gas emissions. So how can businesspeople and vacationers minimize the environmental consequences of their trips while maximizing the amount of money they infuse into the local economies? This question is the basis for the recent movement toward sustainable travel.

Sustainable travel emerged from the idea of ecotourism, which The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." Both concepts emphasize the importance of green travel and accommodations, as well as activities and experiences that benefit the local economy. Sustainable travel goes a step further, though, encouraging these practices not only for trips to natural areas, but for trips to any destination. There are many ways you can practice sustainable travel, from choosing hotels that conserve electricity and water to buying food and other goods that are produced locally. You might even consider volunteering or farming in the communities you visit. Basically, by being environmentally conscious while assisting and empowering the local population, you can help to ensure that your destination will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.


However, in a world where everyone claims to be "going green," it's difficult to know exactly which hotels, tour operators and transportation services are actually taking meaningful steps to protect the environment and help local people. Luckily, there are an increasing number of nonprofit groups that can assist you in your search. Their Web sites detail the green credentials of accommodations across the globe, and some organizations even certify hotels and other operations as eco-friendly. Whether your trip is long or short, business or pleasure, these Web sites are an excellent reference.

Want more information? Buy some carbon offsets and take a trip through our sustainable travel guide.


How to Travel Sustainably

Brian T. Mullis, president of the nonprofit organization Sustainable Travel International (STI), defines sustainable travel as "travel that supports conservation of the environment, preservation of cultural heritage, and development of the localized economy" while also encouraging "cross-cultural understanding." Using categories suggested by Mullis's definition, here are some ways you can make your next trip more sustainable:

Conservation of the environment: You can take steps toward this goal before you even leave home by unplugging your appliances and utilizing paperless online services to book your travel. If you have to fly, take nonstop flights and pack less in order to reduce your overall fuel consumption. It's also a good idea to bring your own lunch, water bottle and reusable shopping bag when you travel to minimize the amount of waste you produce. Once you arrive at your destination, avoid using a car if possible by walking or taking public transportation. Your accommodations and tour operators should also engage in sustainable practices like energy and water conservation, recycling and composting. Want to do more? Purchase carbon offsets, which are basically donations to green energy projects intended to offset the carbon emissions incurred during your trip.


Preservation of cultural heritage: Avoid chain hotels that offer the same experience regardless of your location, insulating you from the local culture. Instead, opt for accommodations and experiences that immerse you in the customs and traditions of your destination. When dealing with locals, consider yourself a visitor in their home. Be respectful and show interest in their way of life instead of demanding that they submit to yours.

Development of the localized economy: If possible, choose local guides, stay in locally-owned accommodations, and eat locally-grown food. You should also buy souvenirs from local artisans, but be careful not to purchase any products made from endangered plant or animal species. These steps will ensure that as much of your money as possible is infused into the local economy.

Cross-cultural understanding: To develop a greater appreciation for local heritage, consider visiting during a festival, when many customs and traditions are on display. Another way to immerse yourself in the culture of your destination is through voluntourism and agritourism. These terms describe vacations during which tourists volunteer with local projects or learn about farming from local cultivators.

Now that you know how to travel sustainably, click over to the next page and learn how to plan your sustainable trip.


How to Plan a Sustainable Trip

A study conducted in 2002 by the Travel Industry Association of America and funded by National Geographic Traveler magazine revealed that Americans are receptive to many of the goals of sustainable travel:

  • Seventy-one percent of respondents felt that their visit to a destination should not harm its environment.
  • Sixty-one percent enjoy their experience more when the destination preserves its natural, historic, and cultural sites and attractions.
  • Fifty-three percent have a better travel experience when they learn about the customs, geography, and culture of a destination.

[source: TIA]


Unfortunately, as these attitudes have become increasingly mainstream, some hotels and transportation companies have attempted to make themselves sound greener than they really are through a process known as greenwashing. Luckily, numerous resources are now available to guide the eco-conscious in the right direction when it comes to sustainable travel.

Greenwashing is a problem in many areas, not just the travel industry. A 2007 study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that all but seven of 1,018 products used misleading or false labeling to promote their products as eco-friendly [source: TerraChoice]. A common greenwashing tactic in hotels is to ask patrons to reuse their towels and linens instead of washing them daily. Though signs may proclaim this practice will "save the environment," it's really more of a cost-saving measure for the hotel than anything else. A famous example in the airline industry involved British Airways' widely-praised plan to give customers the chance to buy carbon offsets when they booked their flight. However, after 20 months, only 0.01 percent of the airline's total carbon emissions had actually been offset.

You can avoid greenwashed accommodations and travel with the help of some nonprofit groups and a little personal research. Currently, no single regulating body exists to oversee green certification in the travel industry. There are, however, several independent organizations that certify ecolodges, including STI and TIES. You can also look for more general recognitions like the Green Seal, Energy Star or LEED certification. If the hotel or tour operator isn't certified, you can research it on numerous Web sites, including,,,, and If all else fails, call the hotel or tour operator and ask them about their environmental policies. If the clerk has trouble responding, you should probably move on.

Ready to start researching? Click over to the next page for some great links.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "Table 1-32: U.S. Vehicle Miles." 2010. (April 14, 2011)
  • Christ, Costas. "Green Dictionary: Navigating the Eco-Lexicon Jungle." National Geographic. 2010. (April 12, 2011)
  • Davies, Nick. "The Inconvenient Truth about the Carbon Offset Industry." The Guardian. June 16, 2007. (April 16, 2011)
  • Duckett, Maryellen Kennedy. "Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel." National Geographic Traveler. October 2008. (April 12, 2011)
  • Element Hotels. "Leaving home often means leaving 'green routines' behind according to new survey from Element Hotels." July 10, 2007. (April 16, 2011)
  • Herrick, Nancy A. "Sustainable Travel is More Than Ecological." Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI). April 4, 2009. (April 12, 2011)
  • Judkis, Maura. "Deceptive 'Greenwashing' Aims to Trick Ecotourists." U.S. News and World Report. May 23, 2008. (April 12, 2011)
  • Sustainable Travel International. "Ecotourism, Responsible Travel, and Sustainable Tourism Information and Resources." 2009. (April 12, 2011)
  • TerraChoice Environmental Marketing. "Organic Snake Oil?: The 5 Sins of Environmental Marketing." EcoMarketer. Issue 5, 2007. (April 16, 2011)
  • Travel Industry Association of America. "Geotourism Study: Phase I Executive Summary." 2002. (April 16, 2011)
  • World Travel and Tourism Council. "Travel and Tourism Economic Impact." 2011. (April 14, 2011)