Sustainable Travel – Here for the Long Term?

Accessibility of air travel

Sustainable travel is one of the fashionable terms being bandied about at the moment. Eco-tourism, green travel and reducing carbon-footprints are some of the current ‘buzz’ words of the travel industry.

Airlines are offering carbon offsetting programmes where paying a little more for the flight means that ‘green’ initiatives will be invested in. There is some debate whether these programmes are actually effective and perhaps in reality only allow passengers to feel a little less guilty for choosing to fly in the first place.

The motives of the airlines may also be called into question, the commitment to reduce emissions and become greener is possibly just a consequence of government and customer pressure rather than a genuine desire to tackle these issues.

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Seems pretty sustainable

Flying became more accessible to the average person during the sixties and seventies, prices came down and more people were able to afford to fly. Flying remains the cheapest option despite recent rises in fuel costs and taxes.

Slow travel options such as rail which are also greener are still unable to compete with airlines in price over similar journeys. This is one of the greatest challenges facing sustainable travel. Most of us are governed by our wallets and as long as this disparity remains most people will inevitably still choose to fly.

Green travel

There are some genuine initiatives to reduce the effect of air travel on the planet and reduce emissions. Virgin has recently announced its plans to start using ‘green’ fuel for its flights in the near future. People power can be effective here, if this proves successful and passengers vote with their feet competitors will be forced to follow suit.

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Sustainable transport of the future?

The newly introduced ‘Dreamliner‘ 787 with its carbon composite fuselage is hailed as the future of long-haul air travel.  Lighter; it is able to fly further and is more fuel efficient and will hopefully prove to be a step in the right direction.

The true inconvenient truth remains however that the energy suppliers are an extremely powerful lobby which often have our governments running scared. The oil companies of the United States are a prime example, many often fund the election campaigns of Presidents and it is an extremely strong or foolish leader of the free World that chooses to ignore that when in office!

A number of United Nations initiatives such as the Kyoto Accord have almost certainly not been entered into because of this. The axis of power of huge conglomerations whose vested interests would suffer if suggested reductions were introduced globally simply will not allow it.

To date we have relied almost entirely on fossil fuels to power our thirst not only for travel but for progress towards a World of convenience. It is common knowledge that these resources are not inexhaustible and one day in our near future they will run out.

As these resources run dry less economically viable reserves are being exploited and although there is a treaty in place it seems unlikely the pristine wilderness of the Antarctic will remain so forever.

This has brought a race to find cleaner, more sustainable energy sources, solar energy, hydro-electric, wind and wave farms are all seeing massive investment and research as we attempt to secure our future energy supply. Nuclear energy is also seeing a return to popularity with many governments as concerns of future power outages become a reality.

Sustainable travel; Horse and carriage on Spetses, Greece on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Taking a step back might not be all bad!

Impact on the environment

Sustainable travel is not merely about emissions, cheap flights, increasingly expensive diminishing fossil fuels or huge power hungry companies. Small community led tourism projects often represent our perception of eco-tourism and probably our best hope.

Safaris on game reserves led by local tribesman, trekking excursions in the Himalaya with sherpas or whale watching in Iceland or even Japan. The really successful projects all have one thing in common; the majority of the community has accepted that tourism is more profitable than the alternative.

The destinations where many of these initiatives are being promoted are regions of extreme poverty where just feeding their families is a daily struggle. When there is not anything else to feed their children people will resort to bush meat. If crops are being destroyed by elephants or livestock being killed by predators they will protect them regardless of any endangered species lists or threat of penalty.

Tourism as a main industry

The only way any sustainable travel project can hope to be successful is if the local communities are convinced they are worthwhile and that dollars from tourism will directly benefit them. The effect usually needs to be relatively immediate, there is not much point explaining to starving people they will have food in their bellies five years from now.

This needs education not penalisation, communities need to understand fully the benefits of protecting their environment and the resources within it.

The monies provided through tourism has to directly benefit these communities, until tangible improvements in their standard of living are witnessed they will remain suspicious and reticent towards any such programmes.

