Sipping cocktails in a hammock beneath palm trees in the Caribbean; exploring museums all day in New York; discovering the Orient on a cruise ship; or visiting the Taj Mahal in India. Many people have dream trips like these on their bucket lists. However, they are not particularly sustainable. Air travel or cruise ships emit a lot of CO2 and hotels often consume a lot of energy and resources. The better alternatives: A hiking vacation, canoe trip, or bike tour in your own or neighboring regions.
Current Shift toward sustainability
It sounds unremarkable at first, but sustainable travel is actually becoming increasingly popular. In a monitoring report by the Research Association for Holidays and Travel (FUR) in 2021/2022, funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, two thirds of respondents wished for sustainability on their vacation.
“The trend towards sustainable travel has been around for some time,” says Zoe Rost, team leader of Corporate Sustainability Services at DEKRA Assurance Services GmbH. “You can see this in the fact that more and more booking portals are now classifying sustainable travel, hotels are advertising their sustainability certifications, and entire regions are making efforts towards sustainability. For example, ski resorts located at altitudes where snow is guaranteed and that can therefore get by without the use of artificial snow, for which as little forest as necessary has been cleared, and which rely on renewable energy and resource conservation.”
How can we travel sustainably?
Basically, sustainability in travelling comes down to three pillars: ecology, economy, and social issues. The United Nations guidelines stipulate that tour operators and tourists must conserve environmental resources, respect the local culture, promote the local economy, and help to reduce poverty. “Climate change, scarcity of resources, and poverty are key issues that we can influence positively or negatively, depending on how we travel,” says expert Rost. “Awareness of these issues has changed significantly, especially among the 20- to 30-year-old generation.”
On the one hand, there is the environmental footprint. It starts with the choice of transportation. Do I want to travel by plane, train, or car? It continues with the choice of accommodation: How does the hotel I booked deal with food waste, how much energy does it use for swimming pools and saunas, do the rooms have to be cleaned every day? Social issues also play a role. Can you support the destination from a social point of view? Do you consciously choose local activities that preserve the cultural heritage of the region?
Questions upon questions that quickly become overwhelming when planning a vacation. According to the previously mentioned monitoring report, the desire for more sustainability is there, but it is not yet a decisive criterion when booking. In the planning phase, guidance is offered by special online providers, by various certifications such as those recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, or by a few basic rules.
Local decelerated and organic travel options
“Like with shopping, you can also use buzzwords as a guide when traveling. For shopping, such buzzwords are: ‘regional, seasonal, organic’,” says DEKRA expert Rost. “When traveling, ‘regional’ is also a key term – not having to travel long distances. Decelerated travel also helps – for example, traveling by public transport, train, bus, or bicycle. You should also look for environmentally friendly accommodation – such as a vacation on an organic farm. Private accommodations are also an alternative. They use less resources and you can support the local economy by having breakfast in the café around the corner. Of course, the best way to explore the area is by bike or on foot instead of in a rental car.”
According to Greenpeace, long-distance buses and long-distance or overnight trains are the best means of transport for the climate over longer distances. Short-haul flights have the greatest impact on the environment due to their relatively high CO2 values. According to Greenpeace, people who must fly should prioritize direct flights, as take-off and landing release particularly high levels of CO2. Impactful: According to calculations by the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, around two square meters of sea ice disappear per person on a return flight to Mallorca. The development of special alternative fuels for airplanes is still underway and will probably only bring relief some time in the future.
“One of the worst things in terms of sustainability would be to spend your skiing vacation in Saudi Arabia or to go on a cruise. Effort is being made there, too, but with the air pollutants, waste of resources, and general amount of waste on board, including food waste, it's not sustainable,” says Rost.
A little goes a long way
Whichever option you decide on in the end: It is important to pay attention to little things that you should also consider in everyday life. Instead of buying plastic bottles, take a water bottle with you, do not leave the water running when brushing your teeth, do not change your towels in the hotel every day, and do not fill your plate so full at the buffet that some of it ends up in the trash afterwards.
When in doubt, Rost also advocates not traveling far. “People underestimate what we have right on our doorstep. Whether it’s cultural attractions such as palaces, castles, and world-class museums, or UNESCO-listed nature – the sights in our home country are sometimes just as impressive as the sights on the other side of the world.”