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How to Be an Eco-Friendly Traveler

Your travel choices make a difference to the environment—and not always in the ways you might think. Here's how to know what has a positive impact and what's just wishful thinking when you're flying, cruising and checking in. By ALEXANDRA ZISSU with additional reporting by MONSICHA HOONSUWAN. Illustrations by AUTCHARA PANPHAI.

Published on May 12, 2016


The Reality of Eco-Travel

Eco-TravelLet's get this out of the way: The greenest way to travel is not to. Spare the jet fuel, the cruise waste, the gas-guzzling rental car. Just stay home and recycle. Clearly that's not going to happen—nor should it. Tourism produces 5 percent of the world's carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and contributes to the depletion of natural resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and the proliferation of the waste found from shorelines to trekking trails. But the global travel industry is worth US$1.5 trillion and is crucial for economic stability, development and the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.

The answer is to travel responsibly. That's getting easier, because the industry has upped its eco-game. "What was seen as good practice 10 years ago would not be good enough today—which proves progress is being made," says Fiona Jefferey, founder and chair of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, a sustainability initiative by the World Travel & Tourism Council. It's no longer enough for hotels to screw in low-flow showerheads. Now they're installing in-room recycling bins and tending rooftop beehives.

With all the offerings out there, it can be difficult for travelers to judge what's really responsible—and whom to trust. "The industry does get a bit confused at times," said CEO Stewart Moore of EarthCheck, an Australiabased environmental advisory and certification group. "Many words are used interchangeably when they shouldn't be."

Some of the most important areas to focus on are air and water pollution, says Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health. Last year, about 50 million more people traveled to international destinations than in 2014, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization. The rapid growth of tourism is creating dangerous amounts of untreated wastewater in some destinations and outstripping efforts at improving airplane efficiency. Consider changing the way you travel—how you get there, what you pack, how you eat—to lighten your footprint. Our guide is here to help.


The Enviro-Matrix
Simple changes in travel behavior can substantially reduce your environmental impact. Since it's impossible to be perfectly planet-friendly, use our chart to see what's most worth the trade-off between hassle and helping.

The Enviro-Matrix




Liters of sewage the cruise industry produces each year, according to environmental organization Friends of the Earth.


The Plane Truth

Airports use electricity and chemicals; passengers toss water bottles and food wrappers. But the biggest problem with air travel is air pollution: aviation accounts for about 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to Air Transport Action Group, an industry organization. "Every time you take a long-haul trip, you are likely to double your annual carbon footprint," says Harvard's Epler Wood. Spurred on by the bottom line, popular interest and the UN's COP 21 climate talks last year, the industry is trying to improve. But that's not enough, Epler Wood says; travelers need to cut back to make up for the growth in their numbers. Here's how.

Illustration by Autchara Panphai

What Airlines Are Doing

  • Replacing planes. Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner is designed to use about 20 percent less fuel than a 767, and Airbus claims the A320neo is 15 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable planes.
  • Adding winglets. The small, upright wing extensions reduce drag, save fuel and cut emissions. Alaska Airlines says retrofitting winglets onto its 737s saved 2,200,000 liters of fuel in 2014 alone.
  • Lightening up. Less weight, less fuel burned. By replacing paper flight manuals with iPads, American Airlines saved more than 1,500,000 liters of fuel a year.
  • Using biofuel. Carriers including Hainan Airlines, Jetstar and Qatar are turning to alternative fuels, whose production (growing plants) absorbs carbon. A caveat: the Natural Resources Defense Council points out that biofuel, if not produced sustainably, can be more polluting than petroleum.
  • What You Can Do

  • Combine vacations. Instead of taking several weekend jaunts—each requiring flights—take one longer vacation with a single round-trip.
  • Fly economy. A World Bank study showed that the carbon footprint is four times higher for a business-class seat than for economy because of the weight of larger seats, extra crew, and niceties such as real plates.
  • Take nonstop flights. Planes use more fuel during takeoff and landing than while cruising. You'll also be traveling a shorter distance.
  • Stay close to home. Shorter flights equal reduced emissions—or, take a train.
  • Buy carbon offsets. Most major airlines make it easy to balance some of your impact by supporting third-party environmental projects; Cathay Pacific and Delta even let you use frequent-flyer miles to pay.

    Power to the Max
    Boeing's 737 MAX, the latest iteration in the world's bestselling family of jets, uses 20 percent less fuel per seat than its predecessor. Geek out on its green advances.

    Courtesy of Boeing

    1 On the Wing
    The MAX has a specially designed winglet called the AT. Instead of a little flip at the ends of the wings, it's a V shape that boosts efficiency and reduces fuel consumption.

    2 In the Gears
    The plane's new engines, CFM LEA Ps, have 3-D-printed ceramic components that are lighter and more effective than the parallel parts in previous aircraft engines.

    3 In the air
    With a 40 percent smaller noise footprint—how widely the plane is heard on the ground—than the 737-800, the MAX is less stressful for people as well as wildlife.




    Amount of CO2 emissions prevented each year by replacing a single hotel emergencyexit sign with an LED version.


    Course Corrections

    Cruises can be a cost-effective and fun way to see the world. But what they're not is green. "Cruise ships are probably the least environmentally friendly kind of transportation," says environmental consultant Pat Maher. Cruises burn huge amounts of fuel, dump untreated sewage into the ocean and spew sulfur dioxide. Academics and activists have called the industry out for lack of transparency.

