From the plane to the souvenir, this is how tourism contaminates
Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented earthquake in the tourist world. The millions of annual trips around the globe have been postponed “until the situation improves.” 2020 was the worst year in the history of tourism and 2021 has fallen just behind.
According to data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), last year closed with 415 million tourists compared to 400 million in 2019, the last year without the presence of SARS-CoV-2. This represents a drop of 72% and 73% respectively compared to that last exercise with total normality. In 2021, southern Mediterranean Europe and Central America were the regions that received the most international travelers.
A turning point in international tourism to achieve “optimal use of environmental resources”.
The exploitation of natural resources and CO2 emissions from flights are the focus of attention to travel towards a more ecological tourism. “The principles of sustainability refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development,” says the UNWTO.
Spain, world leader in the tourism sector, is also working towards a sector that is more aware of the environment that gives it shelter. However, the journey towards sustainability is not an exclusive struggle for companies and institutions. Traveling is no longer reserved for the privileged few, but is more accessible than ever.
Low cost trips, weekend getaways or excursions with a backpack on your shoulder. These are some of the options to disconnect from day-to-day life or get to know unknown corners of the planet at an affordable price and, above all, with little pollution.
Aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This body predicts that by 2037 the number of air passengers will double to 8.2 billion.
Last April, France voted on a bill that seeks to restrict short flights that can be replaced by a train journey and that do not exceed two and a half hours. Months later, the Government of Pedro Sánchez in its project Spain 2050 also slipped the same idea. “Committing to flying less can open up new horizons, without that meaning giving up travel,” Lonely Planet experts point out in their ‘The Guide to Sustainable Travel’.
The train, the boat or the electric car are some alternatives, the bicycle is also for short journeys. However, the plane is the only option for certain destinations.
More and more operators allow offsetting individual carbon emissions, but some go further. In addition, the EcoPassenger calculator, launched by the International Union of Railways in cooperation with the European Environment Agency, indicates that the degree of pollution depends on the height reached by the plane.
Takeoffs and landings produce 25% of aircraft emissions, hence direct flights are recommended. “Extending the stay and moving around the destination by land transport is more sustainable,” Lonely Planet experts point out in their sustainable guide.
But, the carbon footprint of the trip does not only depend on the means of transport chosen to reach the vacation destination. In responsible tourism, the individual traveler has the responsibility to be aware of their impact.
This economic sector generates 8% of total carbon emissions, which is why any gesture to curb them is worthwhile. Thus, the choice of means of transport with low emissions, the limitation of the use of plastic during the stay and reducing the impact on the environment are some of the most important actions of conscientious and more ecological tourism.
Under thoughtful planning and roadmap, the journey can be zero emissions from start to finish. Simple gestures such as reducing the use and consumption of plastics or water or simply imitating the customs of local communities are some of the keys to promoting more responsible tourism.
- Fly smart. If there is no alternative to the plane, the most ‘eco’ is to choose direct flights and, above all, low emissions.
- Travel light. A trip with little luggage needs little energy to transport it.
- Public transport. In the destination, it is best to adapt to the life of the locals and using buses or bicycles to get to know the city is the most sustainable.
- Electric vehicles. Electrified cars or motorcycles are becoming more frequent in large cities and charging stations are gaining ground. They are a green option if you want to use a more particular transport.
- Eco stay at the hotel. Hotel chains include sustainability in their reports and it is becoming easier to see their impact on the environment. If, for example, room service is foregone and water and electricity consumption are minimised, more emissions will be eliminated.
- Goodbye souvenirs. The typical travel souvenirs are made of plastic, it is better to support local and proximity businesses.
- Eat like a local. One of the wonders of traveling is trying regional specialties at local stalls and restaurants, and local food favors the reduction of emissions given the short journeys for transportation.
- Zero waste travel. Any product used on the journey requires energy to manufacture and recycle, and releases emissions when it degrades. Reducing waste curbs emissions.
How to measure it?
The general lines of sustainable tourism are already defined and the minimum framework adjusted, but how is it measured? “Measuring sustainable tourism is essential to improve political action for sustainable development,” UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili noted in 2018.
The consumption of natural resources, especially water, is one of the easiest variables to quantify. Tourism requires a significant increase in the demand for water to cover its needs. In fact, the estimated average consumption in Europe in a hotel is around 394 liters per guest per night.
Heating, air conditioning and lighting are, along with water consumption, the main players in the increase in energy expenditure in hotel establishments, according to the report Good Practices in the Tourism Sector of the European Commission.
The World Tourism Organization establishes three indicators to monitor the sustainability of the world of tourism: electricity consumption, use of fresh water per guest per night and the total production of waste per tourist.
“If planned and managed well, tourism can be a positive force that brings benefits to tourist destinations anywhere in the world. But if it is not planned and managed properly, it can lead to degradation”, warns the UNWTO.