Although awareness of climate change is increasing, the travel industry is struggling to keep up. Many individuals, businesses and tour operators are ill-equipped to make travelling sustainably a reality. It is clear that a greater level of education is required to properly implement more sustainable travel practices. But how do we know where to turn?

As public awareness and information surrounding the scale of climate change continues to increase, so too does the awareness of sustainable travel and responsible tourism. Recent stats have shown that a rather sizeable chunk of travellers (87%) have said that they want to travel sustainably. This is a rather substantial figure. However, only about 39% manage to often or always do so, while 48% found that they rarely or never managed to travel sustainably.

The same survey by – a popular travel fare aggregator – found that it wasn’t just cost that proved to be an extra barrier for travellers who wanted to travel sustainably (42%). It was also the extra time it may take (22%), the limitations that sustainable travel places on potential destinations (22%) and even concerns about sustainable travel not offering comfort (20%). Even though the majority of travellers want to make sustainable journeys, many still feel ill-equipped to deal with planning and making such trips.

Despite these reservations and drawbacks, there are still a lot of other reasons people are struggling to translate their ideals into reality. 40% of respondents claimed that they wanted booking sites to offer sustainable search filter options to help them better identify opportunities, while 32% called for international standards to vet eco-friendly accommodation and packages. This demonstrates that awareness and education are not only matters of concern to the public; they are matters of concern for many tour operators and businesses within the travel industry too.

The survey, it should be noted, was limited in scope. While covering over 12,000 respondents, only 12 markets were queried (including the UK, India, US, China, Brazil and Germany) and the survey was purely online based. There are still many people in the world who have little to no access to the internet, meaning that respondents were more likely to be aware of the discourse surrounding sustainable travel.

Irrespective of a person’s awareness of travelling responsibly, it’s clear that there are many barriers that prevent the public from being able to be fully aware, educated and prepared for sustainable travel. As such, more work is required to broaden this awareness.

What is responsible tourism?

In order to determine what we need to do to advance responsible tourism, we first need to define what this means. ‘Responsible tourism’ refers to, in essence, the practice of travelling to locations in the most environmentally-friendly manner as possible, being a culturally sensitive traveller and supporting the local economy of destinations. One aspect of responsible tourism is ‘sustainable travel’ which is an approach by which tourists, travellers and tour operators find ways to maintain and offset the potential negative consequences that travelling can have on both culture and nature.

One of the larger myths surrounding responsible tourism is that it is about assuaging guilt. While research does suggest that guilt can be a factor in a person’s decision to be a more sustainable traveller, the reality is that educating people about responsible tourism allows them to understand the broader impact of their travel. By understanding this information and being educated on the importance of responsible tourism and sustainable travel, people can make informed choices about how they wish to experience what the world has to offer.

Understanding where responsibility begins and ends

While more travellers than ever are aware of the terms ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘sustainable travel’, there is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around what these terms actually mean. As highlighted above, many people are still unsure about how to book sustainable travel and many believe that it will not only lead to spending more money, but also to a less comfortable or desirable travel experience.

This is why it is so important for individuals to educate themselves about responsible travel, but further, why businesses – especially those in the travel and tourism industries – need to also be aware of how they can clearly label the sustainability of their services to customers. This communication problem between travellers and businesses can be solved by industry leaders in the ‘mass tourism’ industry. Holiday resorts, budget airlines and package brokers are all involved in trying to provide deal packages to popular tourist hotspots to as many consumers as possible. While some operators do try to offer sustainable packages, many are the antithesis of what responsible tourism stands for. This needs to change, as businesses should be a touch point for tourists to learn about responsible tourism.

Avoidance of greenwashing

Another issue that can arise from a misunderstanding of what responsible tourism really means is ‘greenwashing’. This is a practice whereby organisations seem to adopt policies that appear sustainable on the surface, often in an attempt to ‘look good’ to conscious consumers, while proving to be little more than superficial. A lack of regulations and recognisable industry standards surrounding the usage of sustainable terminology exists, even in countries with a long history of green terminology. This allows a number of companies take advantage of consumers’ good intentions by falsely promoting their green efforts.

