Do your homework to travel in a sustainable way

The pandemic has brought the concept of sustainable tourism forward by five to 10 years.
The pandemic has brought the concept of sustainable tourism forward by five to 10 years.PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - So you are vaccinated and eager to plan a real summer vacation, but you do not want to add to the problems you might have read about - overcrowding, climate change, unfair working conditions in the tourism industry. What is a thoughtful traveller to do?

For those who want to travel responsibly, it comes down to this - you have to do your homework.

Looking for a hotel or tour operator that has earned a sustainability label might seem like a good place to start, but it is not so simple.

There are about 180 certification labels in the tourism industry, each purporting to certify the green credentials of a hotel, restaurant, tour operator or even a destination. And while some of those labels are well enforced, others might better be described as green-washing - when a company portrays itself as an environmental steward, but its actions do not match the hype.

"The range is enormous - from rigorous, impartial and excellent to, frankly, poor," said Mr Randy Durband, chief executive (CEO) of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a non-profit organisation that establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel.

"We strongly believe in the value of third-party certification when it's done right," he added. "But the way the word 'certification' is used in tourism is out of control."

Still, while the labels might be all over the map, many businesses are waking up to the importance of improving their environmental and social performance, said Ms Andrea Nicholas, CEO of Green Tourism, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based certification body with more than 2,500 members.

The pandemic has brought the concept of sustainable tourism forward by five to 10 years, she said. Before, she added, many businesses saw sustainability as an "add-on". "What we're seeing now, from the interest we're getting, is that it's a must-have," she said.

There are some promising signs that consumers, too, are waking up to the consequences of their holidays. More than two-thirds of respondents to a recent seven-country global survey for American Express Travel said they "are trying to be more aware of sustainability-friendly travel brands to support".

But there is no universal answer to what sustainable travel means. A hotel's water efficiency is more important along Spain's dry Mediterranean coastline than in rain-soaked western Scotland, for instance.

But experts say the concept is about a lot more than just reusing the towels in your hotel room or buying a carbon offset for your flight, although those are good places to start.

Sustainability is also about the wages and working conditions of the people who are waiting tables on your cruise ship or schlepping your bag up a trail.

It is about the additional pressure you might be putting on an already-crowded city, heritage site or natural area. It is about whether your hotel buys its produce from a farm down the road or from a supplier on the other side of the world. Or whether the money you spend goes into the community you are visiting - or into the distant account of a multinational company.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a lecturer in tourism at the University of South Australia, listed some questions travellers should ask: "How can I travel in an off-peak time? How can I go to places that aren't overcrowded? How can I ensure the money I spend ends up in the local economy?"

Ms Susanne Etti, an environmental impact specialist at Intrepid Travel, an Australia-based global tour operator, said travellers could start by checking the list of the more than 230 travel organisations that have joined the Tourism Declares initiative, members of which have pledged to publish a climate action plan and cut their carbon emissions.

Many travellers also need a shift in mindset, said Ms Dominique Callimanopulos, head of Elevate Destinations, an international tour operator based in Massachusetts.

"People can make a shift from thinking just about what their personal experience is going to be to looking at the impact of their experience on the ground, on the destination and on the community."