What Being a Sustainable Traveler Looks Like in 2020

Photo: Getty Images/Pakin Songmor EyeEm
People are traveling more than ever before, and they're also more mindful than ever of their impact on the planet. In fact, according to a 2019 study conducted by OnePoll, on behalf of Exodus Travels, of 2,000 Americans who had recently traveled internationally, 78 percent of respondents consider themselves to be more socially conscious about their itineraries than they were a year ago. What’s more is that 39 percent reported feeling guilty after returning home and realizing some component of their trip wasn't environmentally sound.

The good news for your vacation bucket list and the future of the world is that responsible travel is an intention that the industry is working to accommodate. Modern jet-setters have more eco-friendly options than ever before at their disposal, and those offerings are expanding on a regular basis. Below, check out which trends, specifically, are exemplifying what it means to be a conscious traveler in 2020.

Thinking twice about responsible travel before opting to fly

In 2018, a record-breaking 4.4 billion passengers traveled by air. And while air travel only accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions—a blanket term for greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane that are problematic for the environment—that amount is expected to grow rapidly in the next few decades. One study estimates that by 2050, aviation could consume a quarter of the world’s “carbon budget.” With this in mind, many sustainability-oriented travelers are opting out of air travel (or at least minimizing flight frequency or using carbon offsets to reduce their footprint). This “no-fly” movement is called flygskam, or "flight shame," in Sweden, a country that aims to be carbon neutral by 2045.

And the fly-less movement is gaining traction; according to a survey by Swiss bank UBS, 21 percent of respondents in the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom said they reduced the number of flights they took over the last year, citing environmental impact as the reason why. Instead, many travelers are opting for other modes of transportation. Sweden, for example, has seen a sharp increase in rail travel over the past couple of years, which according to Amtrak, is 33 percent more efficient than domestic air travel (on a per-passenger scale by mile).

Airline manufacturers need to prioritize ways to make flying less detrimental to the environment, like by using like single-engine taxiing and smaller aircraft—and they are.

That said, air travel is sometimes the best or, in the case of many intercontinental routes, the only available mode of travel available. Because of this, responsible travel shouldn't just be the responsibility of the individual consumer. Rather, airline manufacturers need to prioritize ways to make flying less detrimental to the environment, like by using like single-engine taxiing and smaller aircraft. And they are—in fact, Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told Sweden’s The Local that “the sector is under considerable pressure."

And that pressure is good news for responsible travel: The outlet reported that the industry wants to cut its CO2 emissions in half by 2050 and that alternative energy sources for flights are in the works. For instance, Rolls-Royce is planning to launch a test flight of an electric plane in 2020, and, partnered with Wright Electric, EasyJet aims to have an entire fleet of electric planes by 2030. Thanks in large part to ongoing sustainability-focused travelers asking for and using these ecotourism-friendly innovations, we'll all be able to see the world while working to preserve it.

Exploring the growing number of eco-friendly hotel options

In tandem with all hotels becoming wellness hotels, many are also upping their eco-friendly offerings. Some examples? Earlier this year, hotel giant International Hotel Group committed to reducing plastic waste by announcing plans to switch its miniature toiletry bottles to bulk size in its 843,000 guest rooms by 2021. Norwegian hotel Svart is set to open in 2021 and will be the first hotel in the world to generate its own energy, which will, compared to other hotels, reduce energy consumption by 85 percent and generate enough solar energy to power the operations of the hotel. And Saorsa 1875 recently opened in Scotland, becoming the UK’s first vegan hotel, which features a plant-based restaurant menu and does not use wool, silk or feather in their duvets, taking its ethical and sustainable ethos from plate to pillow.

It makes sense that the supply of these sustainable stays are increasing, given growing demand. According to a Booking.com survey, 67 percent of travelers say they’ll spend at least five percent more to ensure their travel has as a reduced impact on the environment. With this in mind, it’s likely that even more hotels will follow suit and offer unique, environmentally-conscious amenities in the years ahead.

Prioritizing impact travel

Beyond being concerned with the effects of travel on the planet on a macro level, travelers are also prioritizing how they interact with local communities. According to a 2019 paper from the research organization Center for Responsible Travel, 78 percent of travelers are very or somewhat likely to support companies that choose to reinvest funds in their communities.

To accommodate this interest in what's called impact travel, businesses, organizations, and hotels are developing unique ways to connect tourists with local communities. For instance, Six Senses Laamu, a resort located in the Maldives, partnered with an organization to build a nesting sanctuary for turtles. And nonprofit Pack for a Purpose allows travelers to pack supplies in their luggage to deliver to local community organizations involved in education, health, child welfare, animal welfare, and socioeconomic development projects.

Businesses, organizations, and hotels are developing unique ways to connect tourists with local communities thanks to a rise in interest for impact travel.

Unfortunately, the rise of impact travel has also paved the way for well-intentioned consumers to have counterproductive or even detrimental effects on some communities, but there are platforms emerging to combat that issue, as well. For example, Moving Worlds matches volunteer travelers directly with vetted organizations who need specific skills, and advocacy organization Impact Travel Alliance spotlights opportunities for impact travel to increase sustainable tourism.

Whether through shifted habits in flying, sleeping, or doing, it's clear that consumers are more interested in sustainability than ever, and the rise of responsible travel is a great effect. With industry offerings adjusting to meet the needs of this growing movement, so many people and entities are benefitting: businesses, travelers, and, most importantly, the planet that houses all of them.

Want more tips for how to be optimally sustainable while you travel? Check out this guide. Also, did you know Airbnb launched cooking experiences—with a sustainable twist?

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