Care will also need to be exercised that the impact of this tourism does not negatively affect the community, environment or eco-system. Countless safari wagons following a pride of lions around all day, whale watching boats chasing the same whale for several hours or clearing several hundred acres of prime rainforest to build an eco-encampment are unlikely to achieve sustainability.


It’s a World of convenience

Ultimately it is the traveller that has the final say, the real power. It is their money that keeps the airlines flying, the shareholders happy and provides the impetus for sustainable travel.

Sustainable travel, traffic free on Spetses, Greece on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Car free zones require community agreement

Most of us, me included are too reliant on our conveniences, big, powerful cars, endless entertainment devices, time-saving gadgets and of course cheap flights. It may require some sacrifices to be made, take an extra day travelling to our destination, and even have to pay a little extra to do so.

Rail travel has the lowest carbon-footprint of the popular forms of travel, but it still remains relatively expensive in comparison to air travel. To compete on equal terms it probably requires investment and possibly even subsidisation by governments to lower ticket prices. However if more of us travelled by train the costs would also likely come down and maybe even prices as a consequence.

A truly eco-friendly lodge in Africa or India is unlikely to have all the mod cons of modern society. It is possible that the shower is outside, a bucket with holes in the bottom. There may not be hot and cold running water or even a flushing toilet, a cappuccino may not be available with the breakfast muffin. Those wishing a true sustainable travel experience will probably be required to make some sacrifices.

This can be a positive experience; leaving the traveller feeling totally liberated from the trappings of modern society. Those wishing to genuinely reduce their carbon-footprint will need to research their chosen tour provider with care to ensure they are providing the experience they seek in a sustainable manner.

Truly sustainable travel is still someway off but it is possible, it merely needs all agencies to pull in the same direction. Airlines, power companies, tourists, communities, destinations and most importantly of all governments will need to make sacrifices and changes in the way they operate.

It starts with each one of us, we can make a difference, we can stop choosing airlines and companies with poor environmental records and start choosing our politicians very carefully, those that genuinely show concern for the planet. Finally we need to support the local community projects that are working to improve their own circumstances and providing sustainable tourism as a result.

Sustainable travel; Sailing boat in Spetses, Greece on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Not all sustainable choices need sacrifice

This piece may sound a little preachy, but I do not apologise for it, it is about time we all woke up to the harm we are doing and my own hope is that I will start to practice what is written here more regularly.


Comments 22

    1. Post
      1. peter behringer

        Great post..this post isnt not preachy at all.. surprized you didnt touch on human-powered transportation (walking, bicycling,etc) or beasts of burden as eco-friendly modes of getting around for the traveler…

        1. Post

          Thank you Peter and very good points too. I chose not to include the discussions you mention for a couple of reasons. One was the brevity of the post as it was already becoming a little long and whilst an important topic did not want to scare away people with a lengthy post. Those subjects you mention are are equally worth discussing but human powered transportation are also obvious choices. They are without doubt the most sustainable form of transportation there is and sholuld be employed whenever the option is available. As for beasts of burden whilst I agree they are sustainable many are also abused or at best worked to death therefore it’s actually a seperate issue for me, one of animal rights.

  1. lara dunston

    Great post! Good on you for publishing this. My husband and I are very passionate about sustainable travel – that’s partly what drove us to create our Grantourismo blog – and whenever we travel, every day we travel, we’re constantly questioning the choices we make, from where we eat for lunch to the bottle of wine we buy, where we shop for groceries to which hotel/rental to stay in. And when it comes to writing about travel, we try really hard to highlight accommodation, restaurants, tour companies, etc, that are responsible, ‘green’, and promote sustainability. Our hope is that it will inspire others to do the same. I’m sure your post will have an impact too. It doesn’t sound at all preachy by the way 🙂

    1. Post

      Really glad you liked it Lara and also that you travel in such a responsible manner and also try to influence others to do the same by posting in the same manner. It is an example that I will certainly attempt follow though if I am totally honest that will need to be tempered between the press trips and my independent travels I guess. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Alaster

