Illustration of plane flying over farmland

Mindfulness About the Environmental Impact of Tourism Is Changing How We Travel

Both travelers and travel providers are stepping up their game

We’re dedicating our December features to examining the biggest travel trends of 2021. Read on for our collection of stories that take a look at the shifts driving the future of travel, including the rise of new budget airlines, major overhauls of airline loyalty programs, the growing popularity of “adult study abroad” programs, and a look ahead at the top travel and outdoor gear trends of 2022. 

Sustainability is quite a buzzword in recent years, being infused into conversations about nearly everything, and the travel industry is no exception. While sustainable travel accounts for more than just environmental impact—it also comprises the socioeconomic and cultural impact of tourism—there is rightfully an increasing concern about the former. According to scientific journal Nature Climate Change, tourism accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Since we all can’t (and shouldn’t) simply stop traveling, there’s an increasing demand and effort to reduce travel’s impact on the earth, by both travelers and providers. And those dual efforts, as well as the widespread transparency of how they're being achieved, will continue to put pressure on the industry as a whole to reduce its impact.  

Many travel providers have already committed to lessening their impact, several within the past year. In 2020, United Airlines pledged to go 100% green by 2050, and JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to achieve carbon neutrality on all domestic flights. Tour operators are also emphasizing the importance of climate-minded travel, such as Intrepid, which has been carbon neutral since 2010 and declared a climate emergency in 2020 with a seven-point plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. These are only a handful of the many that are making strides toward a greener industry, and sustainability-minded travelers are applauding those steps.

A June 2021 survey from Booking.com that included more than 29,000 respondents from 30 countries showed that 83% of travelers think sustainable travel is vital, and 49% believe there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available. Another survey this year from The Vacationer revealed that 83% of all Americans believe sustainable travel is either somewhat important or very important to them (kudos to the latter), with 71% of adult Americans willing to pay more for a vacation in order to lower their carbon footprint. 

And while surveys are enlightening, there’s an arguably more reliable source that tends to capture people’s true albeit unspoken intentions. “We have seen data, especially in searches, revealing an ever-increasing rate of questions about sustainable travel,” says James Byers, Senior Product Manager at Google Flights. “And that rate has increased for many years. That helps us know that there’s demand here and that there’s interest.” 

What this rise in searches also tells us? People clearly want to travel more sustainably, but they’re not quite sure how to do it, hence turning to Google for answers. That thirst for knowledge by travelers coupled with Google’s mission to empower users with information led to the company’s launch of emissions labels in Google Flights, in which you’re able to see not only the carbon emissions of a particular flight, but also whether that amount is higher-emitting or lower-emitting than average, allowing you to sort and scan for the most eco-friendly option. 

“We calculate emissions on a per-flight basis using our model and using a bunch of signals we have and integrations and data sources that Google has with industry partners,” says Byers. (For example, airlines such as Lufthansa and American Airlines have provided their fuel burn information to further strengthen the model.) “And then we translate that emissions value for a flight down to emissions for a passenger. For example, a passenger in first class will have a larger share of emissions typically as they take up more space in the plane than a passenger who flies in economy.” 

carbon emissions on Google Flights

Courtesy of Google

Byers says it’s still early into the launch but that they’re already seeing travelers' behavior change around the new emissions labels, suggesting that travelers are factoring carbon emissions into their travel plans. Being equipped with that information—seeing the amounts and averages next to each flight option in the search process—can also help to clear up some myths and misunderstandings about sustainable travel. There are many misconceptions about sustainable travel, namely that it’s more expensive or that direct flights are always lower-emitting, neither of which is the case. In fact, many of the lowest-emitting itineraries can be some of the cheapest. And several factors go into the emissions of a flight beyond its distance and stops, such as the seating configuration, the fuels a plane uses, and a company's operations.

