A newbie’s information to eco-friendly tourism

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Sustainable travel: it sounds like an oxymoron, right? Transporting yourself around the world in machines powered by hydrocarbons and consuming more than usual. It may be immensely enjoyable, but sustainable? Surely not.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has sucker-punched the tourism industry this year. The silver lining for climate change is that emissions from aviation and cruises have dropped.

New Zealand and many other countries around the world are currently on lockdown. But when that lifts, we will be able to travel once again, and the travel sector will rebound.

This stunning little spot is part of the Glenorchy Walkway.

Brook Sabin

This stunning little spot is part of the Glenorchy Walkway.

Global transportation makes up only 3-4 per cent of total carbon emissions, so it’s fair to say averting climate collapse won’t come down to whether you take a holiday. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card though – we can all do more to reduce the negative environmental impacts of travel.

Here’s our guide to minimising your footprint in an industry where the default setting is to indulge the customer’s every whim.


The “stay grounded” movement, whereby travellers pledge to give up flying, has put attention on domestic travel like nothing since the Global Financial Crisis brought us “staycations”. The movement has renewed relevance with the heavy travel restrictions imposed over Covid-19.

* Stewart Island: Inside NZ’s untouched paradise
* Top 10 NZ marine reserves to visit
* Back Your Backyard: Your Aotearoa adventures

Aotearoa’s natural beauty is legendary, so we shouldn’t scoff at the thought of using all our holiday leave within our own borders. Getting to know your own backyard can be equally as rewarding as a more intrepid trip.

When plotting your New Zealand exploration remember car, campervan, bus or train transport modes expel far less carbon than short haul flights. And bicycles none at all. Our scenic train journeys are a completely different way of seeing our country, while campers offer independence.

For inspiration, check out the #BackYourBackyard project in Stuff’s travel section – a celebration of New Zealand’s gems.

The naturally formed slide at Wilkies Pools, Taranaki.

Brook Sabin

The naturally formed slide at Wilkies Pools, Taranaki.


A period of virus-mandated isolation is also a great time to let your imagination run wild planning your international dream escape. But give some thought to getting there sustainably.

Work within a “carbon budget” each year, whereby a long-haul flight is permissible but you might forgo your gas-guzzling commute or daily meaty meals.

Embrace “slow travel” with one longer jaunt, rather than a series of return flights. Flight emissions are at their worst during take off and landing, so fewer is better and fly directly where possible.

Shun the pointy end of the plane to improve your green credentials (your bank balance may already prohibit it), since extra space and resources make business class passengers the most carbon-intensive on the flight.

No matter your class of travel, pack light and always offset. According to the International Air Transport Association only 2 per cent of all journeys are offset voluntarily. Offsetting programmes cannot reduce emissions but they work to mitigate the overall effect. You can tick a box when booking your airfares and leave it for the airline to allocate your money to offset projects (such as carbon capture) or calculate your own emissions and donate to verified non-profits such as Gold Standard or ClimateCare.


Embrace the public transport systems you wish we had in New Zealand. The efficiency and proliferation of European rail networks is well known and rail passes exist to zigzag the continent with ease, but modern rail infrastructure exists too in countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Online resources can help you plan, with rome2rio.com and seat61.com being essential reading.

Your default may be a rental car, since New Zealand is a land of car owners, but even famous road trips such as the Great Ocean Road or the Californian coast can be done by rail and coach combo.

Overnight trains are both a time-and-cost-efficient way to cover a lot of ground while you sleep.

Make use of Europe's extensive rail network.


Make use of Europe’s extensive rail network.

Walking and cycling holidays are a great way to soak up the ethos of slow travel as well as stay within your carbon budget.

Aside from transport, adapting to local life could help reduce your environmental impact. Embrace the ‘when in Rome’ mentality. Give vegetarianism a go in Goa. Adapt to island life (and island basics) in the Pacific. Not only does demanding Western meals and conveniences rattle your hosts, it racks up food miles.


There’s an argument to shun hotels and choose an Airbnb apartment or homestay over an itinerary packed with hotel-after-hotel. The reality is more nuanced.

Airbnb is a double-edged sword in cities such as Barcelona, where apartment landlords have effectively become hoteliers and evicted long-term tenants have had to shift further away. The collective effect is higher rents, sprawl and transport pollution. The flip-side is there are still room-only rentals in established homes that remain a carbon-friendly choice because they use fewer resources (think energy, water, and waste) than a hotel. However, although hotels are more carbon intensive, they are also better-funded to make changes such as going plastic free or switching to renewable energy generation.

No matter who’s hosting you, be a less-demanding guest: You don’t need linens changed daily, taking the free plastic water bottle isn’t mandatory and you don’t need to crank the air-con.


Travel advice and conditions can change quickly, especially in the current Covid-19 environment, so it’s always important to check in with your travel agent or travel provider. Check health.govt.nz for the latest advice about coronavirus impacts and safetravel.govt.nz for the latest travel advisories before making plans, and even up to and during your travel. If in doubt, consult a medical professional before travelling.

* Josh Martin writes about travel, tourism, business, and consumer issues in between trips to places you’d rather be.

Overnight trains are both a time-and-cost-efficient way to travel.


Overnight trains are both a time-and-cost-efficient way to travel.

Travel writer Josh Martin.


Travel writer Josh Martin.

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