Whether you're hitting the highway for a weekend in Cleveland with grandma or jetting off for some beach-therapy in Bali there's far more to consider than just those garden-variety travel dilemmas, like how to keep off unwanted pounds from grandma's home cooking or whether to bring sunscreen. With nearly 900 million worldwide tourists on the road, in the skies, or on the high seas each year, there are also a few eco-considerations to ponder. Indeed, the environmental impact of vacationing on local ecosystems, water, air, and wildlife can be significant.

Most vacations involve travel by plane, car, or another form of fossil fuel-intensive transportation, producing significant greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to global warming. In addition, hotels consume significant amounts of energy, as do travelers' homes that continue to be heated or cooled. Travel also generates mountains of garbage from drinks and snack foods bought en route.

Left unchecked, heavy tourism traffic may exceed a location's ability to sustain it. This pressure on local ecosystems and natural resources can lead to soil erosion, increased pollution, loss of natural habitat, strained water resources, ocean discharge, increased risk to endangered species, and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. Eco-friendly vacation options exist, such as staying in an green hotel or driving a hybrid rental car, but they can be harder to find.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Cruise ships

In 2005, over 11 million people worldwide took an ocean cruise.[1] Cruise ships—which are essentially floating towns—produce more CO2 emissions per person than any other form of transportation. A large cruise ship emits almost a pound of CO2 per passenger mile compared to a half-pound for jets (the next most ecologically harmful form of transportation).[2]

Additionally, major cruise operators like Carnival, Royal Caribbean International, and Norwegian Cruise Line have been sued for environmental infractions, like illegal dumping of sewage and toxic chemicals.[3] In one week a typical cruise ship creates more than 50 tons of garbage, 1 million tons of wastewater, 210,000 gallons of sewage, and 35,000 gallons of water contaminated by oil. Cruise ship passengers each generate 7.7 pounds of garbage daily—compared with the 1.7 pounds produced by each local person on shore. In addition, cruise ships often does significant damage to coral reefs when they dock.[2]


Nearly two-thirds of global air travel is now related to tourism, accounting for approximately 7 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. With the number of international travelers projected to rise to 1.6 billion by 2020, this percentage is expected to grow considerably.[4] Flying to Europe and back from the US contributes 3 to 4 tons of CO2 per person. That’s more emissions than 20 people in Bangladesh produce in a year and roughly half the CO2 produced by the average American annually via all other sources (home heating, lighting, driving a car, etc.)[5][4]

Jet travel in the US contributes about 10 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions (or about 2.7 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions).[6] Most of these occur at high altitudes, where not only CO2 is released but also nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and water vapor (which scientists now believe may have a greenhouse effect when released high in the atmosphere).

Cars, trains, and buses

Traveling by car produces fewer CO2 emissions than plane travel: even a long-distance, 12,000-mile car trip releases less CO2 than a single transatlantic flight.[7] Even so, because there are so many vehicles on the road, transportation is responsible for about one-third of CO2 emissions in the US with cars and light trucks accounting for a majority.[8][9]

For every gallon of gas a car burns, it emits nearly 20 pounds of CO2.[10] Thus, a 3,000-mile drive in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon produces 3,000 pounds of CO2. Together cars, SUVs, and minivans emit more than 300 million tons of carbon each year in the US. This amount is equivalent to the emissions generated by 50,000-mile-long coal train—which would reach between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles 17 times.[11]

Train and bus travel is up to five times more energy-efficient than going by car and produces three to seven times fewer CO2 emissions than flying, making public transportation a good green vacation option.[12][5]

Where to stay

About 17 million international travelers stayed in US hotels and motels in 2005.[13] A single night in a hotel generates approximately .01 metric tons of greenhouse gases, including CO2. This translates to at least 170,000 metric tons of CO2 generated by US hotels alone in 2005—the amount produced by nearly 37,000 cars in one year.[14]

Green hotels—a growing segment of the industry—work to cut solid waste and conserve water and energy via a number of measures, including installing energy-efficient HVAC systems, using energy-saving CFL light bulbs, and providing towel racks that allow towels to air dry instead of being washed daily.



Eco-tourism seeks to decrease travelers’ ecological footprint in wilderness areas and fragile ecosystems around the world. It’s part of a larger movement called sustainable tourism, which looks to not only protect natural areas, but also urban and rural areas, as well as local cultures and economies. Despite eco-tourism’s attempt to minimize the impact of tourism on wild areas, it’s often criticized for opening up sensitive “virgin” areas to masses of travelers. This typically includes building energy-intensive mega-resorts sporting artificial landscapes that disrupt native plant and animal species. In addition, critics charge that eco-tourism can strip local economies of their diversity, creating eco-tourism monocultures. Local people are not only typically paid low wages but they may not be guaranteed year-round work.

Carbon offsets

Many organizations and companies offer carbon offsets that allow vacationers to minimize their greenhouse gas emissions from activities such as plane and car travel by purchasing credits toward green projects that reduce carbon emissions. Critics, though, charge that all offsets aren’t created equal. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates advertising claims, began hearings in 2008 to investigate where offset funds actually go. The concern is that some claims may overstate the eco-benefits of offsets (a form of "greenwashing").

For instance, opponents contend that some projects, such as tree planting efforts, may not be worth the $5 to $20 paid per ton of carbon offset because investing in forest protection doesn’t help reduce dependency on fossil fuels the way, for example, renewable energy projects do. Also, the idea of "neutralizing" your carbon emissions requires that offset programs be "additional", meaning they should fund only those ventures that wouldn't otherwise be funded—something that many offset programs don't make clear. In addition, a number of programs aren’t monitored for quality by a third-party.

Some groups have developed offset standards or are in the process of doing so, however not all standards are equally stringent. One of the most comprehensive and widely endorsed is the Gold Standard, which certifies offset projects that follow strict criteria and are verified by independent third parties. Another is the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS).


  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic compounds that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of processes and products, including plane exhaust, paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen, and can create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

External links



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