• Alex Gerlach

Sustainable Tourism: Can Travel Be Eco-Friendly?

Updated: Jun 19

The tourism and travel industry has a lot more impact than some people may realize. When thinking about the industries of tomorrow, you may assume they are AI technology or renewable energy. But statistics show that tourism and travel are about to become the largest global industry in the coming years.

As the travel industry grows, we look for ways to protect our planet through sustainable tourism
As the travel industry grows, we look for ways to protect our planet through sustainable tourism

I’ll give some context about the impact of the travel and tourism industry:

  • It is responsible for over 8 million jobs.

  • It has a market size (number of likely buyers) of $1 trillion.

  • It will experience over 50% revenue growth in 2021-2022.

These few statistics are proof of tourism’s benefit to the global economy, but there are so many other reasons travel is growing in popularity. Nowadays, we are all looking to travel as a way to escape the stresses of our current social climate, discover ourselves, and experience different cultures. But the continued rise in tourism also has its drawbacks.


Despite the financial and socio-cultural benefits, travel and tourism industries are some of the most unsustainable ones out there.

Travel and tourism are some of the most unsustainable industries
Travel and tourism are some of the most unsustainable industries

Impact of Tourism on the Environment

The travel and tourism industry has a pretty significant impact on the environment and is responsible for 8% of global emissions. This may not seem like a large number, but 8% is more emissions than that of the construction industry.


The most unsustainable and impactful aspect of travel is aviation. Flights use extensive amounts of energy and are dependent on fossil fuels. These emissions can warm the atmosphere for centuries when released. Because they are released at high altitudes, aircraft emissions can trigger chemical reactions that contribute to heating the planet.


Aviation is just one example of how the travel and tourism industry plays a significant role in the global issue of climate change. When we travel, we generate carbon emissions throughout our trip. The environmental impact of traveling includes everything from brushing your teeth in the morning to ubering back to your hotel at the end of the night.


In light of all this information, sustainable tourism seems pretty much impossible. But there is a solution or way of adapting the travel and tourism industry to meet the needs of our planet. That’s where sustainable tourism comes in.

Airplane travel is a huge contributing factor to climate change
Airplane travel is a huge contributing factor to climate change


What is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable tourism is a concept for tourists, industries, and governments that encourages the improvement of the overall tourism experience and addresses global economic, environmental, and social issues.


According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism takes into consideration the “current and future economic, social and environmental impacts” of travel while “addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”


Each of the issues sustainable tourism addresses acts as one of three pillars. They are social justice, economic development, and environmental integrity. Each of these aims to enhance local economies by maximizing contributions of tourism, like generating jobs for workers and poverty reduction.


Considering travel’s dependence on other environmentally harmful industries, like transportation or food and beverage, sustainable tourism may seem like nothing but a dream. Luckily, that isn’t necessarily the case.


Is Sustainable Tourism and Travel Even Possible?

Despite contributing to issues like land degradation, which significantly impacts native communities, it also promotes wildlife conservation, protection of native lands, and preservation of their cultures.


Travel and tourism can also be used to raise awareness of the environmental and financial benefits of protecting natural areas. When a country finances the protection of its land and notable natural landmarks, it encourages tourism to that area.


This helps the community’s local economy and can encourage further investments into environmental protections and ordinances.

Tourism can be used to raise awareness of the benefits of protecting natural areas
Tourism can be used to raise awareness of the benefits of protecting natural areas

Everyone has their part to play when it comes to changing the way we travel to better support the environment. Large corporations and industries need to be actionable about investing in sustainable alternatives that combat the climate crisis.


Organizations and governments need to invest in protecting wildlife and natural landmarks. But what can tourists do?


Tourists and travelers can help by practicing ecotourism. The Global Ecotourism Network defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved.”


Some of the best ways for travelers and tourists to contribute to sustainable tourism include:

  • Supporting local communities

  • Exploring natural areas

  • Visiting destinations that need support


Interest in travel grows significantly every year, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, and worsens the tourism industry’s impact on the planet.


We have a responsibility as travelers to practice responsible tourism, but we also need to petition for ordinances that encourage governments and industries to enforce sustainable environmental travel policies.

As travelers, we are responsible for petitioning our governments to enforce sustainable tourism practices
As travelers, we are responsible for petitioning our governments to enforce sustainable tourism practices

Want to learn more about sustainability? Check out some of our other articles to learn more about how you can get involved and help protect our planet.


Resources:

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Global Sustainable Tourism Council

Tourism Teacher Article

Sustainable Travel International

 

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