Sustainable travel

Clean energy is helping to offset carbon emissions.
Clean energy is helping to offset carbon emissions. / SUR
  • From 'over-tourism' to 'flight-shaming', the impact of global travel and tourism is being increasingly measured against its benefits

As the planet becomes ever more crowded, and increasingly affected by a changing climate, the concept of sustainability needs to evolve from being a buzz word into a way of life. Many sectors of the world's economy are changing the way they do business.

This trend towards sustainability is encompassing travel too. Responsible tourism looks to reduce or offset carbon emissions, minimise waste and pollution, respect local cultures and share the economic benefits of travel with local communities.


Tourism can be a powerhouse for positive change and development, bringing greater wealth to local communities. I recall my visit last year to the Dominican Republic. Anmar, one of the restaurant staff at our resort was chatty and happy to engage with the visiting journalists. Working in the hospitality sector meant long hours and sometimes dealing with demanding guests, but the rewards were worth it, he told us. The hotel provided housing; supported the local school; and he earned enough that he could help his wider family and save a little too.

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Republic of Haiti - one Caribbean island yet two very different nations. The Dominican Republic has focused on creating a stable, investment-friendly economy which has wholeheartedly embraced tourism. The World Travel & Tourism Council suggests that foreign visitors contribute up to 17.2 per cent to the economy, which is one of the biggest and fastest growing in the Caribbean. Yet it's neighbour Haiti, where political instability, corruption and devastating natural disasters have made tourism difficult, is said to be one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere.


However, the benefits of tourism that I saw in the Dominican Republic are being increasingly challenged. The opportunities created for education, employment, development and wealth creation by the travel industry are being somewhat over-shadowed by the perceived negative impact of increasing numbers of visitors.

Cities and communities are complaining of 'over tourism', where quality of life is being eroded by the sheer volume of visitors. Sadly it's not hard to find examples of over-tourism. Just think of Venice, where cruise liners inundate the city with day-trippers, causing congestion, higher prices for locals and erosion of the fragile infrastructure.

Environmentalists are also highlighting the negative impact of holidaymakers. Thinking back to the Dominican Republic, I remember how it was impossible to escape the problem of rubbish and litter. It's the most visited country in the Caribbean, and despite having a waste collection infrastructure, I saw disturbing amounts of waste, including plastic, dumped by the sides of the roads. Being an island, some of this rubbish would inevitably find its way into the Caribbean sea.

We don't need to be an activist to know that things need to change. Natural habitat and biodiversity is being lost, the oceans contaminated, local communities diminished by globalisation and cultural sights damaged.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to be positive. We can all be part of sustainable and responsible tourism. Whether you consider yourself a fly-and-flop tourist or an adventurous traveller, we all can be more aware of our travel choices and how our holidays and business travel impact the environment, local communities, culture and heritage.


Even the smallest gesture can make a big difference over time. Thanks to better awareness of the problem of plastics in our oceans, we are more conscious of the waste we create. Many hotels are reducing refuse and working to eradicate the use of single-use plastics and increasing recycling. Yet I still see plastic bottles of water put out by my bedside. This is no longer acceptable. I favour properties, like many in Mallorca, that offer filtered water in reusable glass bottles. The same is true with plastic straws - refuse them.

As for those little bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the hotel bathroom, well their days are numbered. Much as I like those cute, chic branded amenities, they are an environmental no-no. I see more and more hotels using refillable containers. Some are really creative, providing locally-made ceramic dispensers.

The cruise line industry is one of the fastest growing parts of the travel industry yet has attracted controversy when it comes to its impact on the environment. Incidents of alleged dumping of heavy fuel oil, rubbish and untreated effluent into the oceans is the ugly side of the sector. Thankfully new cruise vessels are designed to be significantly more environmentally responsible. Not only do modern ships emit less sulphur when burning fuel, but they are designed to maximise the recycling of waste and have the technology to treat dirty water onboard. When booking your next cruise, take a moment to consider the environmental track record of your chosen cruise line and look out for the new generation of cruise ships.

Local communities

Increasingly when I travel, I see that hotels, resorts and smaller hospitality businesses are working to 'pay it forward'; supporting social, environmental and cultural projects in their local communities.

Often this can mean more than just a financial contribution, but also the opportunity for staff and guests to be personally involved with local projects, from wildlife conservation to restoration of historical sights. It can also make for a fascinating and rewarding focus for a holiday.

As a visitor we can also spend in the community, by using local guides, shopping at genuine markets and choosing authentic travel experiences like eating with a local family.

Flight shame

Until a year or two ago, few of us could have imagined the notion of 'flight shame'. It's said to have originated in Sweden where 'Flygskam' means the stigma associated with flying due to the associated emissions of greenhouse gases.

Now, I promised myself I wasn't going to get into the complexities of climate change in this article, but whatever our views are about the causes of climate change and whether humans can mitigate it, we have to accept that advanced countries are moving towards being low carbon economies. That means that over the coming decades, many nations will be striving to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Carbon offsetting

As such, we're all becoming aware of our 'carbon footprint', a term that has come to mean our personal contribution to the atmosphere of carbon-containing greenhouse gasses.

One of the single biggest contributors to our personal carbon footprint can be the flights we take for work or pleasure. Despite this, the reality right now is that only fossil fuels are energy dense enough to get a plane full of passengers off the ground and then cruising through the air at hundreds of kilometres an hour. Until an alternative fuel or technology is developed, our options are to reduce the number of flights we take, and also to offset the carbon emissions through investing in projects that capture carbon or reduce its release elsewhere.

For example, many of the major airlines are not only investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, but also in projects to offset the carbon dioxide released by their aviation fuel. As passengers we can likewise invest in certified organisations that support projects as diverse as planting trees, promoting clean energy like wind power and providing clean burning stoves to people in the developing world.

This is a compelling alternative to simply boasting on Facebook for the flight we didn't take or shaming someone who did fly. It's worth remembering the very positive impact of travel and tourism.

After all, it's not just people like Anmar in the Dominican Republic that benefit from trips abroad. We all do. Travel enables us to maintain close contact with friends and family, meet new people, share unique and unforgettable travel experiences, get to know new and different cultures and support a global economy - the benefits of which are not only on distance shores but here in Southern Spain too.

To lose all that because we can't fly anymore would be a great shame too.