What Is Sustainable Travel and Why Is It So Important?

Consumers around the world have become more eco-conscious—concerned about increasing, and increasingly extreme, weather events and natural disasters. As a result, ecotourism is becoming a popular travel choice among vacationers keen to reduce their carbon footprint. “Overtourism” is a relatively new phenomenon that describes exceeding the visitation capacity of a particular attraction or destination. Overtourism can cause damage to historical sites and the nearby environment, culminating in a decreased quality of life for locals. 

As the travel sector recovers from the catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of overtourism are being felt in popular, but congested, destinations. The UN World Tourism Organization, working in collaboration with private and public sector partners, celebrates World Tourism Day on September 27. The event is a platform for exploring the social, environmental, economic, and political impacts of tourism. 

The day highlights the need for sustainable tourism. It establishes a framework for engaging the public and the travel industry in supporting goals that prioritize protecting the environment, addressing climate change, and advancing economic development in tourism-driven societies. A National Geographic survey of 3,500 adult US travelers showed strong support for sustainability. However, the challenge lies in helping vacationers to take meaningful actions.  

Conducted in 2019, the study found that while 42 percent of US travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future, just 15 percent of these travelers were familiar with what sustainable travel really meant. The UN World Travel Organization defines sustainable tourism as travel that “takes full account of its existing and future environmental, social, and economic impact, addressing the needs of visitors, host communities, the environment, and the industry.” 

There was already an uptick in sustainable travel even prior to the arrival of COVID-19. In April 2018, Booking.com conducted research on sustainable tourism, with interesting results. The report showed that 87 percent of travelers wanted to travel sustainably, although just 39 percent always managed to meet that standard. A significant 43 percent of participants admitted that they “never, rarely or sometimes” actually traveled sustainably. 

In 2019, Greta Thunberg made history by sailing to New York on a racing yacht for the UN Climate Action Summit. Fortunately, there are more modest, yet collectively impactful ways to make travel more sustainable. Examples include transitioning away from air travel in favor of rail and avoiding hotels that use single-use plastics. Whether you are traveling for a family vacation or on business, the practical applications and principles of sustainable travel are the same: facilitating the efforts of travelers to reduce the negative impact of their travels on the environment, the economy, and society. 

The way we travel has a huge impact on the environment. Travel is responsible for approximately 5 percent of global warming according to a recent study. Air traveling in particular accounts for a large proportion of travel-related CO2 emissions. However, sustainable travel is about more than just emissions, with tourism also leading to overuse of water, improper waste disposal, and degradation of land. There are numerous actions vacationers can take to mitigate the social, environmental, and economic impact of their trips.  

One example is using trains rather than planes for short journeys to reduce carbon emissions. For every kg of CO2 created by rail travel, traveling the equivalent distance by air generates 22kg of CO2. Against this backdrop, in May 2021, the French government passed a bill abolishing intercity domestic flights for routes of less than 2.5 hours in duration. The move was designed to promote rail services in place of air travel as part of the country’s efforts to decrease its CO2 emissions 40 percent by 2030. 

Also recommended is supporting air travel operators that implement carbon sequestration initiatives. These actions offset CO2 emissions and lessen operator’s impact on the environment and local communities. Consumers can also choose travel industry players that are taking decisive action to make the tourism industry more sustainable. For example, several leading hotel groups have pledged to phase out single-use plastic toiletry bottles. You may also prefer airlines that use alternative sources of energy, like biofuel blends, as a replacement for fossil fuels. 

COVID-19 drove a huge shift in public consciousness, with today’s consumers placing increased emphasis on sustainability. Today, governments all over the world are revamping their rail infrastructure, seeking to persuade their populations to adopt more environmentally friendly travel choices. Tourism is an incredibly important part of our global culture, enabling people to explore different parts of the world, meeting others from all different walks of life, and experiencing new activities, cultures, and traditions.  

Tourism benefits both travelers and communities alike, and it can be a huge force for good when implemented in a sustainable way. Sustainable tourism seeks to provide solutions to global challenges faced by the tourism industry today, driving economic viability, social equity, employment quality, and local prosperity, respecting and protecting the cultural heritage, authenticity, traditions, and uniqueness of host communities. 

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