Sustainable Travel is an Oxymoron

The resort at Laguna de Apoyo, a "protected area."

The resort at Laguna de Apoyo, a “protected area.”

It’s late February, and I’m sitting in the airport in Houston, waiting for my flight to Managua. I’ve been up since around 4 in the morning, and I’m not exactly at my sharpest, but I’m trying to work on a new newsletter about sustainability for Worldcrunch – the goal is to gather tips about sustainability from the foreign language press and condense them into seven short blurbs for this newsletter.

This got me thinking about sustainability and travel. Sustainable travel is a buzz word these days, and I care more about the environment than your average traveler. I continued thinking about sustainability over the course of the whole trip, as we stayed in a hotel inside a protected wildlife area (not so sustainable), took short-hopper flights across Nicaragua and traveled by diesel-fuel-guzzling boats. I also thought about the full meaning of sustainable travel as we ran into expats who own hotels and restaurants,  who run tourism companies and who buy homes that they live in for a month per year.

Sustainable travel generally means, at least to me, traveling in a way that is good for the environment and good for the people who live in the place you’re visiting. Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, has built its entire economy on the idea of sustainable tourism.

But it didn’t take long for me to decide that sustainable tourism is, in fact, a pipe dream. The first reason is simple: Air travel is extraordinarily polluting, and most people, me included, fly to their destination. Indeed, just as I was sitting down to write this post, I saw an article on Quartz arguing that climate scientists should stop flying altogether, because telling people to reduce emissions while flying everywhere is hypocritical.

Indeed, I realized that just one international flights basically cancels out everything I do to live sustainably: I bike as often as possible, set my heater to go on when it gets under 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) and never, ever use air conditioning. In my daily life, undoubtedly have lower carbon emissions than the average American, but I travel at least once a year, generally internationally. Just one trip can more than double my emissions.

To make matters worse, if you’re participating in ‘sustainable tourism’ you’re traveling for leisure, so there’s no good reason for your trip. Most travelers don’t just arrive and stay in one place, either. They move around every couple of days, once again burning more carbon than they would in everyday life.

Are there ways to ameliorate the air travel dilemma? If possible, you can take the train or bus, as the article in Quartz suggested. For me, in Portland, Oregon, that is not a viable option: It takes 24 hours by train to get to San Francisco (an 11-hour drive or 1.5 hour flight). Until there is an intercontinental bridge linking us with China, international travel from Portland (except to Canada) is going to have to be by plane.

What about those hotels? Most hotels are also not particularly sustainable, in the sense of building a sustainable community. Sure, they offer jobs, but they also drive up property values. Large hotels and resorts are often built at the expense of local residents, who are evicted from their land and forced to move elsewhere, often completely changing their lifestyle.

Is it possible to get around the hotel challenge? Yes, but with careful navigation. Think, for example, about what kind of lodging you would find acceptable in your own neighborhood, perhaps right next door. I would hate to live next to a hotel, and the idea of a resort next door that I can’t afford to enjoy is extremely offensive. On the other hand, I have no problem with a bed and breakfast next door, nor do I have trouble with the idea of someone renting out rooms with Airbnb. I don’t think it destroys communities in the same way a resort or even large hotel does. So when I travel, I always try to stay in a bed and breakfast or with someone renting out rooms.

The sad fact, though, is that travel is not sustainable. Staying in a resort that only washes the sheets every three days is not going to make up for the carbon emitted so that you could get there, nor is it going to make up for the people displaced to build the eco-resort. Someone genuinely committed to reducing their carbon footprint wouldn’t travel, or at least would never travel by plane. Someone genuinely committed to fair trade would find ways to spend their money – from home – that will trickle down to people in less fortunate regions.

How can I reconcile all of this? I don’t love to travel, but I do love to take extended trips abroad. Even though one international flight can basically cancel out a year’s worth of earth-friendly living, it’s better to just take one such flight, rather than bouncing between different places. So maybe I’ll focus on taking longer trips, less frequently. Maybe I won’t travel unless I’m staying for at least several months. It’s not the only puzzle that I’ve struggled with as I try to stay true to all my values – while still spending time abroad and learning languages, of course.


Do you have any thoughts on sustainability and travel? I’d love to hear how other people manage to be sustainable and still travel!