As we become increasingly aware of the impact our actions have on the environment, more and more people seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint. This approach is important both in our everyday routines and during the times when we deviate ― like when we’re on vacation.
Fortunately, there are ways to travel more sustainably and minimize the negative effects of our tourism on the environment. It’s all part of a growing lifestyle movement called “green travel.”
HuffPost spoke to experts in tourism and sustainability about the growing world of “green travel” and how to incorporate this approach into your next itinerary.
What is green travel?
“Green travel is traveling in a way which is more sustainable than conventional travel,” said Anna Decam, environment program manager at the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. “It’s about minimizing the negative impacts on the natural environment as much as possible.”
She noted that taking a green approach to travel might entail curbing your carbon footprint, the amount of water you use, the waste you generate or any impact on local species and ecosystems.
“At its best, green travel goes beyond just minimizing harm, to actively contribute to the prosperity of people, planet and place,” Decam said.
Indeed, this type of tourism is about thoughtfulness. It’s seeking to lessen your environmental footprint while positively impacting the local communities you visit during your travels.
“Travel can negatively impact local communities in destinations by driving up costs of living, promoting cultural commodification, or causing congestion at popular sites,” said Kaitlyn Brajcich, senior manager of communications and training at Sustainable Travel International. “Sustainable travel aims to minimize any negative impacts and maximize the positive by improving career opportunities, promoting the equitable distribution of tourism benefits, improving local quality of life, ensuring respectful interactions and celebrating the local culture.”
Make sure your tourism dollars go to the people and ecosystems most impacted by your presence. Focus on how your travels can help fund conservation efforts, raise environmental awareness and support the restoration of vulnerable habitats.
“There are many words to describe sustainable tourism these days,” noted Rachel Dodds, a sustainable travel expert and professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “Green travel is one of them.”
She explained that terms like “regenerative travel” or “sustainable travel” have come into popular usage in recent years, as experts emphasize going beyond reducing harm and actually benefiting the environment and locals during your visit. But nomenclature aside, the message of highly conscious, eco-friendly tourism is consistent.
“Green travel should really be thought of more holistically as ‘responsible travel,’ taking into account not just the environment but also the local community, the economy, and travel culture,” said Brian McMahon, travel curator at Origin. “They’re all interconnected, so you can’t talk about one without discussing the others. Thankfully, travel is trending more and more in this direction and it’s now commonplace to see hotels, airlines and travel companies proudly show off their sustainability commitments. The hard part for travelers is sifting through all of that information and deciphering between real action and lofty language.”
Why is it getting so popular?
“Green travel in various forms has been around for a long time ― there were ecotourism lodges as far back as the 1980s,” said Rebecca Benner, deputy director of the global climate team at The Nature Conservancy. “But there is now an increasing focus on the many aspects of the environment that travel can impact. It is hard to ignore the twin crises for climate change and biodiversity loss. The public consciousness about humans’ impact on nature has risen substantially in the last few years as has considerations of sustainability.”
For this reason, she believes green travel has become even more popular in recent years and will continue to grow in prominence.
“Humanity is facing some huge challenges,” Decam said. “Fossil fuel usage, globalization and mass production have reached a point where humans are using far more of the Earth’s resources than can be replenished, generating greenhouse gases which are warming the planet. The tourism industry is no exception, contributing roughly 8% of global emissions each year. Climate change is causing increasingly extreme weather, rising sea levels and ecosystem breakdown.”
This reality is particularly relevant to tourism, which relies on the existence of safe, diverse, accessible destinations that attract people from all over the world.
“As the impacts of these actions begins to become more visible, individuals and businesses are increasingly waking up to the need to act now, to address the impacts we’re already experiencing and to safeguard future generations,” Decam added.
She pointed to a 2023 report from Booking.com that found 76% of travelers say they want to travel more sustainably over the coming 12 months. Compared to the 2022 report, there were also big increases in the percentage of travelers taking sustainable steps on vacation, like turning off air conditioning when they aren’t at their accommodations, reusing the same towels and bringing their own refillable water bottles.