    Good post!
    I suppose how ‘eco’ a holiday is will depend on how adventurous the traveller is, but the choices we make about where we go, how we get there, and what we do once we arrive is maybe more crucially dependent on money.
    The idea of the sustainable or green travel experience is more attractive than the reality of inconvenience. I agree that more people should be using trains, and personally I love the idea of following the rail routes across a contininent, stopping off for a day or two at points along the way to get a real sense of the place.
    What about bringining back commercial airships – yes it’s slow, but you could conceivably carry hundreds more people on one flight than a jumbo jet with much less energy required to keep it in the air.
    However, the convenience and affordability of air travel means that we can spend more of our holiday time at our chosen destination, without necessarily having to set aside a couple of days at either end for travelling, and at a reasonable cost.
    I’m not sure if we can put the genie back in the bottle.
    I agree that it’s about the choices that we make, and the biggest influencer of that choice being – where shall we go, and how quickly and cheaply can we do it?
    Fast and cheap will beat slow and expensive every time.

    1. Post

      I totally agree with your points Alaster it is all about cost and convenience for most people. It is hard to find fault in somebody flying to a distant location who only has a week or so vacation time. Most of us will also always be governed by what we can comfortably afford.

      Airships would certainly be an interesting ‘development’ it might be worth a little research to see if they are actively being considered as a future travel option.

      Inevitably however I think our hands will be forced, it is unlikely we will see it within our lifetimes, but once fossil fuels etc are beyond economic extraction human kind will have to find viable options it would just be nice if we could do it sooner rather than later and be really proactive and not just reactive.

    1. Post
  3. Bethany ~ twoOregonians

    After spending the last five years really revolutionizing our food consumption practices and habits, I can look over my shoulder and be proud of the advances we’ve made in ethical, sustainable sourcing, seasonal eating, and environmentally conscious cooking. It’s been a slow and steady transition, and an accumulation of new knowledge, leads, and inspirations over time allowed us to arrive at the place we are now. A place that might look radical to some (and perfectly reasonable to others).

    I say all that to acknowledge that I’m still very much on the “junk food travel diet.” Cheap airfare. Affordable pricing. Conventional operations.

    I read recently on another blog about a couple’s satisfaction with a pricier tour organizer using reusable plates and cutlery rather than Styrofoam and plastic, and while I wholeheartedly agree with those best practices, I wonder how honest I’d be when on the road, choosing between price points.

    It will be a continued effort to advance toward the responsible end of the spectrum. As with ethical food, it will take time to make the shift, but I do trust that the rewards of stewardship are worth it. Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Post

      An interesting analogy Bethany and a worthy one if you can make changes in your diet which is much more difficult than people percieve as we ultimately enjoy eating the things which are not healthy for us.

      Making changes to our travelling habits will not be easy and in fact in the short term it may even be impossible in some circumstances. Having the will to do so however is probably a huge step in the right direction. There is a great deal of resistance to making changes to the way we live and not just travel it will be a slow process but if we can change one person at a time maybe we can really make a change for the better.

      Travel will of course continue in some form or other probably for eternity but regardless of what we do now eventually it will have to become sustainable, surely it is better to do so by choice rather than be forced into making decisons when it is already too late.

  4. Deborah McLaren

    I’m so glad you are writing about this and keeping the critical conversation going. Although these issues are not just something people have started greenwashing lately. This has been going on 25 years. There has been some progress – as in people are slowly becoming more enlightened. There are more alternative options, more educational programs that make both communities and travelers more aware of tourism impacts on the environment, cultures, etc. 25 years ago there was no such thing as an ecotourism college degree. I think the global economy is one of the main reasons people are starting to stay closer to home and developing programs like staycations. There are numerous certification programs today, tour operator guidelines, community regulations, etc. So I see some real progress. However, at the same time we are really being pushed to the edge on issues like climate change. I hope you will continue to blog about these crisis issues and, most importantly, ways we can work to change. Cheers~ Deborah

    1. Post

      Thank you Deborah for your inisght it is refreshing to hear somebody that actually cares and has researched enough to inform others. I will continue to look at related topics and post when appropriate as i do not just wish my site to merely be about promoting wonderful destinations but also informing and questioning the World in which we live.

