This week I am enjoying Greek salads with feta cheese, morning swims in the sea, and lazy afternoons in the sun. I am in Cyprus, a country whose tourism sector’s greenhouse emissions per capita are the sixths largest in the world. And it’s not the Cypriots who are to blame, rather the troops of tourists (including me) that fly into the Mediterranean island to enjoy their holidays in luxurious hotel rooms kept cool by batteries of air conditioners. Thanks to a new study, for the first time ever we now have a comprehensive overview of the footprint of global tourism. And it’s not a pretty picture, rather an inconvenient truth (to use Al Gore’s words).

Because let’s be honest, most of us love traveling. Exploring new tastes, smells, views, and languages. For many a trip abroad is the highlight of the year. Growing by an average 4% per year, the tourism sector is growing even faster than international trade. Scientists from several Australian universities estimated its carbon footprint to be around 4.5 Gigatonnes, which is 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. They took into account transportation, energy use of hotels, supply chains of restaurants, production emissions of sunscreen, and the footprint of what not other services consumed by travel addicts.

Yet, not all tourists are created equal. Or rather are equally wealthy. The study reveals a remarkable difference between citizens from high-income countries and low-income countries. The former usually take international flights and enjoy a luxury treatment at their destination. Travelers from lower-income countries are using more public transport, eat less out, and stay in less carbon-intensive accommodation. The scientists found that for persons with a yearly income above 40000 USD, travel emissions rise with up to 13% for a 10% increase in wealth. And this trend doesn’t saturate: the richer, the grander — at least on average.

Besides looking at the nationality of the tourist, it is also interesting to look at tourism emissions per destination country. Islands such as Cyprus, the Maldives, and Mauritius have very high tourism emissions per capita. It makes up to 80% of all their carbon emissions! If we want to make the sector more climate-friendly, those are the hotspots to start.

One of the biggest sources of emissions is, not surprising, transportation. Especially air travel is a very carbon intensive way of moving around. My return flight from Brussels to Larnaca causes just under one tonne of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a lot, and I am not proud of it. For an island like Cyprus one hasn’t a lot of options, but even closer to home I am continuously facing the challenge of extremely cheap airfares versus ridiculously expensive train tickets. Ryanair might be the dream of all millennials, its business model is an ecological disaster.

But Elias, I take the bike to work every single day, even in rain and snow! Doesn’t that give me some space to go for holidays in an exotic destination? Let’s assume for a moment you have to drive 15 kilometers to work everyday (hopefully for you it’s less). In that case, you would avoid a bit more than a ton of CO2 per year. If you were just like me and came over to Cyprus to try their olives and feta cheese (I love them), your trip would probably undo your heroic biking efforts. Planning to fly intercontinental? Your emissions go completely of the charts!

To be clear, I don’t want to say here it doesn’t matter you take the bike to work, or follow a vegetarian diet, or do other things in your daily life to limit emissions (I am in the same camp). Quite the opposite. You do have a measurable impact, so let’s be consistent and not undo it. Looking at the numbers sometimes really helps to put things in perspective (says the engineer).

Yet, my inner self has not yet acquiesced the idea I will never be able to visit South-America ever! Isn’t the travel industry becoming more sustainable? Eco-tourism is growing indeed, and in fact, the carbon intensity of tourism is estimated to decrease by 2% to 3% per year. But this is completely outpaced by the rapid growth in wealth which leads in its turn to higher consumption of tourism.

One could, of course, argue that tourism is bringing economic development for the destination country and that you are doing a good deed by spending your money over there. Yet, the study proves that the carbon emissions per dollar (or Euro or Yeng) spend for tourism purposes are higher than for manufacturing, construction, or services for the local population. Countries that want to grow their economy in a climate-friendly way should hence think twice about going all in on tourism. I find it anyway paradoxical that a touristic island would develop its economy in a way that speeds up sea -level rise, threatening their very own existence. Not really a fantastic business model I would say.

I try to convince myself there must be other counter-arguments. Travel can open our eyes, confront us with both the beauty and human destruction of nature around the globe. Doesn’t this encourage people to live more sustainably back home? Undoubtedly this is true for a select group of people, but I can’t believe it is generally true. And would the first group also not be moved to change their everyday behavior by watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth from their couch? I bet so.

So… I invite you to share some good arguments that can make me feel less guilty about sitting here typing this blog post under the Cypriot sky. Meanwhile, here are some recommendations to travel more sustainable:

  • By all means possible, leave the plane for what it is until commercial flights become strongly decarbonized using renewable fuels or electricity (I already warn you, this is not going to happen anytime soon).
  • Use train, bus, hitchhiking, or bike instead to explore your own and neighboring countries. You would be surprised how much gems there are waiting around the corner.
  • Look for accommodation that has a strong sustainability policy. Some countries have labels for this, but look out for greenwashing. Typically common sense judgment brings you far.
  • Delve in the local cuisine by eating local products, and limit meat and fish consumption.
  • Be extra careful about your water consumption and the waste you leave behind. Check with locals how they recycle and separate waste.
  • The best thing you can take home from a trip is memories and pictures, not stuff. Chances are high your souvenirs will end up in the attic anyway.
  • Pray together with me we will get a global carbon tax that finally addresses the externalities of transportation, which will punish polluting means of transportation and rewards clean alternatives.

Good luck, and happy travelling!

PS: in fact, the main reason for my stay in Cyprus is work-related. Over the past three years, I have drastically reduced my air travel, after I developed the travel carbon footprint calculator (yes I do such things in my free time) and tested it on my own travel behavior. You are also welcome to give it a try!