Opinion: Packing your bags? Here are 4 ways to become a sustainable tourist

Photo by: Cody Black

Research shows that a rising number of travelers want to tread lightly. The modern tourist wants to give back to the countries and communities they visit and reduce their impact on the environment. But what are the options for the would-be green traveler? How much of an impact can one person have?

The answer is a lot.

This is because global tourism is really big business. According to the World Tourism Organization, tourist spending swelled from only $2 billion in 1950 to $1.2 trillion in 2015. The number of international tourists has grown by orders of magnitude as well, from 25 million traveled in 1950 to 1.2 billion in 2015. Domestic tourism is even bigger. It is estimated that between 5 and 6 billion people take holidays at home. In one way or another, we are almost all tourists.

This is good news. Countless jobs have been created in the process, many for the poor. It also means the potential in tourism going green is massive. But sustainable tourism still only represents a small fraction of the global industry.

Tourism generates an estimated 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to U.N. Environment, that proportion is higher — 12.5 percent — if factors such as energy use at hotels and transporting food and toiletries are included. Other sobering figures include water use. A tourist in Europe will consume more water on holiday than at home. Those staying at luxury hotels use nearly three times as much as a result of the water used for swimming pools and golf courses.

Then there is waste generation at resorts or from cruise ships; overfishing on coral reefs to feed visitors; loss of animal and plant species linked with the construction and operation of resorts; and impacts on the culture of local people.

And yet industry growth shows no sign of slowing. By 2020, it is estimated that the number of global tourists will reach 1.6 billion. To reach the targets set by the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, we need a sea change in tourism. Tourism can empower communities to be more resilient to adverse climate-related situations; it’s the best catalyst to reinforce the role of consumers and travelers when they visit a destination; it can empower the role of cities, regions and local authorities in enhancing efforts to mitigate climate change.    

Whether you’re fleeing winter for a tropical beach or uncovering secrets in your own backyard, you can reduce your impact and make a difference. Here’s how.

1. Commit and start reading

Getting started can be tricky. There can be hundreds of different sustainable tourism standards to choose from. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council has a reliable guide and maintains recent sustainability criteria for hotels, destinations and tour operators.

Next, buy the guidebooks that give you the information you need on green options in the country, city, community and hotel you plan to visit. If guidebooks are encouraged to list more environmentally friendly options, you benefit from choice and green destinations benefit from exposure.

2. Ask questions

Then, find out more about where you choose to go. Ask questions of tour operators and destinations about how they manage water and waste. Do they source fruit, vegetables and meat locally and have clear and positive local employment policies? Are they drawing electricity from renewables? Decide where you spend your money based on these factors.

3. Consider your mode of travel

Flying to and from destinations is more problematic. While aircrafts are becoming more efficient, air travel is still one of the most damaging modes of transportation to the climate per kilometer traveled.

Buying carbon offsets, which many airlines offer during the ticket purchase process, is the best way to reduce your impact if you have to fly. The U.N. Climate Convention’s “Climate Neutral Now” provides advice and helps ensure that offsetting generates real and positive benefits.

4. Buy and eat local

At your destination, you can support local artisans and manufacturers instead of buying mass-produced souvenirs. You can eat local. When you visit natural sights, you can ensure you leave no trace.

Tourism is a power for good. It breaks down walls, brings cultures closer together and reminds us that we all share one incredible, beautiful planet. You can use your holiday to make more than memories: with sustainable choices, you can help make our world cleaner and greener. And you can be a global ambassador for respect — respect for our planet, our culture and the communities that welcome us with open hearts.

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About the authors

  • Taleb

    Taleb Rifai

    Taleb Rifai has served as the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization since January 2010. Mr. Rifai has an extensive background in international and national public service, the private sector and academia. He was assistant director general of the International Labour Organization, held several ministerial portfolios in Jordan (Planning and International Cooperation, Information and Tourism and Antiquities), CEO of Jordan’s Cement Company, director of the Economic Mission to Washington and director general of the Investment Promotion Corporation of Jordan.
  • Erik solheim profile

    Erik Solheim

    Erik Solheim is chair of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee since January 2013, and incoming executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. With a solid background in climate, the environment and peace building, Solheim was also Norway’s minister for international development from 2005 to 2012.
  • Image%2520%25282%2529

    Patricia Espinosa

    Patricia Espinosa is the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. She took office in 2016 after working as Mexico's ambassador to Germany since 2012. From 2001 to 2002, Ms. Espinosa was minister of foreign affairs of Mexico from 2006 to 2012, bringing more than 30 years of experience at highest levels in international relations, specialized in climate change, global governance, sustainable development, gender equality and protection of human rights.