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The Paradox of Sustainable Travel?


01 December 2017, by Matthew Oldfield

‘Sustainable travel’, ‘eco-travel’ and ’ethical travel’ are all-to-common buzzwords that are bandied around and applied to destinations and businesses without any real thought as to what sustainable travel actual means. And with many so-called ‘eco-resorts’ falling far short of even the broadest definition of sustainable, how does a traveller decide where to go and what to do? Navigating the minefield that is ‘sustainable travel’ can mean trawling sites filled with conflicting or misleading information and searching through resorts that all call themselves ‘eco-this’ or ‘eco-that’ - without actually getting any closer to learning more about how you can reduce your carbon footprint when traveling.

So to help our guests learn more about what they can do to minimise their environmental impact when on holiday, we have put together a brief guide - a primer on carbon footprints, carbon offsets and travelling smart.

What is Sustainable Travel?

For many divers and travellers, sustainability and minimising the environmental impact of their holiday is as important as finding the right resort or the best season to visit. But what exactly is sustainable travel? What can an individual do to ensure their carbon-footprint is kept to a minimum?

Consider a return flight from the UK to Bali, Indonesia, and back again. Using a standard carbon calculator, each passenger will be responsible for an equivalent of over 3 tonnes of carbon emissions. No matter how many taxis that are then shared, or plastic bottles refused, there is no way to directly offset the huge amount of carbon produced from these flights. So does this make the notion of ‘sustainable tourism’ an oxymoron? If looked at from a purely ecological point of view, then yes, it is - air travel on its own can never be sustainable. But the purpose of sustainable travel is in fact to make a positive impact on the destination and the local inhabitants, without damaging the natural habitat or cultural heritage. It is helping to conserve the reefs we love to explore, supporting resorts that are making a difference and ensuring we keep our impact to a minimum. And when combined with the means to offset the carbon you were responsible for when flying, travel can and should be considered sustainable.

At ZuBlu, we believe it is possible to make a positive impact when traveling - one that has the potential to outweigh the carbon-cost of a flight in the first place. Travellers can vote with their wallets and book at resorts that adopt sustainable business practices or preserve the local environment. They can volunteer with marine conservation organisations or participate in reef clean ups. Or they can simply adopt a few simple steps that will help them reduce their carbon footprint when traveling.


Flying to your destination

Estimates vary, but it is believed that the airline industry is roughly responsible for 2-3% of all, human-caused climate impacts worldwide - a hugely significant contribution. And whilst the industry continues to evolve and make significant improvements to its planes, the carbon-cost of a flight will always be the single overriding factor when a traveler considers their carbon footprint.

It is actually quite difficult to compare and contrast different airline companies when it comes to carbon-cost rather than the monetary-cost of a flight, but travellers can keep a few things in mind when making a booking:

  • The age of a the carrier’s fleet. Modern planes are more fuel efficient and have a lower carbon-cost per passenger kilometre travelled.
  • Occupancy rate. Planes that fly fully-loaded mean a lower carbon footprint per passenger, compared to those that fly half empty on a regular basis.
  • Freight share. Mixing passengers and cargo means airlines can maximise their cost- and fuel-efficiency for every flight, bringing down the carbon-cost for the passengers.
  • Seat density. More seats means more passengers and a lower carbon-cost per head.
  • Strict luggage polices. Allowing passengers to carry a lot of unplanned extra weight means the airline will struggle to maximise a flight’s fuel-efficiency, penalising all of the passengers onboard, not just those with the extra luggage.
  • Direct flights versus stopovers. Planes have the lowest fuel-efficiency when taking off or landing and so the more time spent cruising at high altitude, the better.
  • Other factors, including the airlines social responsibility and ‘sustainable’ practices, investment into carbon offset programmes or investment into research and development.

So if you want to minimise your carbon footprint, book a direct flight in economy with a carrier that is always busy, has a strict policy on extra baggage and has a high seat density. Budget airlines do surprisingly well in this respect and should always be considered when booking flights.

Choosing a hotel or operator

The dive industry is one of the most environmentally-sensitive sectors in travel and there are many dive operators, resorts and dive centres that are making significant steps to conserve their local environment and ensure their business is as sustainable as possible. But information about what these companies are doing is often hard to come by and it can be difficult to compare different places.

This is where ZuBlu comes in. Travellers can use the ZuBlu search platform to explore incredible destinations and amazing experiences, but also learn about what different resorts are doing to support the environment and reduce their environmental impact. When we first start working with a resort, we examine their sustainable business practices and commitment to conserving the environment using a simple system we have devised in conjunction with ClearOceans. We then display the results using five icons, each one linked to a particular broad area we call our ‘Green criteria’ – environment, economic, experiences, marine and social. We display one of these green heart icons if the resort in question is making significant efforts or contributions in these areas, giving our guests an at-a-glance understanding of what a resort is doing to minimise its impact on the environment and manage its business in a sustainable manner.

As part of our commitment to the environment and conservation, we donate a percentage of our income to projects that are working to conserve the environment in the destination we feature on our site - direct support that helps conservation in the local area, rather than being lost in an excel spreadsheet of a vast global NGO. We believe this direct support is a more effective way of bringing sustainable practices into the dive travel business.

You can learn more about ZuBlu's commitment to the environment on our conservation page and more about our 'green criteria' in our frequently asked questions page.


