Does sustainable travel exist?

Nowadays, everyone travels. Flying to faraway destinations is easier and cheaper than ever, and new cultures and adventures are just a long-haul flight away! Besides, sustainability is on the table and this seems more trending than ever. But do flying and sustainability go together?

Defining sustainable travel

A few weeks ago, I was part of a sustainability panel representing sustainable tour operator Better Places (for whom I work as sustainability consultant) during the Sustainability Week in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Purpose of the sustainability panel? Trying to discover if flying can be sustainable, to highlight alternatives and to define sustainable travel.

Joining me in the panel, René van der Duim (professor sustainable tourism development at the Wageningen University & Research Centre), Peter Paul Vossepoel (campaign coordinator ‘Summer without flying’), and Hera van Willick (world cyclist and blogger). This panel composition laid ground for a very interesting and vivacious debate.

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Negative effects flying

As it has become a hot topic recently, especially in the Netherlands, almost everyone is aware of the excessive negative effects of flying. It’s no secret that flying is very unsustainable. You have probably already heard the comparisons that eating thousand big macs equalises a flight from Amsterdam to New York, or that having energy saving lightbulbs in your house for 5 years is counteracted by one trip Amsterdam - Barcelona.

All means of a sustainable lifestyle are helpful, however if we keep flying at our current rate, we are undermining our own efforts! In an attempt to make flying more sustainable, the industry came up with tools to calculate and compensate your CO2 offset. However, the rates give us an untruthful concept of sustainable flying.

For example, I paid €0,46 to compensate my flight Amsterdam – London when I travelled there to attend the World Travel Market. Not only is this not enough to actually cover the negative impact of the flight, it also gives travellers the idea that they are travelling sustainably. This means they are not fully aware of the negative effect and will not change their flying behaviour.

Changes in the industry

Some organisations vouch for travelling by train within home continents (for me Europe), but unfortunately the differences time and price wise are still too high. The industry is slow with innovations regarding high speed trains throughout Europe or developing carbon neutral airplanes. At the moment, there is no groundbreaking solution on the negative impact of flying, however technological development and innovation can go really fast, which is encouraging!

“Sustainable flying does not exist, but sustainable travel does!"

Positive impact tourism

The big question is, should we fly less? Yes, I think so. The answer to the question if we should travel less, definitely not! Stopping everyone to travel is impossible, but we can reduce the number of our flights.

Despite all negative effects of flying, I feel we are sometimes forgetting the positive impact tourism can have on destinations. Don’t forget that 1 out of 10 people in the world works in the tourism industry and that many economies development countries are still dependent on the industry.

Tourism brings many economic opportunities that benefit local communities. They gain income out of starting homestays or organising local workshops and excursions. Thereby, places that host tourists also develop faster. Infrastructures are improved, health care systems are developed, and employment opportunities are created. Additionally, by hosting tourists, locals are more focused on preserving their culture and nature heritage.

Equally important are the benefits of sustainable travel for travellers. Studies show that people that travel are happier and more resilient. By travelling to developing countries they experience living without luxury and this helps them to be more cautious about waste at home. Travelling leads to broadening your perspective, creates an open mind and also improves your communications skills.

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What can we do?

As fervent traveller and representative of a tour operator, I don’t feel we should stop flying altogether. However, I do agree that we need to create more awareness on the impact of flying and see if we can use alternatives to leave a smaller footprint. By reducing the actual offset of our trips and focusing on local tourism we can create more positive than negative impact. The latter is one of the most important things for a futureproof tourism industry.

Want to know more? Read my 5 tips of having a great holiday with a smaller footprint

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