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Students admire the view of a glacier in New Zealand

Travel sustainably: If you're planning a trip, look beyond flight emissions

Search for a flight and you’ll likely see a new feature listed alongside the price: Carbon emissions. 

Perhaps it’s more of a marketing ploy than concrete data. Nevertheless, more travelers are thinking about their carbon footprint than ever before. This isn’t too surprising as aviation emissions have increased, now accounting for between 2.5% and 3.5% of global CO2 emissions (depending on your calculations). 

But are emissions the only barometer of a good trip? It’s more complicated than that, said Bynum Boley, professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Focusing only on airplane emissions omits the larger educational and economic effects of tourism, especially in less-developed or natural resource-rich countries. 

Rather, he argues, try to travel sustainably. 

“The historical take on sustainable tourism looks at the benefits travel brings to communities—the economic, environmental and socio-cultural benefits of having people in the community,” said Boley, who argued in a paper published in Tourism and Hospitality Planning and Development that a model could be developed to incorporate traditional metrics of sustainability with the net amount of greenhouse gas emitted. This could help determine whether travel has a net positive or negative impact. 

“So instead of saying travel is bad, we need a more holistic understanding that not only is there a footprint, but there’s a handprint. And the handprint is a positive thing,” he added. “Let’s say everyone stopped traveling; what’s going to happen to people who work in tourism? What about people who live in natural resource-rich areas?” 

Travel and tourism might contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but it also puts money in the hands of residents who might be able to make local changes that help mitigate climate change. For example, residents might be less likely to cut key forests or harvest wildlife if they can make a stable income through tourism there. 

Instead of calculating your trip on the flight’s emissions, Boley recommended being “a thoughtful traveler.” This means thinking of your entire trip and making choices that support the local economy while also seeking to reduce your emissions during your trip. Also, staying for a longer period of time after a long flight will help spread out those initial emissions associated with your flight over the course of your stay. 

Research has shown that tourists match the carbon emissions of the country they are visiting. Taking trains and eating food grown from the region will also go a long way to reducing your overall travel footprint, he said. 

“Looking at just the flight is too simplistic. Instead, think about your transportation, where you eat—are they locally owned businesses where your money is staying in the local economy?” he said. “You can really be thoughtful with your expenditures.” 


Associate Professor, Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM), Director of the UGA Tourism Research Lab

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