Inconvenient Truth

It’s Too Difficult to Travel Sustainably

Travel is imperative for a healthy planet — it helps us better understand the world and its boundless diversity. But ‘sustainable travel’ isn’t just a contradiction in 2020, it’s damn near impossible. And that has to change.

In late 1974, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog walked 600 miles from Munich to Paris to visit his dying friend. He believed that the act of walking might help keep the friend alive. The cold, snowy hike was documented in Herzog’s 1978 book, Of Walking in Ice.

In August 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic in a yacht powered by wind, solar, and underwater turbines. She was traveling to New York to attend the U.N. climate summit. The trip took two weeks and the boat lacked a kitchen, bathrooms, or shower.

If you want to travel a great distance and you want to do it in a zero-emission, carbon neutral, eco-friendly manner, Werner and Greta have exhibited two of your best transportation options. If you want all of those wonderfully responsible things and an otherwise pleasant experience — aside from a handful of railways, you’re pretty much out of luck. That’s ironic because travel unquestionably makes the world a healthier place — it’s one of the most effective ways to develop empathy for different cultures and concern for the unique challenges they face.

Humans need to keep traveling. And traveling sustainably needs to be easier.

Soneva Fushi boutique hotel in the Maldives
Soneva Fushi in Maldives

Eco-Friendly Hotels

We’ve written quite a few times in the past year about sustainability and travel. We wrote about the frustrations of high-speed train travel in the United States. We wrote about the effects of climate change on Venice and Puerto Rico. We wrote about the battle for Alaska’s wilderness, and the rise of doomsday tourism across the world. We even wondered if social media might wind up destroying some of our favorite places and pigs.

But we haven’t yet addressed the subject of sustainability and hotels because, honestly, we’ve been a little unsure about how to most appropriately proceed. There are plenty of hotels that are wholly committed to being sustainable and eco-friendly, like the Six Senses group, and they should be applauded for their efforts. Six Senses Con Dao helps run a turtle sanctuary and provides environmental and life skills education to the island’s children, while Six Senses Ninh Van Bay repairs coral reefs and implemented a filtration system that provides clean drinking water to locals. Others, like the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, make an entire style out of the concept, forging their very DNA on meeting exacting LEED certifications.

But is it ever enough?

Look at the Maldives. Surrounded by ocean in the world’s lowest-lying country, a hotel like Soneva Fushi is rightly lauded for building with recycled materials, measuring its carbon emissions to a fault, and pioneering sustainability to the point that they have a machine to transform washed up plastic into souvenirs. We’d love to point to these examples and say they’re solving the sustainability crisis, one hotel stay at a time. But the truth is that no matter what Soneva Fushi does for sustainability, the depressing fact is that attracting tourists is a strain on the environment.

Forget the impacts of over-tourism. Forget the loss of natural habitats. Unless you’re going the Greta route, just getting to the Maldives is problematic.

Greta
Greta Thunberg

Air Travel

Although air travel contributes only about 2.5 percent of global emissions, it takes on outsize influence because it is — as one writer put it back in 2013 — the “most serious environmental sin” for most of us on an individual basis. Fast forward to today and the continuing proliferation of affordable air travel means airplane emissions are on pace to triple by 2050.

The most responsible solution is to just stop flying. And because that’s such a daunting prospect — like so many of the answers to climate change — we can lose perspective on how to actually contribute to the solution. Most people aren’t going to give up flying any more than they’re going to go vegan.

Then you look at someone like Greta Thunberg. Continuing with her rejection of air travel, the activist cruised from New York back to Europe on a sailboat as recently as this past December, refusing to raise her carbon footprint. That’s not an option available to most of us. Nor is it one most of us would ever want to consider. And that was exactly Thunberg’s point. As the 16-year-old icon told the media, “I am not traveling like this because I want everyone to do so. I’m doing this sort of to send the message that it is impossible to live sustainably today, and that needs to change. It needs to become much easier.”

Thunberg’s protests aim to force governments to take responsibility, step up to the plate, and make drastic emissions cuts in their countries. And to her point, charting a successful course for the long-term health of the planet will require massive solutions, fundamental restructuring, and the will of entire nations. The charity and voluntary sacrifice of private citizens and small businesses is encouraging and necessary, but it won’t be enough.

