We Paused and the Planet Noticed – How Do We Travel Now? (Hint: More Sustainably)


We all stayed put and it had a positive impact on the environment. Here’s a look at why now is the time to take a more responsible approach to travel – and exactly how to do it.

The global pause of the past 21 months halted the travel industry and the impact on the Earth was almost immediate – our environmental footprint began to shrink.

December 8, 2021
   Photo: Brandon Cormier

The proof is in the numbers. Air pollution dropped significantly in 2020 and a NASA study revealed that parking our cars and staying at home significantly improved air quality. In Hawaii, the sea off beaches in Waikiki became much less cloudy when the number of tourists dropped from over 10 million per year to virtually none (there was less sunscreen runoff in the water and locals could see turtles and dolphins swimming close to shore).

It’s nice to know some good came out of the emotionally challenging shelter in place orders, but it doesn’t mean we can pat ourselves on our collective backs quite yet – on a global scale, the emission reduction wasn’t enough to cause atmospheric CO2 levels to decrease.

Related: How Canadian Families Can Travel More Safely During a Pandemic

The exciting thing is that we now know the choices we make as travellers have an impact. Marion Joppe, a professor in the University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management and co–chair of a B.C.–based sustainable travel conference, says that Covid–19 has forced us to move away from commodified tourism, where everything is perceived as something that can be bought and sold. “It's like when people go to a buffet and heap their plates with absolutely everything – and then leave half of it behind,” she says. “That’s how we've treated tourism – the world is our buffet, and we’re just grabbing trips and destinations. We didn’t stop to actually appreciate the world.”

“That’s how we’ve treated tourism – the world is our buffet, and we’re just grabbing trips and destinations. We didn’t stop to actually appreciate the world.”

Now that borders are opening, it’s the perfect time to approach travel with a new attitude. Here’s what you need to know to protect the health of our planet on your next adventure.

buildings on the side of mountain
   Photo: Aaron Santelices

Where to find sustainable tourism locations

There are many destinations – entire cities and countries – committed to reversing the impact of climate change. Panama, Bhutan and Suriname, for example, are the only three carbon–negative countries in the world. (They remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they produce.) And there are other destinations heading in that direction, too: In November 2021, more than 300 companies in the travel industry, including tourism boards such as Ukraine, the Oregon Coast, Valencia and Canada’s Thompson Okanagan region, signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. The declaration requires a commitment (and concrete action plan) to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to reach “net zero” by 2050.

Actions like requiring companies to disclose all tourism–related emissions, restoring and protecting natural ecosystems and instituting decarbonation plans will help move the industry in the right direction. Picking a place to visit that is making an effort to save the planet can be as simple as visiting the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency website to see who has made the pledge so far.

There is also a movement among some popular tourist spots that asks visitors to join in on the journey toward environmental responsibility. In 2017, the Pacific country of Palau created the world’s first conservation pledge, asking travellers to act in an ecologically safe way, such as leaving coral reefs alone, to ensure that generations of Palau citizens can preserve their livelihoods for years to come. The pledge, once signed, is stamped into tourists’ passports.

Related: 7 Travel Trends You Need to Know for 2022

landscape shot in New Zealand
   Photo: Aaron Sebastian

Joppe says that the Palau Pledge inspired several countries, including New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, the Philippines – and the U.S. state of Hawaii – to take on similar initiatives. In Iceland, the country’s pledge includes travelling safely and responsibly, such as leaving places as you found them and not taking risks, like venturing off pathways. (Rescue workers were being put in danger to save tourists who were leaving designated routes to take Instagram photos in unsafe locations.)

Still not sure if the number one spot on your bucket list cares about saving the planet? Places that are committed to making a difference will likely be vocal about it on their website, social platforms and in the media. Visit Scotland, for example, openly discusses how they have reduced food waste, increased electric vehicles on the road and issued green tourism awards to businesses committed to sustainability.

   Photo: Jonny Auh

How to reduce your impact en route

There are ways to make how you get from A to B have less of an impact, says the David Suzuki Foundation’s senior climate policy adviser Tom Green, like taking one more efficient long flight rather than several short ones. “If you’re going away for a holiday, try not to do weekend or one–week trips – save those up and do a longer trip instead,” he says.

When you’re booking your trip, tools like Google Flights now include carbon emission information right next to other important details, like the cost and duration of your flight. Not only can it help you pick a destination (maybe you will choose a trip to New York vs. San Francisco as it has lower emissions), you can determine your total impact if you plan to buy carbon offsets.

Related: Best Apps to Use When Travelling During a Pandemic

When it comes to offsets, you can measure how much CO2 was produced by your vacation and invest money into sustainable projects, like planting new trees to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or into energy–efficient products and renewable technology. Green says to look for Gold Standard Offset certification, as it's extremely reputable and will help maximize your dollars – and your impact.

people in yellow kayak in water
   Photos: Robert Mikoleit

Seek out eco–friendly hotels and tour providers

Travel reservation websites like Booking.com are responding to the industry’s desire for more environmental impact transparency by including third–party sustainability certifications on their hotel listings. The Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency website, as well as the International Ecotourism Society, are both good resources to find a place to stay or a tour operator to book with. A simple Google search of “sustainable hotels” or “eco–friendly tours” plus the name of the city you’re visiting will also do the trick.

Where you choose to stay can make a difference, too. In December 2021, room2 opened in London and the hotel has become the world’s first net–zero carbon property. In Canada, the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver has a rooftop garden, beehive and waste diversion program – it has also pledged to get rid of all guest–related single–use plastics by the end of 2022. You can be even more directly involved in saving the planet at Salinda Resort in Vietnam, which is an official World Wildlife Fund partner for plastic reduction management on the island of Phu Quoc and organizes a beach cleanup day once a month with staff and guests. If you’re an avid Airbnb–er, the company announced in November 2021 that it will become net–zero by 2030, focusing its efforts on corporate offices globally.

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As for tourism outfitters, there are companies that incorporate environmentally friendly practices into their business models – electric vehicles, eliminating waste, minimizing physical impact on the Earth, donating money to organizations fighting climate change – but if you want to take it one step further, there are trips that give back to the planet and the community simply by having you join them.

The Denver–based purpose–driven social enterprise OneSeed Expeditions invests 10 percent of trip costs into microfinancing local female entrepreneurs. The company, which offers outdoor U.S. and international expeditions such as backpacking, fly–fishing and dogsledding, hires only local guides and has a strict leave–no–trace mandate.

In Canada, B.C.’s Kitasoo Xai’xais–based Spirit Bear Lodge offers Indigenous cultural experiences and wildlife tours (their conservation program helps protect the rare white spirit bear population). Choosing small, local companies, especially when they’re Indigenous owned and run, is a matter of economic sustainability, says Keith Henry, the president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. “Beyond the dollars and cents of the economic benefits, a lot of communities and businesses have been set up to protect local lands, and they provide an alternative way to see those lands.”