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Can Luxury Travel Ever Be Sustainable?

If you read vague terms such as “responsible”, “sustainable”, or “environment-friendly”, you might want to question the facts behind these words. 

In 2022, inflation peaked in the U.S. with a four-decade-high of 9.1%. However, Americans spent more on holidays and hotels. Luxury travel underwent a quick recovery after the pandemic because travelers yearned for the best. According to Buzz Vs Reality in Luxury Travel report, affluent Americans are likely to shell out more on holidays than they did pre-COVID in 2023.

In the past couple of years, sustainable tourism has also dictated travel trends. As consciousness about travel’s carbon footprint has increased, so have the demands from travelers for slower, responsible experiences. And that is likely to continue. According to Explore Worldwide, 76% of people surveyed said that sustainability was important to them when booking a holiday. Other reports express a similar sentiment among travelers.

But sustainable tourism is hard to define and execute, especially amid greenwashing and marketing gimmicks. And luxury travel doesn’t neatly fit into the environmentally-friendly box. Traditionally, indulgence and excess have driven luxe experiences from first-class tickets, limo pickups, presidential suites, and Wagyu beef dinners—all extremely carbon intensive. In fact, the richest 1% of the population is responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution of the 3.1 billion poorest, Oxfam reports. 

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And in this age of revenge tourism, is it possible to have sustainable luxury holidays?

Redefining Luxury

Dr. Terika L. Haynes, founder and CEO of Dynamite Travel, thinks it’s possible. Transfers via electric vehicles, solar power at hotels, farm-to-table restaurants, local tour guides, and community activities are some of the ways the industry is adapting. 

In the past few years, luxury has received a personality transformation. Climate crises around the world have burst the privilege bubble of elite travel experiences, and luxury travel is becoming more about high-quality, low-impact tourism. Conservation programs, community-led activities, nature-based travels, alternative modes of transportation, and exclusivity are its new pillars. Not to say that marble bathtubs and pillow menus aren’t part of the deal though. But there’s more stigma than awe attached to private jet journeys now. 

“Maybe it’s time for us to rethink what luxury travel means. For example, instead of the best air conditioning and the highest thread-count sheets, maybe we should be investing in the most unique locations and the most meaningful memories,” Dr. Erica Dodds, COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, tells Fodor’s.

Answers Are Around

There are ways to reduce your impact when you’re splurging on your holidays. As Albus Dumbledore once said, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

So, let’s see what these choices are. Starting with who you’re traveling with. 

Michael Edwards, Managing Director of Explore Worldwide, tells Fodor’s that the company chooses small, locally-owned and locally-run businesses from tour leaders to hotels and restaurants. “In avoiding chain and internationally-owned properties, Explore maximizes the percentage of spend going directly to the local community. This way of traveling is more sustainable, absolutely, but it’s also more authentic and, we believe, leads to a much richer traveling experience for our customers.”

But Explore Worldwide isn’t the only company that operates on such ethos. There are many others walking the talk with a range of thoughtful trips, flight-free itineraries, ecotourism luxury trips, and conservation programs. 

Related: Book Your Next Holiday With These Climate-Conscious Travel Companies

The hotel industry is having a reckoning, too. In Costa Rica, green and clean eco-lodges have been setting the standards for the industry for years. CGH Earth, an Indian hospitality brand, has 16 boutique properties that have a less-is-more approach to luxury. At Swaswara Wellness Retreat, water harvesting ponds are dotted by villas; Spice Village is 75% powered by solar energy; and Visalam is a 100-year-old mansion that was restored by conservationists and craftspeople. The Homestead in South Africa, a luxury lodge with 12 suites, is also setting new standards with a host of sustainable practices like solar energy, water conservation, electric safari vehicles, and ethically sourced raw materials for construction.

The resurgence of glamorous rail journeys is providing an alternative to flights. Now that France has banned short-haul flights where a train alternative is available, the diversion to the tracks will eventually change how people travel in the country. Other European countries might soon follow suit.

Luxury extends to food, too. Dr. Dodds says traveling is the perfect time to make thoughtful choices and try new things. So, choose seasonal, local, and less meat to reduce your impact further. If a chef is flying in something from another country or transporting ingredients from far away, it is adding to your cup of overflowing emissions unnecessarily—and those are not the bragging rights you want.

Spotting Greenwashing

Have you read about how big chain hotels are getting rid of plastic straws and little shampoo bottles? That’s no way to judge their commitment to responsible travel. A hotel can be wasteful in many ways—construction and design (how they dispose off construction waste or what material they use to build the hotel); air conditioning and lighting in rooms and public areas; water usage (not just plastic bottles but laundry and garden maintenance); and waste management (food waste is a big problem and single-use plastic is still in use with key cards, toiletries, and drinking cups). Another thing to consider: how far food sources are and if local communities benefit from the hotel at all.

What it means is that there are a variety of things that top-tier hotels need to do to reduce the impact they have on the environment. If you read vague terms such as “responsible”, “sustainable”, or “environment-friendly”, you might want to question the facts behind these words. 

You should also understand what hotels mean when they say carbon neutral. Dr. Dodds says that hotels can’t be carbon-neutral without purchasing offsets (paying to reduce emissions somewhere else when you’re not reducing them within your business). 

She explains, “Hotels can’t eliminate all of their emissions (true zero emissions), so their only choice to achieve net-zero or carbon-neutrality is to buy offsets equal to the emissions that they can’t eliminate. However, not all offsets are created equal, and in some cases purchasing offsets can slow our transition to a carbon-free economy. For example, if a hotel owner is considering buying solar panels to reduce reliance on fossil fuel-powered grid energy, but they discover that it’s cheaper over the next five years to buy offsets instead, they may choose that route instead of switching to solar.”

Aviation has the same problem: it is harder to decarbonize than other industries. Dr. Dodds says, “While electric buses and trains are becoming commonplace around the world, the energy intensity of jet fuel is a lot harder to replace with carbon-free options. New innovations are allowing us to recycle atmospheric carbon to create carbon-neutral jet fuels, but these aren’t yet cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuel-based fuels.” 

Airlines also have carbon offset programs, but they are not always successful in fulfilling the promise of reduction. It is also used as a distraction by companies that should be doing more, The New York Times reports. Thus, travel and aviation should be heavily investing in R&D to find carbon-negative solutions, Dr. Dodds adds.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Purchasing Carbon Offsets for Travel

For travelers, the devil is in the details. Michael Edwards, Managing Director of Explore Worldwide, advises, “If people and travel companies are genuine they should be transparent. Sharing methodology for carbon footprints, having a climate action plan published so that customers can read the details for themselves and being open and honest about what they are trying to do.”

fouDor February 13, 2023

Think just towels - if your luxury hotel of choice provides a change of towels every day and these towels are of luxury type: thick, soft, bouncy, thirsty towels... be aware that this luxury is super costly - the amount of water to wash the tons of towels alone is huge then add detergents and bleaches. Often in places where clean water is scarce. oh, and of course the energy to heat the water and dry these towels for Every Day change. And this is probably not even registering as luxury, but rather like a basic expectation at a four star property... we did not even reach a five star level. Going to the beach? Giant beach towels are needed, because are expected and possibly twice a day, not once... (I have seen that.)
So demand less and the luxury brands will comply with your requests.