And that affects an increasingly huge number of travelers. Nearly 1.2 billion people traveled the world in 2015, generating $1.5 trillion — a full 10 percent of global G.D.P. That number — and the huge environmental impact that comes with it — is part of the reason 2017 has been designated the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations. Both travelers and destinations are increasingly acknowledging the impact of sustainable travel. “We are at a crucial crossroads,” said Dirk Glaesser, the director of sustainable development of tourism for the United Nations World Tourism Organization. “We currently see that many countries are taking this very seriously.”
Tourism, while a global economic driver, also leaves a big environmental footprint. By some measures it accounts for a full 50 percent of all traffic movements, according to the U.N. Environment Program, and local culture can be strained by too many tourists crowding a particularly beautiful place — a concept known as overtourism. With a rapidly growing tourist base (1.6 billion people by 2020), the need for a sustainable approach grows more and more urgent.
The first challenge facing travelers is defining what sustainable travel actually is — and distinguishing it from the many varieties of travel that advocates and marketers have tried to label as sustainable. “When people think of sustainable tourism, they think of small eco-huts,” said David Picard, a former professor of anthropology of tourism at the University of Lausanne and an author of a Unesco study on sustainable development. “Eco-tourism rings a bell — Costa Rica, luxurious safari lodges in East Africa. But that’s just a tiny element.” While those businesses certainly have their place, he said, a small lodge built in a remote location is unlikely to have a significant impact on local and national development.
“You don’t create enough jobs or income,” he said. “You don’t create enough capacity. Paradoxically, what we recommend is work with AccorHotels because they have a huge professional capacity. They’ll train an entire hotel — 300 or 500 people — and what we saw is that these staff, once they’re trained, is that they’ll start opening smaller hotels.” That large-scale paying forward of both skill and financial viability is key, Mr. Picard said. “That’s the definition of sustainability — it’s preserving resources for future generations.” (He added that he would “endorse any hotel that has a Green Globe certificate.”)
As the notion of sustainable travel has become more mainstream, so has the notion that it implies a level of discomfort — but that need not be the case. “It’s not drinking water out of a vine, holding a machete and getting bitten by bugs,” said Geoff Bolan, chief executive of Sustainable Travel International. What it does mean, he said, is simply exploring the nature and culture of a place.
Not all travelers buy in to the idea that they need to worry about sustainability either. That is why advocates have focused on getting big companies on board — they can shift the agenda.
AccorHotels’ director of sustainability, Arnaud Herrmann, said the hotel was committed to executing more sustainable practices on a large scale through its Planet 21 program. “You don’t wake up and say, ‘I want sustainability,’ ” he said. “It involves a long process of developing the company culture and integrating the principles within the company.”
It doesn’t hurt that the move toward sustainability has buoyed AccorHotels’ bottom line. The company has saved millions of euros by encouraging guests to reuse towels and conserve water — and a portion of that money has gone into its Plant for the Planet program, which has planted five million new trees over the past nine years. (A majority of U.S. hotels also have programs that reuse towels and linens.) The goal is to make environmentally sound choices simple for the consumer and without imposing undue financial burden. “Ecology should be not more expensive, and should not have any negative effect on comfort,” Mr. Herrmann said.
The importance of large chains to sustainability doesn’t mean you have to cancel your trip to the tiny lodge in Central America; opportunities to travel sustainably are everywhere. Travelers “think sustainable travel is either too expensive or outside of what they want to do when they travel. More often than not, this is not the case,” said Kelley Louise, executive director of Travel+SocialGood, a sustainable tourism advocacy group. “It can apply to any kind of travel, whether you’re going to New York City or Costa Rica or Europe. When it becomes more applicable, it becomes more powerful to be used as a force for good.”
