Sustainable travel: what you need to know to be a better traveler

Te Puia, Rotorua. The city’s Destination Management Plan is an impressive commitment to a sustainable future, writes Sarah Bennett. Photo / Graeme Murray

As we eagerly await the reopening of borders, our fingers hovering over the Book Now button, there’s still time to rethink the way we travel – and make the urgent changes needed to make it truly sustainable.

Tourism has seen massive growth over the past 60 years, much of it powered by jet aircraft. As it has become increasingly commercial and competitive, so have the problems it creates.

My own preoccupation with these issues resulted in a collection of essays published just over a year ago. Titled 100% Pure Future: New Zealand Tourism Renewed, it brings together the views of nine sustainable tourism advocates, including Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler and Erna Spijkerbosch, who has owned and operated Queenstown’s Creeksyde Holiday Park for 35 years.

The outcome of the book is well summarized by contributor and business journalist Rod Oram. “To absolutely thrive, the tourism sector must radically rethink its role in our natural environment, our society and our economy.”

The sooner we all take sustainable travel seriously, the more likely we are to continue enjoying this privilege.

Why we need to fly less

The biggest change we can make is to fly less often, to closer destinations – something we can all embrace in these times of only domestic travel.

This is particularly important for New Zealanders and their visitors as Aotearoa is about as long haul as it gets. The return flight to Europe generates three tonnes of CO2 per passenger. Some experts say this equals your entire carbon budget for a year. Others would say it’s double or even more.

Alternative fuels and electric planes will unfortunately not save us. According to Dr Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism and contributor to 100% Pure Future, they simply won’t be competing with fossil fuels anytime soon.

“Although considerable progress is being made on several fronts,” says Becken, “new technologies are limited by various factors, including cost, flight distance and weight to be carried, as well as the availability of sustainable raw materials for fuels. The best we can hope for in the near-term future is to fly ‘carbon light’.”

As far as carbon offsetting goes, it can make you feel a little better and it’s certainly a catalyst for those who can afford it, but it’s no substitute for real emissions reduction.

Traveling slower, staying in one place longer, and not trying to remove all the icons from your travel list will mean less flying and less ground transportation. Chances are your travels will be more immersive and spontaneous. You’ll likely see more, learn more, and meet more people.

Think local

Pleasure travel is highly dependent on common resources such as fresh air, forests, and oceans that sustain life on Earth. Although not everyone benefits, the negative effects are felt everywhere.

Plus, research shows vacationers tend to throw many of their everyday eco-friendly actions out the window.

Stick to the drill. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Waste less food and eat less meat. Buy local, sustainable and made in New Zealand.

Where you spend your money really matters. As big companies have rushed to profits, there is far less fallout on the ground. Staying in smaller, locally-owned accommodation, for example, is more likely to line local pockets than shareholders’ coffers unrelated to the whenua.

Small properties are also less likely to gobble up large amounts of energy, water and other resources used by large hotels and cruise ships. Swimming pools, golf courses and excessive laundry are just a few of the reasons why hotel guests can use nearly 20 times more water per person per day than locals.

Book direct so your money goes straight into the hands of the people who earned it. Whether it’s accommodation or adventure travel, business owners usually match the lowest price offered by foreign bots. And every penny makes a difference for these companies right now.

Go Eco

The more we demand sustainable travel experiences, the more the market will adapt to accommodate us – especially if we, too, are willing to adapt and make sacrifices, including paying more.

There’s no shortage of eco-friendly travel options, at least if the marketing and badges are any indication. Beware of greenwashing. It was already prevalent in tourism before Covid, but is likely to come into full swing as the global industry desperately tries to recover.

Be tough in your verification. What do you need to do to get this green logo? How low carbon is this tour once flights are taken into account?

Here in New Zealand, most tourism businesses are registered with the Tourism Sustainability Commitment, an initiative of their member organization, Tourism Industry Aotearoa.

Although aimed at the industry rather than the consumer, the Pledge to Sustainability is a solid benchmark for anyone looking to make their travels more sustainable. Although the environment is a major priority, its 12 actions also address the many other negative impacts of travel, including the effects on local communities.

The journey begins and ends at home

One of the most inspiring and potentially transformative things I’ve read about sustainable travel recently is Rotorua’s Destination Management Plan. Such plans set out intentions for regional tourism management and are now required by local governments across New Zealand.

Over 50 detailed pages, the creators of the Rotorua Plan have cast their net deep and wide to tap into the collective experience, values ​​and wisdom of the community. He looks back to look forward, tracing the history of his tourism industry and honestly acknowledging the costs as well as the gains. His vision is “Hei painga mō te ao katoa” – for the good of all.

Rotorua’s plan is not only refreshing. It’s radical, favoring mauri over market forces and rebalancing the relationship between visitors and their hosts.

Wherever you go and however you travel, being sustainable begins and ends at home.

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