Home Travel Tips Be a More Sustainable Traveler

By Livia Albeck-Ripka

Illustrations by Jackson Gibbs NEW YORK TIMES TRAVEL

When thinking about how to reduce our individual carbon footprints, one of the simplest ways to cut back on emissions is to fly less often. But for those who want to see the world, there are ways to make trips more sustainable, including where you go, what you pack and how you decide to get there. 

Where to Go

As a general rule, the shorter the distance from home you travel, the lower your carbon footprint. But if you want to go farther, some destinations are more sustainable than others. 

Staying Close to Home

Finding local adventures, such as walking in unexplored corners of your neighborhood or visiting museums in your city, is among the greenest forms of travel. If you want to venture just a little farther, consider driving a few hours to a beach or forest. Even a small adventure can feel a world away.

The Most Sustainable Destinations

According to a list compiled by a dozen sustainability organizations, cities and towns in Slovenia, including Ljubljana, as well as locations in Spain were among the best places to visit and leave a light footprint in 2019. In a separate competition, experts also nominated Palau — where visitors must pledge to protect the natural and cultural heritage before entering — as a pioneer in sustainability.

Each of the 100 destinations was selected based on certain criteria: that they had a governing body to manage sustainability; showed commitment to protecting natural resources, people and heritage; and reduced energy consumption, among other factors. The aim of the list is to raise the bar on sustainability issues for all cities, said Claire Ellis, the chair of Ecotourism Australia, one of the organizations that helped determine the list. 

Slovenia, Dr. Ellis added, was among the first countries to develop sustainability tools and certification programs at the national level. In 2016 its capital, Ljubljana, was voted Europe’s greenest city by the European Union, thanks to its public transport, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and commitment to protecting green areas and saving waste water. 

Increasingly, Ljubljana and other sustainable cities are becoming aware of the “over tourism” occuring in cities such as Barcelona and Venice, Dr. Ellis and other experts said. In Venice, for example, locals have become increasingly concerned about the cruise ships that cause environmental damage, dominate the skyline and often cause overcrowding of the city. Similar issues plague Barcelona, which is experiencing soaring numbers of visitors.

If You Want to Visit More Popular Tourist Destinations

If you do choose to visit crowded and popular cities, consider doing so outside peak summer months, say experts. Stay longer, choose accredited accommodation (using a site such as bookdifferent.com, which ensures claims to sustainability are checked by third parties), and find local activities that give back to residents, instead of the most popular activities, which can also often be tourist traps. When you are a visitor to a new place, consider that you are voting with your “money and feet and wallet,” Dr. Ellis said. 

Visit Places That Need Your Support

Another way to spend your hard-earned dollars is to travel to destinations rebuilding after disaster. Puerto Rico, for example, has developed a robust tourism sector since weathering a devastating hurricane in 2017. The island, which also faces sea level rise, was picked as The Times’ No. 1 destination in 2019, in part because it represents many fragile places around the world. 

Travelers can help further by volunteering in environmental and social projects helping to rebuild devastated communities, said Laurie Myers, the project lead for the Global Travel and Tourism Resilience Council, which helps the industry to focus on sustainable outcomes for disaster-affected communities. “Travel and tourism is probably the fastest way to recovery,” Mr. Myers said. 

If You’re Visiting a Coast

And if you’re planning a trip to any coastal destination, choosing one with a Marine Protected Area is another way to ensure the involvement of local communities in protecting landscapes and aquatic life. “Once the local population is engaged,” Mr. Myers said, it can help them to rebuild after crisis and welcome visitors to their natural environment in a way that is sustainable. 

Once You’ve Chosen Your Destination:

  • Use an eco-friendly booking site for accommodation. Sites like bookdifferent.com calculate your carbon footprint per night based on your selection and include eco-friendly ratings. Choose accommodation that injects money back into the local economy. 
  • Consider using a sustainable travel agent. Companies like lokal can take out some of the legwork by organizing trips and activities for you that take environmental and social impact into consideration. 
  • Look for a system of verification. This will help you determine if a business is simply greenwashing, or has met standards set by sustainability councils.
  • Seek out local experiences. Homestays, local guides and programs that give back to communities are also good ways to ensure your money is injected back into the local economy. 

Keep in mind that “not every destination has eco-certified accommodations which is why it is also up to travellers to pay close attention,” Lonneke de Kort, the chief executive of bookdifferent.com,wrote by email. 

“Many small scale accommodations can be green solutions as well,” she added. “For instance, think of a farm which uses solar power, serves fresh organic produce for breakfast and employs locals.” 

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