    1. Post

      Thanks Raymond, it is a great shame that there are so few companies that genuinely take sustainable tourism seriously, like voluntourism they tend to jump on a bandwagon they think will earn extra cash. For many it is merely another revenue stream.

  5. Nihal Ellegala

    What was written by Mallory is greatly appreciated. We as a provider of accommodation in a genuine Eco lodge in a small backward village in the mountains of Sri Lanka hope that this article, along with the comments/replies will give us hope in getting eco tourists to our lodge. We also appreciate the efforts made by those like-minded travelers in choosing the right airlines, restaurants, hotels etc. However, if we are to succeed, the genuine Eco-friendly accommodation providers should also be promoted in such a manner that travellers are aware of the existence of such accommodations. Unfortunately the genuine Eco Lodge is a small cluster of lodges (to minimise the impact on the village), situated in a small village with limited access to modern technology, run mainly by the villagers who can just manage a working-knowledge of English which does not give them a great chance of marketing their product world-wide. We at Polwaththa Ecolodges, through my European experience managed to get a trickle in, far short of our targets of the visitor-numbers to support the village or the environment or even to pay the salaries. Under such circumstances, Eo Tourism is handled largely by the big boys with resources, which unfortunately puts profits before principles.
    My urgent request is to have a mechanism in place where small but genuine Eco Lodges are helped to market their accommodation in an effective manner.

    1. Post

      Thank you for sharing this information Nihal, this is just what I was hoping to highlight. We need to make some sacrifices if we are to achieve sustainable tourism, give up a few creature comforts and research alternatives thoroughly to our normal travel methods. Your community project sounds like a perfect and sincerely wish you all the success in the World. If there is anything I am able do to help do not hesitate to contact me.

  6. Abi

    Hm…reading this at just the right time. I visited an eco-lodge in Jordan recently and it wasn’t until I arrived and saw genuine, wholesale, large efforts being made by the staff and the visitors that I saw any hope for green travel. I hadn’t realised how jaded I’d become – and how little faith I’d put into anyone’s “green” efforts being genuine or far-reaching.

    I saw in India, in particular, the benefits of trying to convince the population near Ranthambore that they can earn more by taking tourists to see tigers than by hunting tigers to sell. Of course, this only works as long as travellers do pay more than poachers.

    As for the flights issue, it’s one I think about constantly…No good answer yet – although aircraft are becoming more and more efficient. Good to stop and think – and to read such a well-thought out post. Cheers.

    1. Post

      We all probably need to search our consciences a little in regard to how we travel Abi, it is alos quite difficult when we are accepting press trip opportunities with luxury hotels and restaurants all part of the package. We also have to make a living however or else we will not be able to post on our sites and then publicise the issues we really feel passionate about. It is another compromise but one I hope to balance with a some greener options when I am travelling by my own volition.

      I agree airlines are beginning to make more efforts towards less carbon heavy options but we are still a long way from it and hopefully options such as rail travel will also become more attractive in future.

  7. Ramin the Thailand Travel Experience Designer

    Great post. And I think “preaching” is fine – specially people like us, who travel around a lot are probably more aware of how beautiful the little blue ball we’re inhabiting is – and how bad we are treating it.
    Do you know of travel companies who successfully make travel more sustainable? I’d love to read detailed case studies about companies that actually make a difference, apart from the “easy things to do” (planting trees, donating x% of profits to carbon offsetting, etc.) and employ real creativity and intelligence.

    1. Post

      Thanks Ramin, maybe it isn’t just preaching but a responsibility to bring these important points to the attention of those that read our sites.

      As for companies I really believe that Intrepid Travel are promoting responsible tourism and also contributing in fund raising for some worthy causes. There are others GAdventures also but really like Intrepid which is why I agreed to work with them.

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