What, then, has prevented sustainable travel from gaining broader acceptance? It might be a branding issue. “The word sustainable is not very digestible,” said Ana Duék, editor of Viajar Verde, a news site about sustainable travel. “The idea is to communicate it in a more attractive way to travelers, using words like ‘authenticity’ and ‘experience.’ ”
That sort of demystification is what organizations like Visit.org are trying to accomplish. The site curates different local travel experiences — ranging from free to several thousand dollars per person — in the name of social good. Sustainability, the idea goes, is not always something quantifiable like a certain number of trees planted or an amount of food waste reduced — it can also be about cultural exchange. An experience at the League of Kitchens, in which people can sign up to cook in home kitchens around New York City, demonstrates that sustainable travel need not necessitate leaving the country.
The immersive cooking workshops ($175) aim to empower immigrant and refugee women. “It’s not about visitors sharing their skills with the locals,” Michal Alter, a founder of Visit.org, said. “It’s about the community sharing their experiences and history with the visitors.” Other experiences visitors can book on the site include an art workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia ($18), and a five-day wine tasting tour in Moldova ($594).
Generally speaking, sustainable travel simply means being open to other cultures. “Dare to talk to someone you usually wouldn’t talk to,” said Mr. Glaesser of the World Tourism Organization. “Leave a positive footprint, whether it’s a local purchase or a kind of respectful economic or cultural input.”
Here are more practical tips for traveling sustainably that won’t blow your travel budget — and in some cases will save you money.
Check for Certifications
There are dozens of different green certification programs, making it difficult for travelers to know what’s what. Is Green Globe the same as Green Key? Is Travelife the same as EarthCheck? Look to see if the plan is recognized by the G.S.T.C. by checking their website. The group holds recognized certification plans to certain baseline standards, requiring that hotels or tour operators obey local labor laws, promote their services accurately, and support local infrastructure and community development. Systems can be gamed, of course, and not all green hotels are equal. Nevertheless, “I’d say that any kind of accreditation a hotel has is a good thing — some are better than others but something is better than nothing,” said David Ville, the group sustainability manager for Thomas Cook Group, a British-based global travel company.
A green or energy-efficient hotel need not translate to a higher price. Indeed, one of the properties under the AccorHotels group of properties is Red Roof Inn — one of the more frugal chain options in the United States. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of research to make a determination. On the higher end, I looked up five-star hotels in Manhattan for a weekend in November. The New York Edition hotel, which is LEED certified (a U.S. certification program for green buildings), and the NoMad (LEED Gold certified, a more rigorous level of certification) came up at $404 and $364 per night, respectively. The nearby Langham Place and Gramercy Park hotels, without LEED certifications, were more expensive, at $484 and $419 per night, respectively. I’m cherry picking, but my point is that green certification doesn’t necessarily translate to higher prices.
Consider a Tour Operator
Tour operators are not as widely used in the United States as they are elsewhere, but large organizations like Thomas Cook have the leverage to make a difference in sustainability, particularly in its trickiest area: flights. Air travel leaves an enormous carbon footprint — by some accounts, a round-trip flight from New York to Europe can create a warming effect equivalent to two or three tons of carbon dioxide per person. One way to help is to patronize an airline that uses renewable biofuel: There are a number, including United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Alaska Airlines, which is experimenting with a fuel blend partially powered by leftover branches and stumps from timber harvests.
Another is to turn to an operator with its own planes. Thomas Cook does so much volume that it has its own airline and, therefore, can control variables like flight capacity. “We don’t run planes unless they’re full, basically,” Mr. Ville said. “We run planes to places we know will be busy certain times of year.” Thomas Cook has set the goal of improving efficiency per passenger by 12 percent by 2020, he said, and it will try to achieve that goal with different strategies, including single-engine taxiing on runways and reducing onboard weight.
Prices are pretty reasonable too — I found a last-minute package that offered seven nights at a resort in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, including a round-trip flight from Manchester, England, for about $300 per person (double occupancy).
Use Home-Sharing Sites Sensibly
Home-sharing sites certainly offer some fantastic deals — just make sure you read between the lines. Click on the host’s profile and do a little digging. Does that person also have 10 other properties listed? Consider looking elsewhere. Many who accuse Airbnb of taking away from the housing pool for a city’s permanent residents decry these mini Airbnb empires. Mr. Picard, who lives in Lisbon, said that half of the city’s historic areas “have become Airbnb neighborhoods.”