    Cruise lines have made some progress. Recycling, incinerating and waste processing are now standard. Companies are structuring itineraries to save fuel and cut noise pollution. And some are partnering with respected environmental organizations and local communities on sustainability projects like these.


    As part of a partnership with the WWF, the company promises to cut greenhousegas emissions by 35 percent over the next five years from 2016. That will have a substantial impact—in 2014, Royal Caribbean generated 4.9 million tonnes of CO2. By 2020, the company also aims to get 90 percent of its wild-caught seafood from certified sustainable fisheries.

    The Halong Bay cruise operator chose a small village on Cat Ba Island, whose population lacks access to vegetables, as a base for their organic farm initiative. The project improves the local economy and health, and supplies the cruises with high-quality produce all year round.

    In 2014, the world's largest cruise operator threw its support behind the Nature Conservancy, earmarking US $2.5 million to fund projects including mangrove research and coral-reef restoration.


    A Sea Change?
    The most sustainable concept in cruising doesn't come from a traditional cruise company but from Japan-based Peace Boat, a 33-year-old organization that promotes peace through educational voyages. Late in 2015, Peace Boat announced plans for the Ecoship, which it plans to have built by 2020. Among its impressive features:

    Peace Boat
    Courtesy of Peace Boat Ecoship Project.

    1 Eco-Power
    The 10 retractable sails harness both wind and sun, doubling as photovoltaic panels. The ship will also use biofuel.

    2 High-tech Hull
    Unlike traditional hull coatings, this one will be nontoxic, and will even imitate dolphin skin, for less drag in the water.

    3 Mini-farm
    The ship's garden, fed with rainwater and organic waste generated on board, will produce ingredients for meals.




    Proportion of the 5,400-kilogram leftover oil off-loaded from Disney's ship each week used to create biodiesel fuel for its fleet in the Bahamas.


    Check-in Checklist

    Think it's easy to tell how earth-friendly your accommodations are? Some highly visible features may not mean much, while what you don't notice can be a game changer. Properties with sustainability programs usually provide details on their websites. A hotel's green efforts may also be on its TripAdvisor listing page. Or, you can e-mail the hotel and ask. This is how some practices break down.

    Green Hotel

    Solar panels. It takes a large array to generate enough energy for a property. A couple of panels won't do much.

    Rooftop gardens. Though they insulate buildings and reduce storm-water runoff, most aren't enough to make an impact.

    In-room recycling bins. It's better to recycle than landfill. But guests generate a small percentage of hotel waste.

    Saltwater swimming pool. Such pools need less chlorine than the traditional kind, but they're not chemical-free.

    Reflective film on windows.
    It's not sexy, but screening out sunlight can cut energy use by 25 percent.

    Leaving land undeveloped. Lawns, golf courses and flower borders require a lot of water and chemicals.

    Careful construction. AccorHotels found that its biggest source of waste was building and renovations.

    Fixing leaks. According to the EPA , leaks can take up more than 6 percent of a commercial building's water usage.


    Talking Eco to an Extreme
    One of the popular aspects hoteliers and developers strive to improve is energy efficiency. Thanks to modern technological advancement, it's easier than ever to incorporate the use of renewable energy, whether from the wind, the water, the sun or even biomass, without sacrificing comfort for the guests. The following are just some of the most unusual examples.

    The Brando
    Courtesy of The Brando.

    The Brando
    Instead of electricity, the Tahitian hotel uses cold deep-ocean water to power a cooling system for all its buildings.

    Hotel Verde
    Using the Cape Town hotel's fitness equipment creates (a little) electricity that flows back into the hotel's power system.

    Hoshinoya Karuizawa
    Geothermal heat from a nearby active volcano is the main source of the Nagano ryokan's energy.




    Volume of kilograms of trash that the annual Eco Everest expeditions have retrieved from the mountain since 2008.


    How Low-Impact Can You Go?

    We map two possible paths from Hong Kong to Bali—one environmentally conscious, the other less so.

    How Low-Impact Can You Go?
    Flowchart illustrations by Thomas Porostocky.



    Most companies aren't out to trick travelers, but plenty make misleading claims. How to tell fact from fantasy.

    Check for third-party certification.
    This ensures that hotels, airlines, cruises and tour operators are being honest (see "Labels to Look For," as below). Also, check a company's site for a complete program. If your hotel says it recycles soap, assume it only recycles soap.

    Consider impact in context.
    Saving water should be lauded, where there are shortages, but not so much in places with no scarcity. "You have to address the local needs and use tourism to support that, not just tick boxes," says Sarah Faith of booking site Responsible Travel.

    Apply common sense.
    "If claims seem excessive, they probably are," says Fiona Jefferey of WTTC. Seek specifics—a company should know how much energy it's saving. Many operators post sustainability reports online.

    Green Globe
    What It Does
    The group looks at sustainable practices, from management to resource uses to contributions to communities.
    What It Doesn't Do
    The high cost of membership and certification excludes small operators that contribute to the local economies.

    TripAdvisor GreenLeaders
    What It Does
    To get the leaf badge, hotels have to meet minimum standards, such as recycling and linen-reuse programs, and educate guests about their practices.
    What It Doesn't Do
    Make it easy to find green hotels—you have to search yourself.

    What It Does
    The U.S. Green Building Council puts its stamp on buildings and upgrades around the world that meet their requirements and adds points for extras, such as building on land that has already been developed.
    What It Doesn't Do
    Ensure that a project is as green as it could be—for example, a building far from any public transportation may still be LEED-certified.



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    Going Green. Illustrations by Autchara Panphai.
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