Can the Rewards of Travel Outweigh the Planetary Costs?

by Amy Curtis

Amy Dublin Cropped

Although normally a full-time student at the University of Virginia, I’ve decided to be a traveler for the semester and study abroad at the National University of Ireland at Galway.

I’ve scoured my Lonely Planet guide and created endless itineraries of places to explore during my getaway. (“Cultural immersion” will be my primary mode of learning during these four months; I’ll save the heavy book work for home.) But while marveling at the inexpensive flights from Ireland to continental Europe—London for 14 Euro! Barcelona for 30!—I’m beginning to contemplate the environmental repercussions of my wanderlust.

More than a billion travelers traverse the globe every year, and the implications can be tremendously detrimental to the environment. These potential negative effects are both local and global: oceanfront hotels contribute to beach erosion in Hawaii, rising numbers of visitors threaten the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, and carbon dioxide emissions from planes are a growing contributor to global warming everywhere.

But despite these repercussions, traveling also makes one appreciate the Earth; seeing the natural beauty of the landscape has the potential to turn anyone into an ardent environmentalist. So don’t neglect the Seven Wonders of the World—just think about how to view them with the least amount of environmental impact.

Some tips to consider:

Be an ecotourist.

Although the term is often co-opted, “ecotourism” in its purest form encompasses travel that respects the natural and cultural environment of the places you visit. That means conserving plants, wildlife, and other resources; respecting local cultures and ways of life; and contributing positively to local communities. Read one group’s take on the 12 best "ethical" destinations in 2012.

Carefully select a hotel, thinking about its commitment to sustainability.

Ask if the hotel is locally owned and operated, staffed by local employees, practices recycling, and contributes to the local community. You don’t need to sacrifice creature comforts or venture into the middle of nowhere to be a green traveler; you can visit big cities or small villages, and stay in small ecolodges or luxury hotels. Learn more about some of the steps that hotels are taking from the Green Hotels Association.

Before leaving home, turn off all lights, unplug electrical equipment, and adjust heating and cooling devices. 

Don’t purchase mini-travel size packages (they seem tempting but waste a lot of plastic, so try to use reuse small bottles instead), go online to book non-stop flights if available (take-off and landing are the most fuel-intensive parts of air travel), and identify public transit options at your destination. 

Once you arrive, shop at local stores rather than large chains to support the local economy. 

Respect the various amenities provided by the hotel. Just because you’re not paying the electric bill, it doesn’t mean you should leave the lights on all day.

While you’re away, think about activities that are both culturally stimulating and environmentally healthy. 

Appreciation of natural landmarks through outdoor activities, including hiking and camping, can provide unforgettable memories. Check out National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations for useful travel resources (and lovely photography).

Before feeling guilty about the environmental implications of your travels, imagine for a moment traveling with me to this serene Swiss Whitepod resort.* We’ll use carbon offsetting to account for our emissions releases and feast on local cheese and wine. An environmentally friendly ice igloo tucked into the Alps? I might just attempt to study abroad every semester.

* For a more budget-friendly option, consider renting a yurt in Vermont, Michigan, Colorado, or numerous other locations across the United States.

Amy Curtis is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and an intern at New Dream.