While some companies may be genuine in their progress towards sustainability, the true effects of their efforts may be hidden underneath the slick marketing. One way for consumers to sniff out companies with questionable policies is to search for a written policy or examples of their green efforts – if they hire local people across most or all positions, if they work with local charities or NGOs to encourage local development, how their water and/or sewage systems operate and what measurable targets they have (or have previously hit) to reduce their carbon footprint.

The problem with carbon offsetting

While the practice has been around for a number of years, recent global interest in climate change has educated many people about carbon offsetting. This is when companies and travellers offset the negative impact of using transport that contributes major carbon emissions by investing in low-carbon or clean energy programmes. Today, many airlines offer this as an optional payment that can be made by the customer whilst purchasing their ticket but, traditionally, carbon offsetting is something that can be bought from third-party providers.

While carbon offsetting should be an essential investment for anyone who is a traveller, it isn’t without its problems. In fact, it can often be falsely seen as a direct ‘like for like’ replacement that completely negates any carbon emissions. Offsetting, however, is just a temporary solution to a wider problem. The systematic reliance on carbon offsetting creates the ill-informed belief that we can continue to spew carbon and greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere with reckless abandon. In some ways, it can be compared to buying plastic bottles and relying on the recycling process to cover the environmental cost. Some critics have even called it a form of greenwashing. While there are a number of well-meaning organisations running such schemes who are able to certify that their offsetting efforts are working, others have been investigated and exposed for not fulfilling the levels of offset that they promise consumers and businesses.

The key here is for consumers and businesses to understand that offsetting is not a solution to global warming and climate change, but a temporary reprieve. In order to ensure their offsetting is effective, tourists should research the companies they use and scrutinise their current projects.

The rise of climate change tourism

Another worrying trend that needs to be considered is the increasing amount of ‘climate change tourism’. This is where people visit areas that have severely suffered from climate change, often under the marketing guise of it being ‘the last time you may ever see’ this landscape or fauna. It is perhaps one of the most egregious examples of what marketers call ‘FOMO’ – Fear of Missing Out.

While some may proudly exclaim in the near (hopefully alternative) future that they were one of the last people on earth to see the polar bears, many of us baulk at the thought that we contributed to the demise of an area or a species. Travelling to areas already damaged by climate change only makes things worse. By educating people on the problematic nature of such opportunism, we can all help to protect some of the planet’s most endangered habitats (and their inhabitants) from further damage.

The true impact of travel

As well as these issues, consumers and businesses need to be fully aware of the impact that even one person can have on the environment if they are travelling on a regular basis. A transatlantic return flight between London and New York is though to generate about 1.2t of CO2 per passenger.

There also needs to be education beyond the more easily observable impacts that travel has on the climate. This not only includes flights, but use of taxis, purchase of mass manufactured souvenirs and the water and sewage systems present at accommodations. By understanding the true impact of travel, people can begin to make more informed decisions and appreciate the sustainable and renewable measures that certain businesses in the travel and tourism industry put into their packages. If tourists genuinely understand the efforts tourism operators are making, maybe potentially spending some extra money on their trip won’t sound as bad.

Opportunities for education and awareness about the travel industry

With travellers and businesses becoming more well-informed on the issues at the heart of climate change, and better able to see and feel its effects, the desire to safeguard the environment becomes stronger. While there is potential for the travel industry to suffer as a result of these changes, there are also opportunities to provide tourists with meaningful packages where local communities are intrinsically involved with the process and are fairly remunerated for their labour either through direct wages or a combination of wages and investment in local infrastructure. With many governments around the world having designated officers and ministers who deal solely with travel and tourism, which is often a massive economic contributor to the majority of countries, the support for such endeavours is there and may even involve some level of government subsidisation.

Individuals and businesses that travel frequently may want to consider using homestays or farmstays. Such opportunities not only provide a chance to reduce the emissions that arise from more standard accommodation but offer opportunities for cultural enrichment and exchange – often at the fraction of a price of a hotel. Volunteer programmes can also offer a terrific opportunity for people to visit a country or region while also giving their labour to help support the local people and infrastructure of their desired destination.

Social media continues to play a vital role in getting these messages to travellers, especially platforms that cut across societies and age brackets. As well as the younger generation of ‘influencers’, traditional media and journalists should be supported to ensure the messages about responsible tourism and sustainable travel are heard far and wide.