Perhaps in an attempt to combat those sorts of perceptions, the company is taking steps to work with destinations on sustainability efforts. Airbnb has committed $65,000 to sponsoring a November sustainable tourism conference in Jamaica, which hosted 32,000 Airbnb visitors last year. Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s minister of tourism, wrote in an email that Airbnb “is broadening the base of ownership within tourism and is enabling a wider entrepreneurship to emerge.”
Reconsider the Hostel
The word “hostel” may conjure phantom bug bites, but the category is making progress. Many hostels are as good as some hotels, and offer private rooms if you are not up for bunking with a room full of strangers. They are also usually cheaper, frequently offering perks like free breakfasts.
Not only that, Ms. Louise of Travel+SocialGood said, but “hostels are frequently more keyed into an area and allow more direct impact on a community.” I found this to be true on a recent trip to Johannesburg, where I didn’t even stay at the hostel, Curiocity Backpackers — I simply used it as a resource to meet people and to find a tour of a township led by a local guide. Ms. Louise cited Hostelling International as a good resource to find places that work directly with community groups and local N.G.O.s.
Think Outside the Popular Zones
Overtourism, like overfishing, can deplete a region’s resources. Ms. Louise suggests being part of the solution by considering the outskirts of a popular destination instead of city centers and the like — a way to save both money and hassle. “I’ll stay in Long Island City, for example, instead of Manhattan,” she said, referring to the riverside Queens neighborhood — though locals will note that Long Island City isn’t the cheap, low-lying industrial area it once was. Still, the additional commute time to popular attractions is negligible and savings can be substantial.
Volunteer, but Be Diligent
Volunteering can be a fantastic, inexpensive way to make a positive impact on a community. But do some research before committing to volunteer work in developing countries, especially if that volunteer work involves children. On her site, Soul Travel Blog, Ellie Cleary recounts paying an organization to place her as a teacher with a classroom of 6- to 11-year-old students in Cambodia. When most of the students sold the textbooks she bought them, she writes, “I realized just how out of depth I was in the situation, as someone who had no idea as to the cultural and educational norms in the country.”
Volunteer willingly, but be skeptical. “Avoid orphanages. Many are more focused on profit than doing good,” said Ms. Duék of Viajar Verde. “When volunteering, think if you have the skills to actually help.” The site ChildSafe Movement details ways travelers can help protect local children.
Last year, when I volunteered to tutor children in the Dominican Republic during a seven-day Fathom cruise, my voluntourism misgivings — that I wouldn’t be contributing in a positive or lasting way — were ultimately outweighed by the fact that I had teaching experience, and that the tutoring was conducted in the child’s house, surrounded by her family.
Eat and Shop Locally
It sounds obvious but it’s worth repeating — try to eat and shop locally as much as possible. It will provide a better experience, and frequently save a bit of money. “Choose a place that has a local flavor, uses local products or engages with the community to provide entertainment opportunities,” Thomas Cook’s Mr. Ville said. Not sure upon first glance if a place sources its food or products locally? Just ask.
Use Common Sense
The traveler’s and vendor’s greatest ally in promoting sustainable tourism is simply common sense, which doesn’t cost a thing. Turn lights off. Don’t waste food. Avoid creating extra trash. “No one’s begging for a Styrofoam cup,” said Mr. Bolan, of Sustainable Travel International, “Or a plastic water bottle with three ounces of water in it, or their light to be on when no one is there.”
From a business perspective, Mr. Ville cites basics such as “properly managing energy in the hotel, changing A/C units, reducing food waste” as essentials of running a sustainable business. Water conservation is also vital, as “the cost of water and pools is going through the roof.”
Lastly, don’t be afraid speak up. If you don’t like that your hotel or airline gives you a plastic bottle, say so. Creating a sea change begins with action, no matter how small. “Everybody’s got a role,” Mr. Bolan said, though he is quick to tamp down expectations. “You can voice your opinion in 30 seconds, but it takes a longer time to change policy.”