Calculate your footprint and carbon offsets

So you’ve booked your flight and found your perfect resort - now what? Your flight is the biggest contributor to your carbon footprint when traveling, so the next step is to use a carbon calculator and determine how much carbon you are responsible for and then offset this amount.

There are lots of different calculators, but all look at the carbon-cost per passenger kilometre travelled - the ‘carbon intensity’. Different modes of transport have very different ‘carbon intensities’ - with large container ships and fuel-guzzling cars at the bottom of this carbon-scale, and electric cars, hybrid buses and mass transit systems at the top. There are plenty of sites that offer a simple way to calculate your carbon footprint and a means to offset this - you simply enter your flight details and a suggested equivalent is calculated that you can pay then and there. Some organisations offset carbon by planting trees, others directly support projects that reduce carbon in other ways - by supporting research or providing green energy in developing countries for instance. The different options might seem confusing at first but it is worth spending some time browsing through the different sites and finding one that appeals to you the most. And don’t forget to offset your carbon from the flight!

Here are a few suggestions of sites with both carbon calculators and the means to offset your carbon from a flight:

Travel smart and cut your carbon

As well as offsetting the carbon-cost from your flight, there are plenty of other ways you can reduce your impact whilst traveling.

  • When you arrive at your destination, you’ll need to travel from the airport to your resort, and whilst we would always recommend walking or cycling, you might struggle with your luggage! A more realistic alternative is to use a shared taxi or public transport, helping to keep your carbon footprint to a minimum. And getting someone to share a taxi keeps your costs down as well.
  • Pack light. The less weight you are packing, the less carbon you are responsible for. Consider travelling with just your favourite mask and dive computer and renting dive gear at your destination, rather than hauling your own gear from home. Consider bringing along a Kindle rather than lots of books and pack multi-functional clothes, or better yet, buy some at your destination. And always pack a sarong - an all-in-one towel, wrap, hat and baby carrier.
  • Stay in hotels and dive with operators that are proud of what they do for the environment and are prepared to stand up for what they believe in. There are plenty to choose from in the dive industry and guests can vote with their wallets. Wherever you stay, make a point and say no to straws, or ask for water refills. And if you don’t need your towels and bed sheets changing, tell the staff - most likely they don’t need changing every day and you can save on water and reduce your carbon-footprint at the same time.
  • Buy and eat local food. Eating salmon on a beach in the Maldives might sound appealing, but you can guarantee that that fish has been flown in from somewhere else and carries with it a high carbon footprint. Eat local food and buy local produce whenever you can.
  • Buy souvenirs that are produced locally rather than in an anonymous factory elsewhere and sent around the world on a cargo ship. You can reduce your impact and support the local economy at the same time.
  • Reduce your waste whenever possible and try to avoid single-use plastic items. Bring a reusable water bottle with you or buy one when you get to your destination. Pack a lightweight, reusable cloth bag for shopping - no need for endless plastic bags. Find out where you can refill your water bottle, or failing that, buy a young coconut! If you are in Bali, you can use RefillMyBottle to find a nearby water refill station.
  • Stay for longer and make the most of your time and carbon outlay from the flight. Perhaps plan to visit 2-3 destinations back-to-back on one long trip. Locations such as the Philippines or the islands of Indonesia are perfect for extended holidays.

After your holiday - what else can you do?

Sustainable travel is about making a positive impact on the destinations you travel to - both in terms of the environment and the people that live there. As well as reducing your carbon footprint when you are traveling, you can also do what you can to support conservation and social development programmes, either directly by volunteering or by making donations. The ZuBlu site lists many different organisations that work in the areas we feature - ones that are making a difference to protect the reefs, jungles and cultures we have been lucky enough to experience. We believe our guests can be ambassadors for sustainable dive travel and as such, we encourage them to learn more about conservation activities in the destinations they travel to and, if possible, consider supporting these projects.

A recent study on the environment and tourism highlighted the paradox that is sustainable tourism - it can be “both a destroyer of nature and an agent for its conservation”. We believe that by giving our guests the ability to make more informed decisions about where to travel, as well as the means to support conservation in their destination of choice, we can ensure sustainable travel remains an agent for conservation.


Some useful apps, and a few of our favourite sites

Most travellers today travel with a smart phone or tablet and there are some useful apps that will help you reduce your impact as you travel. Here are a few of our favourites, along with some great sites we love to recommend:

  • The Australian Sustainable Seafood Guide, Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Great apps if you want to learn more about your food and avoid eating seafood from unsustainable fisheries.
  • Oroeco - An app created by a US startup that automatically tracks your climate impacts and rewards you for taking steps to reduce your footprint.
  • Green Traveller - ideas for smarter travel from around the globe.
  • Liftshare - A UK-based car sharing site.
  • Seat61 - Inspiration information for people planning on using trains rather than planes.
  • EatWith - Eat with locals at communal tables with their hosts in over 200+ cities worldwide.
  • Pack for Purpose - Small Space. Little Effort. Big Impact - If you have any space available in your travel bags, consider using it to carry supplies needed by communities in the areas you visit.
  • Spinlister - Airbnb for bikes, surf boards and snow gear.
  • The Guardian's Green Travel - Green travel articles from one of the UK's largest newspapers.
  • RealClimate - Climate science from climate scientists.
  • Book Different and TripZero - hotel bookings for responsible travellers.

Kayaking image courtesy of Kayaks 4 Conservation.

Matthew Oldfield
Co-founder of ZuBlu