Six inconvenient truths about sustainable travel

Sustainability is a buzzword about travel, but research from suggests the reality faces plenty of challenges. 

The 2024 Sustainable Travel Report, released this week, surveyed 31,000 people across 34 countries.

It found that 64 per cent of people surveyed want to travel more sustainably in the next 12 months. However, there was significant confusion about what ‘sustainability’ means, and whether it can make a difference. 

We spoke to the experts about the key obstacles for sustainable travel. 

1. Travellers are bored of climate change

While most participants in the report wanted to travel sustainably, a third (34 per cent) said they were “tired of hearing about climate change all the time”.

“People are feeling overwhelmed by the constant focus on climate change and sustainability,” Booking.coms Oceania regional manager, Todd Lacey, said.

Among the reasons for this, is that sustainable travel is seen as more expensive. For many people, it may not be a choice they can afford, particularly given the cost-of-living crisis – and being reminded that they are part of the problem is not a good feeling. 

“I think many people would say that they very much value sustainability,” said Associate Professor Glen Croy, a Monash Business School travel expert. “But then when it’s pointed out to them [that] their travel behaviour may demonstrate something else,  that can be very uncomfortable.”

2. People think it’s too little, too late

Another key finding is that 26 per cent of people believe the damage done to the environment is irreversible. 

It’s an idea that is prominent among sceptics.

“It is critical that we overcome this narrative that it is too late to save the planet, which both ignores the significant progress that’s been made to de-carbonise our society and also hinders further action,” said Lauren Uppink Calderwood, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Climate Strategy.

“We cannot afford to be paralysed by climate pessimism but must rather accelerate action at all levels of society – from our local communities to global corporations. Every fraction of a degree counts when it comes to global heating, and so does every action we take to reduce our climate impact.”

Climate change badge

Not everyone agrees. Photo: Getty

3. Others think it’s not that bad

A further 26 per cent of participants said they didn’t believe climate change was as severe as it was made out to be. 

This is a major concern to Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, senior lecturer in tourism management at the University of South Australia.

“In fact, climate change is much more serious than we’ve been led to believe,” she told TND. “Scientists don’t feel that governments, the public, or corporates understand how dire the situation is.”

For sustainable travel to stand a chance, it requires clear, trustworthy communication about the current situation, and what we as consumers can genuinely do to mitigate it. 

4. Climate change is only part of the problem

When we talk about sustainability in relation to tourism, it isn’t solely about the effects on the environment, it’s also about communities. 

“Certain countries – and particularly developing countries – are dependent upon tourism. You could do a lot of economic harm to them if you closed that market,” Higgins-Desbiolles said. “Some of the Pacific Islands are a great example of that.”

Croy is a fan of a newer philosophy known as ‘regenerative tourism’ – which doesnt just seek to sustain, but to actually increase resources.

“It’s all about the community having control over its own tourism,” he said. “The community sets the parameters of what tourism is for them, and what they want to achieve. They get to determine the tourism activity, the number of tourists and how also the benefits and the costs are going to be distributed.”

It’s something he’s observed working well on Flinders Island and Kangaroo Island, where tourism has been turned into a community project, with goals set and decisions made collectively, for the greater good.

Flinders Island

Flinders Island, where residents are engaging in regenerative tourism. Photo: Getty

5. The most sustainable travel is … less travel

Many of us are lucky enough to be able to travel widely and often. It’s even seen as part of Australians’ DNA, given that so many of us were born overseas, with family living elsewhere. 

But there’s a school of thought that we could learn something from the golden age of travel, when holidays happened far more infrequently. 

“We need to rethink how tourism is enjoyed,” said Higgins-Desbiolles. “If people are going to travel long-haul, we should consider it a luxury, and we should be staying longer and spending money in that economy to make sure that the visit is worthwhile.

“It’s the idea that you’d be more thoughtful by rationing those experiences. I believe we’d appreciate it more if we didn’t take them for granted, if we understood that travel is a precious thing.”

6. It’s not just up to tourists

An unfortunate side-effect of the suggestion we travel less is that the responsibility is passed on to individuals.

However, Lacey believes it’s bigger than that. 

“It’s a shared responsibility,” he said. “Travellers should make conscious choices, but it is up to the industry to facilitate and support these decisions by making sustainable options more accessible and appealing.”

Meanwhile, 50 per cent of people in the report think governments should be responsible for educating people about the impacts of travel, in the same way as there are guidelines on things such as sun safety and alcohol misuse. 

Croy agreed. “A ‘code of conduct’ – at destination level or at country level – to guide tourists as to what’s appropriate and what’s not, would provide the greatest foundation for tourists to be more sustainable.” 

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