Plane
Is air travel the most serious environmental sin?

Carbon Offsets

The most popular solution for the costly carbon emissions of air travel is called carbon offsetting. Like any climate change solution, it’s riddled with criticism and contradictions — but short of actually not flying, it might be the best option you have to mitigate your carbon footprint before takeoff.

Utilized by many of the major airlines for the last decade, carbon offsetting means the funding of projects around the world that counter CO₂ emissions. “Those might include projects to develop renewable energy, capture methane from landfills or livestock, or distribute cleaner cooking stoves,” writes one guide to buying them. If you buy a carbon offset for your flight, you’re trying to take the same amount of CO₂ out of the environment that your plane put into it.

It’s not just something facilitated by airlines. Websites and resources around the web can help you calculate the fuel cost of your trip and point you towards Gold Standard offsetting projects to purchase as an individual.

In theory, offsetting sounds great. But that’s the problem. Frankly, it’s just too easy. At the outset of offsets in 2011, one writer referred to the practice as the modern equivalent of buying Papal indulgences in the middle ages, a convenient way to eliminate your guilt without actually changing any habits. What travelers “need to fully understand,” said one professor, is that “the most effective way to address climate change is to stop emitting. There is no absolute reduction [in pollution] when buying an offset.”

Gorilla
Gorilla tourism

Preservation Tourism

Plenty have made the point that airlines need to curb their emissions. As a counterpoint, the founder of Beyond Green Travel — a consulting firm for sustainable tourism — wrote an editorial in November arguing that without air travel to service tourism in certain parts of the world, the financial incentives for particular conservation efforts would disappear. “When local communities benefit from tourism, they become partners and allies in saving nature,” argued Costas Christ.

Along with Tanzania and Colombia, one place he sees the positive effects of tourism is in Rwanda and Uganda, where — as we wrote in August — the tourism industry has been consistently “praised for funding the protection of the extremely endangered mountain gorilla, as well as schools and infrastructure for local communities.” Christ defends carbon-costly air travel with the benefits of this kind of ecological interest, extrapolating that “without tourism, it’s easy to imagine the Serengeti turned into cattle ranches.”

Of course, this argument only makes sense if you’re traveling with a responsible operator that makes sure tourism dollars reach the local community, in a sustainable way, and actually fund conservation. That’s something of a bright spot in the world of tourism: there’s no shortage of travel operators to connect you with responsible, locally beneficial guides and experiences. G Adventures, Adventure Alternative, and plenty more all focus on ethical, sustainable tourism around the globe. It’s one way you can both travel and make a commitment to sustainability.

But just as obvious is the rebuttal that preservation tourism in some corners of the world, no matter how restorative, doesn’t justify frequent air travel to urban centers. Even saving the mountain gorilla comes with a jet-sized grain of salt.

Proximity Hotel in Greensboro
Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, NC

Environmental Revolution

It’s saying something that the environmental conversation in travel is repeatedly framed in Christian terms, reflecting the apocalyptic nature of the situation. Air travel is the “most serious environmental sin.” Offsets are the modern day “indulgences.” Meanwhile, critics of eco-tourists confuse caring and commitment for a messiah complex.

In October, Booking.com ran a test that saw travelers specifically avoid booking with hotels flagged as eco-friendly. Whether those guests felt that their stay would somehow be worse at an eco-friendly hotel, or they were cynically sticking it to the tree-huggers, the test results prove that we still have a long way to go (and that not everyone sees the world on the edge of an Old Testament reckoning).

Creating a true awareness of the problem is the all-important first step, one that requires efforts both great and small — from carbon offsets and charitable donations all the way up to historic multinational agreements.

And that all starts with the attention brought on by the activists like Greta Thunberg. According to the Guardian, it’s the “Greta Thunberg effect” that has “driven demand for carbon offset schemes” in recent years. And the hope is that it will lead to much more. Governments need take the lead and enact policies that spur innovation and overhaul the fundamental framework of how we interact with the natural world. Working to ensure the future of the planet should be a priority across the board, not just a game played out on the margins.

