Travelers are often busy enough without worrying about whether to reuse their bath towels, recycle plastic bottles, or turn the lights and air conditioning off when they leave their hotel rooms. And before they reach that point, many likely spent hours in an airplane or vehicle that dumped a stream of fuel into the atmosphere.

Tourism accounts for about 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study from the University of Sydney, and some travel brands like Marriott are grappling with an inconvenient truth that many travelers still don’t understand environmentally-friendly practices or why they’re important.

That’s the view of Claire Cutting, director of sustainability for Marriott International, who spoke at the Sustainable Tourism Entrepreneurship and Destination Asset Management Roundtable organized by the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship at Cornell University on May 3. The roundtable was part of the Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at Cornell.

The roundtable included professionals from academia and the private sector from every continent to discuss possible solutions to overtourism and how the travel industry can get travelers more invested in making their trips less impactful on the environment.

Cutting said Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company with more than one million rooms, has considered a carbon offset program for leisure travelers but already has one for meetings and events. “We haven’t figured out a way to make offsets understandable to guests,” she said. “We also haven’t found success with direct marketing to guests but we have found this in other ways like planting trees with Delta Hotels.”

It’s also unclear how much credit a company like Marriott could take for a large-scale, carbon offset program. “What do we get from a leadership perspective on this?,” asked Cutting, referring to the program it had been considering.

Sweden and Norway recently implemented a carbon tax on all citizens that want to take a flight in either country to try to deter some travelers from flying. The fee ranges from $7 to $49 per traveler depending on the destination, but some airlines might choose to get around the new rules by rerouting their flights to nearby countries like Denmark.

Many travelers are already confused by fees that airlines charge, and a carbon tax could also complicate things for a city like Copenhagen – which has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2025 — if flights were rerouted.

Sustainability a Dirty Word?

Sustainability has a guilt associated with it and the travel industry should look at rebranding the term, said Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst, research manager for EplerWood International, a consultancy that advises governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector on tourism development in developing countries.

Ahamed-Broadhurst also spoke at the roundtable and has observed that town hall meetings between tourism officials and locals where sustainability and tourism are discussed haven’t engaged well.

Cutting said the travel industry should collectively change the lexicon from sustainable tourism to responsible tourism. “We say responsible tourism because our guests want us to be responsible,” said Cutting. “Some customers will cut hotels out of the request for proposal process if they don’t think they’re sustainable.”

Marriott’s goal is to get 100 percent of its properties certified to a recognized sustainability standard by 2025. Some Marriott properties are setting up waste management facilities in communities where they don’t already exist, for example.

“What does it matter if a hotel is recycling if there are no recycling plants in the destination?” said Sofia Fotiadou, research manager for the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative EplerWood International and Harvard School of Public Health, who also spoke at the roundtable.

Hospitality and tourism workers could also do their part to encourage guests to be more aware of their behaviors like reusing a towel if it’s only been used once. Although, housekeeping staff at many hotels will still change towels each day even if a guest follows the instructions on how to reuse.

An environmentally-friendly mindset is not currently integrated with employees as much as it should be, said Cutting, and Marriott is looking at how to embed the concept into the onboarding process. “Research supports that the more involved employees are in environmentally friendly efforts, the more successful and happier they are,” she said.

Tourism vs. the environment

Some 15 percent of global tourism-related emissions also aren’t part of the Paris Agreement as reduction targets. “In addition, the United States, the most significant source of tourism emissions, does not support the agreement,” the study states.

Last year was the United Nations World Tourism Organization spearheaded the international year for sustainable tourism development that got many companies and destinations talking about how to make their businesses less of a threat to the planet. But the jury is still out on how or if tourism could actually benefit the environment.

The name and shame approach won’t work, said Cutting. “With the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it feels like a little less us versus them than it used to be,” she said. “The goals have helped to show us that we’re all in this together.”

But many companies also don’t have years to wait for data to prove that being eco-friendly pays off. “We would like to make the natural capital investment, but we don’t always have data to quantify ROI,” said Cutting. “We can’t wait 10 years.”

Some developing countries in Latin America and Asia have turned to tourism in recent years to grow their economies because they perceive it to be a low impact environmental option.

“This belief has compelled countries to pursue rapid and large-scale tourism development projects, in some cases attempting to double visitor volume over a short time period,” the University of Sydney study states. “We have shown that such a pursuit of economic growth comes with a significant carbon burden, as tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential areas of economic development.”

But travelers from rich countries in North America and Europe are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, the study found. Outbound Canadian, Swiss, Dutch, Danish, and Norwegian travelers have a much higher carbon footprint per capita than domestic travelers in those countries.

International travelers in popular destinations such as Croatia, Greece, and Thailand leave behind much higher carbon footprints than what travelers from those countries exert elsewhere, data show.

Photo Credit: Delta Hotels is one example of a brand trying to offset travelers' carbon footprints. Pictured is a staff gift to a Delta guest at a Calgary, Canada property. Can Pac Swire / Flickr