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Taking the environmental guilt out of travelling

While most people do not choose holidays based on environmental impact, industry experts believe that day is not too far off

If you are seeking to minimise the carbon impact of your travels, be warned – the most environmentally friendly way to travel is to not do it at all. But the growth of sustainable tourism, where a trip has more positive than negative impacts, is undergoing a surge, as people listen to their conscience when planning their holidays.

Róisín Finlay of Sustainable Travel Ireland, which promotes sustainable and responsible tourism, says awareness of the potential impact of travelling on the climate is increasing, even though it is not necessarily deterring would-be holidaymakers.

“There is a lot of climate guilt when it comes to travelling and people are certainly looking for the businesses that are doing something positive in this space when they are travelling, to make sure their travel is having less of an impact,” Finlay explains.

“Flight shaming” gained some traction in recent years, and led most airlines to offer carbon offsetting options to their customers, who can calculate the carbon emissions of their flights and contribute that value to a carbon offsetting project. Yet Finlay warns that carbon offsetting is “a last resort”.


“It’s a tough one,” she says. “Here at Sustainable Tourism Ireland we are not saying don’t fly but we believe the benefits of good tourism outweigh the negatives. What we do say is be very considered when you do fly – fly less and fly direct.” Finlay explains that websites such as Skyscanner will calculate the carbon footprint of different flight options – a cheaper option may involve a stopover, but that can often double the carbon footprint of your trip.

Finlay cautions against “carbon tunnel vision” saying sustainable tourism is about so much more than a carbon footprint. “If you only think about your carbon footprint, you are doing it wrong, because it’s a more complex concept,” Finlay says.

“Imagine the world without tourism, it’s a much poorer place – tourism is how we learn about each other, get insights into each other’s culture and interact.” Instead, people should think about the potential impact their tourism is having.

“Is the money staying locally, is it providing good jobs, is it conserving culture and nature? But also are they making a real effort to minimise their carbon impact and every other impact?”

Sustainable Travel Ireland changed its name in recent years from Ecotourism Ireland, a deliberate move away from the notion of eco-friendly holidays and the associated preconceptions, Finlay says.

“Eco-tourism used to be very niche and was what people associated with very basic holidays, maybe camping, compost toilets, a very earthy version of sustainability, whereas now it should really be part of everything,” she says. “Even some very very high-end tourism experiences have a lot of sustainability in them – they are no longer mutually exclusive.”

Finlay suggests seeking out whether the hotel or tour company has a visible sustainability policy, noting that many now do. “If a business has a published sustainability policy that’s easy to find, that’s a very good sign, and if they have some form of certification, better still,” she says. This must go much further than eschewing single use toiletries or installing sensor lights. “It’s great if they are looking after their energy, waste and water use, but do they discuss how they treat their staff and how they respect the local community?”

Claire Doherty is product and operations director with Travel Department, which offers guided group holidays. The company has a detailed and transparent sustainability policy, although Doherty notes this journey only began three years ago “and there is much more we can do”. “We offer carbon offsetting and tree planting but while they help they aren’t undoing the travel aspect of it and we are very honest about that,” she says.

Doherty says that while most people do not currently choose their holidays based on the potential environmental impact, she believes that day is not too far off. “People will be increasingly savvier about it,” she says. And, while Doherty admits it is “very hard” for tourism to be truly sustainable, there are multiple elements of a trip that can benefit the planet.

“Travel is not good for the environment but we are doing everything we can to ensure we are not damaging it,” Doherty explains. “We bring our groups to eat in locally owned restaurants, use locally owned hotels too and avoid chains. Our entire policy is around giving back to the community so we are empowering them, that is the most important part of travel to us. If we don’t preserve the local community then our customers won’t have somewhere good to go.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times