Nothing in this world is guaranteed. Not even this world. One only needs to look out at the rest of our own solar system to see how the odds stack up against planetary life. In the grand, cosmic scheme of things, it wouldn’t take much to wipe this all away.

That’s why every action counts — but nothing counts as much as a full-throated revolution. So cut down on flying if you can. Take trains when possible. Stay at green hotels more often. Definitely do all of those things and more — but also continue to put pressure on your government and its representatives. Tell them that living sustainably needs to be easier. And don’t be discouraged by those who agitate for the status quo. Change will come slow, but eventually, the status quo will become a sustainable planet.

 

What Can We Do to Help?

It’s hard to travel sustainably, but it’s even harder to relate to different people and places if you can’t visit them. As a company that celebrates hotels and hospitality, we want you to travel and experience all of the world’s cultures, but we also want to incorporate principles of sustainability and do our part to preserve the health of our planet. In the poll and comments below, let us know what you’re most likely to take us up on when it comes to providing you with options for greener travel.
 

Which of these initiatives would you be most likely to utilize if it was available on Tablet?

27 Comments
  1. How about a rating for how green a hotel is? Water, electricity, community engagement etc. It may turn some people off but it may also make them more aware AND show others how sustainable hotels can still be quality hotels (not all comfort is lost!)

  2. Biofuels as a jet fuel are becoming more available and is a mean to directly reduce the carbon footprint of an airplane !

  3. I appreciate your point that flight shame isn’t the solution and that we should shame airlines and aircraft producers to invest more in research for clean travel and governments into both obliging and supporting them. As to offsets, if they are serious they reduce emissions just as well as nit flying, only somewhere else. In the long term they aren’t enough, because we must stop emitting everywhere, but for now they do help, reducing emissions where the obstacle is “only” money. So, let’s offset and provoke shame where most deserved

  4. Legislation and subsequent innovation are the only solution…but neither will happen unless people vote for governments that put this at the top of their agenda. Ironically, this is also the key to sustainable economic growth…but if voters and politicians continue to fight short-term battles then we won’t win the war.

  5. You say air travel is the greatest sin but have you watched Game Changers on Netflix and the impact of livestock?

  6. Support a free (freer) market, all over the world. Marketplace solutions are the only ones that will work in the long run. Figure it out!

  7. Planes have become 25% more efficient since 1991 and that trend is expected to improve over time. What the sheeple dont realise is that here are add-on effects of preventing flying, like the cost of things would skyrocket and the people in countries that depend on tourism- they would be out of jobs. If the less “well informed” were to address a real problem then it is to have less kids, they contribute 60+ tonnes more carbon per year than planes do.

  8. Further to my previous comment on Eco ratings, I realize you think it is futile based on a cited Booking.com survey but you are not Booking.com and your customers are different from theirs. Try your own classification for Tablet and give it an exclusive feel and people might actually seek it out.

  9. A P, the carbon emissions from factory farming are absolutely shocking. We did consider including some info on that in the story, but decided to stay focused on travel.

  10. Hi, I really appreciate that you are thinking about this, as this is a pervasive problem in this industry. So, thank you for bringing it up. I agree that systematic change is overall, much more important in influencing the future of climate change, than individual decisions. I like ALL the ideas that you have presented. I also like a grading system for carbon impact. Companies should put their communities and the resources that they use FIRST. Those that are doing so should be recognized for this by having their actions and efforts pointed out (and thereby educating the consumer).

  11. I also agree that hotels should be reviewed based on their sustainability. Perhaps even group hotels that reach a sustainability threshold in search results.

  12. I support the other suggestions in my request that you add an Eco / Sustainability rating to your hotel information on your site. It would be forward thinking of you, and make a lot of us appreciate your service and the places around the world even more. Also, please consider adding the Q0 hotel in Amsterdam to your list, and removing one of the less sustainable hotels. Our opinions count and should drive more sustainable hotelier behaviors. Thank you

  13. As the article points out – really the only genuine solution is to NOT GO. Most people find this offensive, pious, or impractical.

