What role should environmental factors play in your travel planning?
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of climate concern — from “no big deal” to “full-blown catastrophe”— the question is worth considering. Sustainability is growing in importance in our culture, and younger people are especially attuned to it. Even if you never think about things like carbon emissions, you likely have customers or potential customers who do. And sooner or later, they will ask you questions about the environmental impact of your trips.
The nature of travel makes this a fundamentally difficult conversation. After all, travel involves moving people across great distances, which uses a certain amount of energy. And until electric vehicle technology advances to the point that electric motorcoaches and airplanes are viable — which could be decades away, from what I’m told — the energy used in travel will come from fossil fuels. And it will create carbon emissions.
Given that travel is intrinsically energy-intensive, how can our industry take meaningful steps toward sustainability? That’s a question I’ve been pondering lately, and one I pose to many tourism leaders and innovators when I get to a chance to talk to them. And to be honest, not many of them have really satisfying answers.
Certainly, small measures are already available to environmentally conscious travelers. You can reuse your hotel towels and bedsheets, although this probably benefits the hotelier more than the planet. You can choose reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastics and try to recycle as much of your waste as possible. You can even purchase carbon offsets to make up for the energy used during your trip.
In reality though, none of these measures will do much to move the needle on the travel industry’s overall environmental impact. And it’s difficult to envision a comprehensive strategy that would.
This all leads me to believe we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of looking for ways to minimize travel’s environmental impact, maybe we should focus on ways to make that impact worthwhile.
Environmental tradeoffs are a fact of life. Heating homes, electrifying cities and harvesting crops all use significant amounts of energy. On the whole, we accept that the benefits to society outweigh the costs to the environment. Maybe we should think about travel the same way.
When you take a group on the road, you’re making an environmental impact. Do your trips’ benefits to society outweigh those costs?
Travel makes valuable contributions to economies and creates jobs around the world. It can also bring joy, personal enrichment and greater cultural understanding. Travel can tear down walls and build communities.
So, what is the sustainability-minded travel planner to do? Focus on the benefit side of the equation.
You can only do so much to reduce the cost side, but there’s a limitless amount you can do to increase the benefits. You can make sure every trip is meaningful. You can maximize community building and human interaction. You can pack your trips with experiences that open people’s eyes and help them appreciate new things and treasure the people around them.
One day, energy technology may make it possible for us to travel with zero environmental impact. Until that day comes though, we can all work hard to make our travel as worthwhile as possible.