Traveling is enlightening, enriching, and in my opinion one of the most important paths to peace, love, and understanding. It just ain’t all that green. It can be one of the most polluting activities imaginable. Commercial jets, while more efficient than ever, spew out disgustingly huge amounts of pollutants. And there are more commercial flights than ever, a number that promises to increase with the ever-growing middle classes in China, India, and other developing nations. With growing wealth and increased leisure times comes the desire to travel.
Nations that encourage tourism are often left wondering if the damage done to the environment is worth the boost in economic activity. Nations that capitalized on, say, nesting tortoises to attract tourism actually have ended up losing those creatures because of the damage to their habitat wrought by developers and visitors. Once the star leaves the stage, it’s hard to keep the audience. So those destinations may be left with the worst of all worlds: No more tortoises and a collapsed tourism sector.
The Galapagos Islands constantly struggle with the balance between economic activity generated by tourism and the pressures to provide clean water, employment, shelter, and other provisions to the mass of mainland Ecuadorian workers looking for jobs in the lucrative tourism segment.
The trend towards bigger mega-cruise ships, like the Solstice (pictured), the Oasis of the Seas and others accommodate 2,000 to 5,200 passengers plus thousands of crew members, creating gigantic floating cities spewing all sorts of pollutants into the sky and creating a lot of garbage that must be dealt with. The Solstice offers a beautiful lawn, which the company says is their most expensive feature to maintain. It’s both green and not green at the same time. To their credit, today’s cruise companies are attempting to create greener operations through a variety of technologies and mechanisms, but there’s just no disguising the fact that these huge factories at sea aren’t really all that green.
Hotels attempt to get guests to reuse sheets and towels but very few require you to turn out lights. In Europe and elsewhere, many hotels require you to insert and remove the room key to turn on and off the lights. That’s a start. Many conferences and other large events also allow attendees to purchase carbon credits to offset the pollutants that they are estimated to generate. But how many people really want to pay an optional tax?
Besides paying a carbon offset, there are ways to minimize your impact. The customers of lesbian-owned Sweet, the cruise and tour company for gay women and their friends, can participate in voluntourism activities that often include cleaning up a local environment. Individual travelers can participate in hotel’s green efforts (use those towels twice, at least!) or take public transportation wherever possible to minimize their local carbon footprint.
For a really green time on your next vacation, may I suggest a bike trip?