In 1970, the year Earth Day was first celebrated, interest in the state of the planet—and the very notion of expressing concern over it—was still in its nascent stages. Around eight years prior, the publication of marine biologist Rachel Carson’s bestseller, Silent Spring, about the relationship between pollution and public health, succeeded in bringing environmentalism into the cultural mainstream. The introduction of Earth Day helped spur further progress, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In only three years, enormous strides were made, all in service to the planet.
But a lot has changed in the five decades since that first celebration—both in the overall health of the Earth and in the way we care for it. Our planet’s population has doubled, leading to raised global carbon emissions and temperatures. And while the growth of the industries that enable tourism, like air travel, means that more people than ever are seeing the world (and increasing tolerance and awareness of other cultures while using tourism dollars to provide a much-needed boost to other economies), there are inevitable consequences for the planet.
“The unfortunate reality is that our industry as a whole is contributing more to the carbon crisis than it ever has, and it’s not turning around,” says Darrell Wade, CEO and founder of Intrepid Travel, a tour operator known for its green initiatives like offsetting the carbon produced by its trips and being the first global tour operator to end elephant rides in Southeast Asia. But he notes that it’s more a function of growth rather than a shift in how people spend their vacations. “Travel grows 4 percent year over year, so our carbon emissions are increasing about 3 percent per year.”
But a movement has taken root in recent years that focuses on the intersection of sustainability and tourism—driven by our desire to protect the planet even as we see it. And the travel industry is increasingly working to change its practices. While it may not be there just yet, it’s come a long way.
Airlines and cruises have gotten greener
In 2018, the travel industry contributed nearly one-tenth of total greenhouse gases; the figure was largely driven by transportation-related emissions, with air travel being the biggest offender, though cars, ships, and trains played their part, too. A second factor that’s harder to quantify is travelers’ consumption of goods and services—for example, when a destination increases its food production to meet the needs of tourists.
But there has been some progress in this space. In recent years, airlines have begun to launch eco-initiatives to slow their effects on the environment: Two years ago, as part of their Eco-Skies program, United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to commit to a significant reduction in their carbon emissions, pledging to halve them by the year 2050; it also operates a carbon offset purchase program. Other airlines quickly followed suit with their own action plans, kindling the possible beginnings of a new industry standard. Cruising, too, is becoming greener as more small ship operations enter the scene, like Azamara and its parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises, which has committed to improving the health of the oceans by increasing ship energy efficiency and overhauling its waste management program; the company also partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in 2016 to support ocean conservation and research efforts.
The data about climate change doesn’t explicitly reflect progress within the travel industry. It also doesn’t show the shift in travelers’ awareness of these issues, which in turn has driven airlines and other industry players to change their ways. “Thirty years ago people would turn off [to the topic of sustainability], but now people are interested,” says Wade. “They want to know what the commitment is of the travel businesses they patronize to the local community, wildlife, climate change, and what your carbon emissions are.” So while it’s true that these days (or at least, pre-pandemic) there are more planes in the sky than ever before, as the world has become increasingly globalized and travel has become more accessible, the demand for accountability is also driving the environmental movement forward.
Overtourism is a real phenomenon—and there are solutions
The increase in global travel has also given rise to other phenomenons. Overtourism has caused places like Thailand’s Maya Bay to close indefinitely. It’s also led to the exploitation of wild animals, like tiger photo ops from Oklahoma to Southeast Asia. Then there’s the erasure of local culture in heavily trafficked spots like Venice and Barcelona, where residents have become overwhelmed by tourism. These new problems are being met with new solutions. Overtourism has created a secondary market for undertourism—more off-the-beaten-path travel that can help stimulate underserved economies like those of Armenia and Mongolia, or even rural communities in the U.S.
Documentaries like Blackfish have brought the issue of animal exploitation into the public consciousness, pushing companies like TripAdvisor to cease facilitating ticket sales for animal attractions. And some hotels are doing their part to center local communities in their ventures, from decoration and staffing to the economic benefits it yields. In Uganda, for instance, Volcanoes Safaris’ Mount Gahinga Lodge has created housing for the local Indigenous community, while Dominica’s Rosalie Bay Eco Resort supports its community by sponsoring the local cricket team and hosting field trips to teach kids about environmental protection.
Going green has become a point of pride
These days, sustainability means much more than protecting the environment. That’s something Costa Rica has put a lot of thought into—the tourism board created the Certification of Sustainable Tourism program in 1997 to encourage hotels, restaurants, and tour operators to think bigger when it comes to new measures. This led to Costa Rica’s reputation as a green destination, and the country has successfully grown its tourism business, with an 18 percent increase in visitors from 2004 to 2008.
Going green has become a point of industry pride. Hotels not only covet Global Sustainable Tourism Council and LEED certifications; they’re also establishing important sustainable initiatives themselves. (Soneva, for example, created the Soneva Namoona Baa initiative to help Maldivian islands better deal with waste; Aqua-Aston Hospitality’s Theresa Van Greunen kickstarted the #ForOurReef campaign, helping to get coral-bleaching sunscreens banned in Hawaii.) Sustainability as an ideal is almost fully mainstream these days; even Prince Harry launched his own sustainable travel initiative, Travalyst, at the end of 2019.
…But it’s also become a marketing ploy
Of course, going green can benefit bottom lines, too. Some 87 percent of consumers now want more environmentally friendly choices within the travel industry, according to a Booking.com survey. That includes hotels that run on renewable energy or restaurants that serve locally sourced ingredients—and tourism providers have been quick to capitalize on the trend. Some efforts are meaningful—in 2018 Hilton Hotels enacted robust sustainability policies addressing water, carbon, gender, and diversity, which stand to make a real impact. On the other end of the spectrum, though, is greenwashing, in which a good marketing strategy takes the place of meaningful action. There’s also the somewhat-common scenario of a company putting efforts into going green primarily to attract new customers, but ends up helping the environment as a result. (One example might include trading in plastic straws for slightly more expensive biodegradable options.) It’s taken decades to get from the first Earth Day to companies using the environment as a selling point, but both industry leaders and consumers are prioritizing real solutions.
What’s next for the travel industry?
Today, on this half-century anniversary of celebrating the planet, we find ourselves faced with a different sort of crisis—but with the pause has come some clarity. In just a handful of weeks with significantly decreased human travel, we’ve seen drastic improvements to the air, water, and animal life. “Human beings and nature don’t necessarily mix,” says Callistus Jackson, a dive instructor at two of St. Lucia’s most famous resorts, Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain. Schools of silver-side fish have returned to the island after only a month without humans, boats, and pollution in the water, she says. “When I started here 23 years ago, we saw these fish all the time. Not so much anymore.” Similar stories about wildlife rebounding have delighted many stuck at home, a lesson that coexisting with the planet and all that live upon it possible with the right efforts. But there’s also been an incredible human cost—a socioeconomic one—among those who make their livelihoods by way of tourism. Once travel resumes, it’s on us to move forward more wisely, traveling not only with the health of the planet in mind, but the well-being of other humans and wildlife as well.
If history proves anything, it’s that openly discussing sustainability and advocating for accountability can lead to tangible change, as Rachel Carson’s book demonstrated 50 years ago. If we can keep these discussions going, then by the time we reach Earth Day’s centennial, there will be a lot to celebrate.
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