Google isn't strictly focused on flights in this transparency effort. In September, it also launched labels for hotels to designate properties that meet certain criteria as "eco-certified." According to Google, searches for “eco hotel” have doubled over the past decade, showing that travelers are also concerned with their footprint on the ground once they’ve arrived at the destination. Similar to the emissions values next to flights, these badges are prominently displayed next to qualifying properties' names during the search process.

And Google isn’t the only booking engine giant making efforts to highlight eco-conscious providers or properties for travelers. In November, Booking.com launched its Travel Sustainable badge that is awarded to hotel properties that have implemented various sustainable practices that meet the requisite impact threshold for their destination. “We’ve watched the world undergo countless challenges and changes over the past two years, so it’s no surprise that travelers’ values have shifted and are impacting the way they decide to rediscover the world again,” says Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking.com.

However, from a traveler standpoint, these green labels alone—while helpful for spotting eco-friendly properties at a glance—don't provide much context, and context is key to avoid the appearance of greenwashing. Greenwashing is the practice of overstating or misrepresenting the environmental benefits of a place or product to attract well-meaning but unwitting consumers who simply want to choose the greener option. For example, hotels boasting about the elimination of plastic straws or single-use toiletry bottles might claim to be eco-friendly—those are certainly steps in the right direction, but in isolation could be perceived as greenwashing as the bar is rising industry-wide. In other words, doing the bare minimum to claim a green status. 

And calculating a hotel’s environmental impact isn’t as straightforward as the emissions number that’s calculable from a flight, says Byers, which is why these hotel designations require more thorough standards. Fortunately, both Google and Booking.com not only follow strict criteria when awarding badges to properties but also display those criteria for users to see and understand.

Google developed a set of 29 eco-certifications to label specific practices a property follows to reduce their impact, such as "no Styrofoam food containers" or "towel and linen reuse program," and they also focused on four main larger criteria in their evaluations, which include energy efficiency, waste reduction, water conservation, and sustainable sourcing. "We worked with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) to pick a set of certifications that we believe are an authentic representation of a hotel’s efforts in this area," says Byers.

Booking.com has also collaborated with various partners, such as the GSTC, Green Tourism, the EU Ecolabel, and Sustainalize to produce its badge and methodology, and it focused on five key areas of impact: waste, energy and greenhouse gases, water, supporting local communities, and protecting nature. Since the launch of the badge, more than 600,000 properties globally have shared their sustainability information with the platform; of those, 57,000 are receiving the first version of the Travel Sustainable badge. "While it’s still early days, this is an important first step in providing more sustainability information in a transparent way to consumers, ultimately making it easier for them to start making more sustainable travel choices," according to a statement from Booking.com. 

Both companies, among others, are also partners with Travalyst, a sustainable tourism nonprofit that is working to make sustainability reporting and scoring consistent across all providers and platforms, making it easier for suppliers to make accurate and informed sustainability choices and more reliable and informative for consumers when they're booking trips.

“It’s one thing to have the information available, and it’s another thing to be able to understand and make what’s often a scientific result approachable,” says Byers. "We have a lot of research in that area that we’re working on to make these concepts approachable.”

While these efforts by companies such as Google and Booking.com certainly make it easier for travelers to quickly sift through and identify the more eco-friendly choices for their individual trips, this transparency about the industry’s footprint also serves a higher purpose—it provides a signal about what’s important to travelers back to the industry to encourage further efforts on the part of larger companies, who can make more of an impact through infrastructure and policy decisions than individuals.

“We think those two forces help reinforce each other," says Byers. “As airlines understand that greener travel is important to a large, growing segment of their travelers, they can make choices about the equipment they buy, about the fuels they use, and about their operational practices that might help accelerate more sustainable travel." 

In other words, the industry should communicate their efforts and milestones clearly to consumers, and consumers should continue to drive the demand for greener options and take personal responsibility for their trips. If these two forces continue to work together and demand better from one another, we’ll hopefully see a greener travel space emerge.