As travelers seek to minimize their negative environmental impact, many tourism-related businesses are working to make sustainability a major focus.
“Destinations trying to attract visitors realize that eco-aware consumers have the same concerns when they travel as they do at home, so work with hotels, restaurants, tour and transport operators to have high environmental standards in place,” said Tom Hall, vice president of Lonely Planet. “Of course, in many cases host communities already have specific programs in place, so it is a matter of communicating them to visitors.”
Recent inflation and economic woes also play a role in the rise of more sustainable travel.
“Things are getting more expensive, which often helps encourage more low-carbon activities,” said Charlie Cotton, founder of the carbon consultancy ecollective. “Lastly, there is better understanding that travel done well can have a lower carbon footprint and be a more authentic, enjoyable experience.”
How can I engage with green travel?
“The first thing is to know why you’d like to take a greener approach to travel,” said Paula Espinoza, creative director at Naya Traveler. “By making this personal to you and your values, you will be more inclined to research and make decisions that will positively impact the environment.”
Commit to planning ahead so that you can learn about your options for eco-friendly lodging, transit, food and more and choose the ones that will minimize your negative impact. Espinoza also recommended purchasing carbon offsets to mitigate potentially unavoidable emissions like air travel.
Again, a little research goes a long way, especially in the area of sustainability.
Try to pack reusable toiletry bottles, bring your own tote bag as you shop, turn off the air conditioning and any electronics when they’re not in use and pick up litter you see.
“Every effort, no matter how big or small, can make a difference,” said Jan Louise Jones, coordinator for hospitality and tourism management at the University of New Haven. “Choose companies that include sustainability in their mission and goals. Recycle when you can, choose transportation with low carbon emissions, spend money at local businesses and interact with locals in a positive and meaningful way.”
Select activities with minimal carbon footprints, like hiking, biking and kayaking. Ensure any interactions with wildlife are handled responsibly. Take public transit.
“Think local,” echoed Theresa Jackson of Enlightened Journeys Travel. “Really explore in depth one region, or combine two destinations in one trans-Atlantic or -Pacific flight. I think an approach of contributing to culture, conservation and community through commerce, wisely placed, is the best way to go. Choose accommodations that practice environment-regenerating measures, support micro enterprises to raise up women to economic parity ― which, in turn, builds community and educates children ― and make sure your money is correctly going to support local people or conservation efforts.”
Prioritize hotels and activities that directly support the community and environment, like restaurants that source local food or tour operators that promote authentic cultural exchange.
“Be careful to look out for greenwashing ― claims that a company is ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ which are not supported by robust action,” Decam said.
When booking hotels, she recommended looking out for environmental certifications from trusted providers like EarthCheck, Green Key, and LEED. Major platforms like Booking.com are increasingly displaying sustainability information, and there are also a number of smaller booking companies with an eco-conscious mission.
If all this research and pre-planning seems daunting, there are also green–minded travel agencies that can help you find and book accommodations, activities and other impactful aspects of your next trip.
“Communication is key,” Decam added. “Hotels are more likely to embrace sustainability if they know that customers are interested in it. If you come across a particular measure that you are impressed by ― e.g. the property collects and reuses rainwater for the garden ― let the hotel know that you’re impressed by it. This will motivate them to embrace further measures.”
Similarly, you can offer feedback to hotels, tour operators or other travel companies you encounter on ways they might improve their sustainability.
“My advice would be to really consider the destinations we visit as places we hope future generations can visit,” said Kelly Bricker, director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Arizona State University.
She called on travelers to support local businesses, respect every destination’s culture and contribute to protect the natural environment and thus help people live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
“Our dollars that support travel should benefit local communities and cultural and natural assets for the long term,” Bricker added. “We are all stewards of this planet, and therefore must think about how we move about and how we can work to support amazing places around the world.”