Green Globetrotting

Amid growing awareness about sustainable tourism, more people are hoping to reduce their carbon footprint. Besides benefitting the planet, sustainable tourism also presents the industry with the opportunity to grow responsibly 

Nations apart, travel bloggers Shivya Nath from India and Serena Hejazi from Germany have common preferences when it comes to travelling. They choose land transport over air. When they do fly, they try to offset their carbon footprint. To help local economies, they prefer local guest houses and eat local food.

The United Nations defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

According to a 2021 study by World Travel & Tourism Council, the tourism industry accounts for around 8% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions. Being the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after China and the US makes India a major stakeholder in any conversation around sustainability. In 2023, global air travel reached 88% of the pre-Covid level. In India, on the other hand, the Ministry of Civil Aviation said that the volume of domestic air passengers surpassed the pre-Covid level in November 2023.

Market for Sustainability

Sustainable tourism industry is gaining ground in India. According to Future Market Insights, the Indian sustainable tourism market was predicted to be worth $26.01 million in 2022 and is projected to reach $151.88 million by 2032 at a compound annual growth rate of 19.3%. It adds that the sales in the Indian sustainable tourism market represent 2%–5% of the global sustainable tourism market.

Agoda, a popular digital travel platform, in its Eco Deals survey in 2024, stated that nearly four in every five travellers prefer sustainable travel. As per the survey, which had more than 10,000 respondents across Asia, a whopping 77% preferred sustainable travel. In India, 87% of travellers preferred sustainable travel. A trigger for sustainable travel could be incentives or discounts for 41% of Indian travellers. According to 29%  of respondents, the preference for sustainable practices includes extending support to local communities and conservation projects.

Hejazi, the blogger based in Germany, writes about responsible tourism on her website seretravels.com. She says, “I avoid flying. In Europe, it is easy because we have a great railways system. But when I cannot travel by the railway and have to fly, I try to offset the carbon footprint. When I am in Germany, I never use cars and always travel in public transportation. If I use a car, it is usually a shared van with other travellers.” For accommodation while travelling, she opts for family-run hotels or local guest houses.

Aakash Ranison, a sustainability enthusiast and author of the book I’m a Climate Optimist, says, “I have been travelling sustainably for a decade now. In the initial phase of my travelling, I cycled to places across India and other countries. Then I started walking... Then came in hitchhiking, followed by public transportation. My preferred abode has always been Airbnb. I follow a plant-based and minimal lifestyle, which cuts down on my methane and carbon emissions.”

Nath, who writes for her site The Shooting Star, says, “To cut down flying, I have embarked on some epic land journeys.” When land transport is not a viable option, she tries to fly direct and contribute to ecosystem restoration projects to offset the carbon footprint. “Other choices I make include staying in eco-friendly, local-run accommodations, eating local and plant-based food, carrying my own water bottle and using my blog and Instagram to create awareness about slow and meaningful travel,” she adds.

Harnessing the Potential

The industry has started responding to the evolving trend. Dietmar Kielnhofer, general manager of Grand Hyatt, Mumbai and area vice president for Hyatt West India, says, “We prioritise local sourcing to reduce emissions, support local economies and offer fresher produce with fewer preservatives. Additionally, we minimise food waste via proper storage, efficient transportation and eco-friendly packaging. We use recyclable, biodegradable or reusable materials, bulk bins and refillable containers to reduce single-use packaging.”

Abhishek Sadhoo, general manager, Shangri-La Eros New Delhi, says, “We focus on reducing waste, improving energy efficiency and conserving water. We minimise single-use plastics and foster biodiversity and uplift local economies.”

Minimising food waste, using solar and wind energy, setting up in-house kitchen gardens, replacing plastic toothbrushes with ones made from bamboo, avoiding doing laundry daily and opting for recycling to reduce waste of water are ways in which hotels have been making their operations sustainable.

Explaining the nuances of sustainable travel, Anil Gupta, a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and theorist of grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge, says, “Sustainable travel is frugal, flexible and friendly with local communities. It involves respect for stay homes. We must design new home-based kitchens where travellers can enjoy local cuisine and culture.”

According to him, consumption of local craft and other goods can reinforce the livelihood of many. “Why should travellers be an extractive visitor? Should not some reciprocity for nature and society be built into travelling culture?” he asks.

Tourism’s Footprint

An article titled The Carbon Footprint of Global Tourism, published by Nature Climate Change in 2018, states that the global carbon footprint of tourism grew from 3.9 to 4.5 GtCO2e (gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) between 2009 and 2013, which is four times higher than initially believed and accounts for around 8% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The article evaluated the carbon footprint of different segments of the global tourism industry and found that the largest component was transport at 49%, followed by goods at 12%, food and beverages 10% and services at 8%.

The tourism industry has a significant impact on the host population as well as the natural and the built environment and has led to stress on fragile ecosystems, competing for scarce resources, particularly land and water. This has led to local and global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism formulated by the Ministry of Tourism in 2022.

Technology in Tourism

According to a March 2024 report by KPMG and PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India and Hotel Association of India, titled Sustainability in Tourism: Reimagining India’s Sustainable Tourism Evolution, the role of technology can be explored to make tourism sustainable. Technology can help in destination marketing, streamlining the administration of tourism resources and elevating the visitor experience.

Blockchain can be utilised for transparent transactions like booking accommodations, flights and other travel-related things. It enhances trust, transparency and efficiency. Big data can also be utilised for managing data related to tourism. It can help in managing tourist flows, predict peak times and distribute visitors more evenly across sites. Smart city initiatives in tourist destinations are utilising big data to optimise everything from traffic patterns to waste management, enhancing sustainability and visitor experiences, according to the report.

Climate change is reaching new milestones every day. As climate crisis threatens the tourism industry and the communities which depend on it, greening the tourism sector is the only way forward, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the World Tourism Day in September last year.

Contemporary travellers are getting drawn to experiences that let them satisfy their wanderlust without feeling the guilt characterised by the burgeoning challenges of climate change, biodiversity depletion and cultural dilution.

A comprehensive approach to managing all components of tourism sustainability is the need of the hour, especially because India is a major tourism hub with increasing disposable income. In its national strategy for sustainable tourism, the government has noted that states will have the primary role in creating momentum for sustainable tourism, while industry stakeholders like associations, tour operators, accommodation providers and others can help create awareness, adopt sustainable practices and promote sustainable tourism. 

As a rapidly growing industry whose fortunes are heavily dependent on the planet’s natural bounty, local communities and ecosystems, the tourism sector cannot afford to avoid the responsibility for their well-being. Embedding the tenets of sustainable tourism in its operations can help it to be resilient in the face of changing global dynamics and stay in business.