Written by Paige McClanahan 

So you’re vaccinated and eager to finally plan a real summer vacation after a rough year, but you don’t want to add to the problems you might have read about: overcrowding, climate change, unfair working conditions in the tourism industry. What’s a thoughtful traveler to do?

For those who want to travel responsibly, it comes down to this: You have to do your homework.

Looking for a hotel or tour operator that has earned a sustainability label might seem like a good place to start, but the reality isn’t so simple. There are around 180 certification labels floating around in the tourism industry, each purporting to certify the green credentials of a hotel, restaurant, tour operator, or even a destination. And while some of those labels are well enforced, others might better be described as greenwashing — when a company portrays itself as an environmental steward, but its actions don’t match the hype.

“The range is enormous — from rigorous, impartial, and excellent too, frankly, poor,” said Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a nonprofit organization that establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel. “We strongly believe in the value of third-party certification, when it’s done right,” Durband added. “But the way the word ‘certification’ is used in tourism is out of control.”

Still, while the labels might be all over the map, many businesses are waking up to the importance of improving their environmental and social performance, said Andrea Nicholas, CEO of Green Tourism, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based certification body with more than 2,500 members. The pandemic has brought the concept of sustainable tourism forward by five to 10 years, she said. Before, she added, many businesses saw sustainability as an “add-on.”

“What we’re seeing now, from the interest we’re getting, is that it’s a must-have,” she said.

There are some promising signs that consumers, too, are waking up to the consequences of their vacations. More than two-thirds of respondents to a recent seven-country global survey for American Express Travel said that they “are trying to be more aware of sustainability-friendly travel brands to support.” Another poll, this one for the digital travel company Booking.com, found that 69% of the more than 20,000 respondents “expect the travel industry to offer more sustainable travel options.”

What does “sustainable travel” mean, anyway?

Given the diversity of destinations and contexts that a traveler might encounter, there’s no universal answer to what sustainable travel means. A hotel’s water efficiency is a lot more important along Spain’s dry Mediterranean coastline than in rain-soaked western Scotland, for instance.

But experts say that the concept is about a lot more than just reusing the towels in your hotel room or buying carbon offset for your flight, although those are good places to start.

Sustainability is also about the wages and working conditions of the people who are waiting tables on your cruise ship or schlepping your bag up a trail; it’s about the additional pressure you might be putting on an already-crowded city, heritage site, or natural area; it’s about whether your hotel buys its produce from a farm down the road or from a supplier on the other side of the world, or whether the money you spend goes into the community you’re visiting — or into the distant account of a multinational.

Travelling has many environmental repercussions. Make sure you travel smart. (Source: Getty/Thinkstock)

“What you need to do is marry the corporate social responsibility with an informed tourist consumer who knows what they’re asking for, and then demands it,” said Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, an adjunct senior lecturer in tourism at the University of South Australia. She listed some questions that travelers should ask themselves before they take their next trip: How can I travel in an off-peak time? How can I go to places that aren’t overcrowded? How can I ensure that the money I spend ends up in the local economy?

How to do your homework

Asking questions — both while you’re traveling and, more important, before you book — is one of the most powerful things that travelers can do, said Gregory Miller, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Travel. He recommends people start by looking closely at the websites of the tour operators, hotels, and destinations that they’re considering. If they don’t find any language about sustainability, “that should be a flag,” he said.

Beyond that, he suggests that travelers check his organization’s list of responsible travel tips, which include recommendations like hiring local guides, asking permission before taking photos of people, staying on designated trails in natural areas, and thinking twice about handing out money to children. While they’re traveling, Miller said, people shouldn’t be afraid to ask difficult questions of their service providers or to call out waste or abuse when they see it — whether directly to a manager or in an online review.

“Certification can be a tool in the toolbox, but don’t be limited by that,” Miller said. “It’s about choices, and travelers do have the choice.”

Susanne Etti, the environmental impact specialist at Intrepid Travel, a global tour operator based in Australia, had other tips for travelers. She said they could start by checking the list of the more than 230 travel organizations that have joined the Tourism Declares initiative, members of which have pledged to publish a climate action plan and cut their carbon emissions.

Rethinking what travel means

Many travelers also need a shift in mindset, said Dominique Callimanopulos, the head of Elevate Destinations, an international tour operator based in Massachusetts that has won a number of awards for its commitment to sustainability. People should learn to see their travels as an opportunity for exchange with a host community rather than a simple consumer transaction. Callimanopulos said that even her sustainability-inclined clientele rarely do their homework: She has received more questions about the availability of hairdryers than about the company’s environmental or social practices.

“People can make a shift from thinking just about what their personal experience is going to be to looking at the impact of their experience on the ground, on the destination, and on the community,” she said.

Lindblad Expeditions, which operates adventure cruises in destinations like Alaska, the Antarctic, and the South Pacific, has also won awards for its approach to sustainability and for giving back to the communities it visits. Sven-Olof Lindblad, the company’s CEO, said that he continues to see people spending up to $40,000 on an Antarctic cruise without doing any research on the practices of the company offering the trip.

“You wouldn’t just buy a car from an ad without understanding what it was and how it compared,” he said. “I’m absolutely amazed at how little diligence people sometimes do in relationship to travel.”

Lindblad recommended that, in addition to doing their own research, travelers could speak to a travel adviser or travel agent who can help them dig for answers that might not be readily available on a company’s website.

“When people choose to travel, they should really understand what they’re getting into,” he said, “because there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this business.”