    So how about setting a challenge where people aim to TRAVEL A LITTLE LESS? For Tablet Hotels this does not mean a loss of revenue. People like me can only afford a stay at one of your hotels as a special treat, and by making fewer trips I can actually spend more money with Tablet.

  14. One thing you could do is to do a survey to ask your customers how much more per flight they would be willing to pay to be ‘carbon free’; or alternatively, how large of a tax (% added to total fare) would it take before they stopped flying.

    That data could be sent to lawmakers in the EU who are trying to formulate real carbon taxes for flying, and to deploy for subsidy schemes for renewable-based jet fuel alternatives to fossil fuel. That is the only way to handle emissions in flying, with any alacrity.

    Tablet is probably taking a quite western approach to this discussion. All the growth in air travel is really happening in Asia and specifically China—and they don’t give AF about this issue, collectively. Thailand for example is building new terminals almost yearly to handle enormous organic new growth of Asian tourists, it’s just getting started.

  15. Maybe team up with Amtrak and spotlight Tablet Hotels accessible by train? At least for US hotels. (Would also be great to see public transportation options at the destination for that final mile.) Would love to see a train and hotel special that would give a financial incentive to use a carbon light option. I live in LA and love going to Santa Barbara or San Diego, but it’s easiest to pop in my car and drive there. When I lived in New York I would take the train because it was always more convenient and economical than taking a car. On the west coast, Amtrak tends to be longer and more expensive than just using the car you’re already paying for.
    If Amtrak gets more ridership, one would hope that they would then be able to upgrade their infrastructure so it’s on par with basically every other first world country.

  16. On the air travel note: Wouldn’t that be the ultimate coup for Boeing – to regain consumer trust and regain brand value by completely reinventing how their product is fueled for flight?
    I like the idea put forth in these comments about sustainability scores, and letting consumers decide – while indirectly creating a new kind of competition in the hotel space.

  17. Travel local is also a solution. Flying to SE Asia, the Carribean, Uruguay or Dubai for a week of sun in winter is not vital.
    We should go back to common sense: travelling far is a luxury and should stay the exception.

  18. I agree with the previous comment that Booking.com is not your customer. I would absolutely take into account a sustainability score when booking a hotel. I’m constantly amazed at the amount of plastic waste generated by hotels and airlines. I stay at a luxury hotel on your platform (in NYC, I won’t name them) that hands every guest a plastic water bottle each time they head for the elevator to go up to their room. And I fly on airlines that just hand small plastic water bottles out for the water service. And then there are the plastic cups, which people won’t even reuse on the flight. Of course, these are filled from large plastic water bottles.

  19. Many people travel for business to collect travel points they can use themselves. Legislation to stop airlines from awarding points would help prevent a lot of plane travel, as would not allowing people to use point for plane travel

  20. I have much simpler goals. If we could just get rid of the garbage, especially plastic, it would be wonderful.

  21. The hotel is actually the “easy” bit to make sustainable – waste minimisation, recycling, sustainable supply chains, and active social and community responsibility initiatives can be powerful tools for sustainability at the local scale. The problem (from a global climate change perspective) is the travel to get to and from such hotels. For that to be managed not only do we actually need to pay the real costs of our travel (and offsetting is a start) but consumers need to change their behaviour. Hotels and the hospitality sector are central to this. The challenge for hotels to thrive if low carbon tourism paths do come to fruition is to be able to position themselves more as” local” travel destinations than long-haul ones. If your market doesn’t come from thousands of miles/km away and only comes from hundreds your contribution to reducing the climate change impacts of tourism is enormous..

  22. The US is determined to promote air and automobile travel over trains. I would like to see a comment in your hotel listings indicating if a property is accessible by train whether in the US, Europe, or another continent. We may need to utilize air travel overseas. But, once landed, if we can avoid renting an automobile by utilizing a train, all the better.

  23. I would love to see airports embrace more environmentally friendly practices – like supplying all of its food vendors with reusable plates, bowls, glasses, cutlery. It is truly horrifying the amount of plastic, paper and styrofoam (still!) that gets thrown away every minute in the airports.

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