A collage created by Skift Creative Strategist Aishwarya Agarwal Source: Aishwarya Agarwal

A Short History of the Travel Industry’s Sustainability Efforts

Skift Take

Although many travel companies are vocal about environmental issues, there's often been an enormous disconnect between their words and actions. Here's a look at how Skift has covered the industry's successes and failures in sustainability.

Environmental issues seem increasingly at the forefront of many consumers’ minds. A majority of travelers worldwide recently said sustainability was important to them.

“Sustainable travel is no longer the ambition of the few but of the many,” said Booking.com in its 2022 Sustainable Travel Report.

Yet despite the increasing demand for sustainable travel, companies throughout the industry have struggled to provide greener travel options for consumers. Roughly 31 percent of respondents in the aforementioned survey said they didn’t know sustainable accommodations existed, and 29 percent admitted they knew how to find them.

And travel companies’ large-scale push to promote their loyalty programs is further making greener travel more difficult. Loyalty programs, incredibly lucrative for airlines and hotels, have been described as frequency programs, which require more stays or more miles flown to achieve certain status levels. Luxury hotel brands, in particular, are generally less environmentally-friendly than midscale and economy brands since they usually have larger rooms and more amenities, which result in higher emissions.

The urgency to make travel more sustainable is only heightened because of the industry’s enormous carbon footprint. Tourism contributed roughly 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, by one estimate. And transport-related emissions from international tourism are projected to grow 25 percent by 2030, predicted a 2019 report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Tourism emissions

So have travel companies made progress in making their operations greener? Or are they still paying lip service to the environment? With Earth Day taking place this year on Saturday, April 22, here’s a glimpse at how Skift has covered environmental issues over the past decade.


Skift has frequently addressed sustainability issues related to hotels, which account for about a fifth of all travel-related greenhouse emissions. The industry has seen progress in going greener, including more hotels turning to artificial grass to save water as well as the trend of hotel designers incorporating sustainability into their works.

Some of those stories have touched on the growing consumer desire for so-called green hotels. An August 2013 article revealed that 47 percent of business travelers said at the time they prioritize eco-friendly hotels when working out of town. Another seven percent said eco-friendliness is extremely important when they consider lodging. A piece two years later stated an estimated 52 percent of global travelers indicated they were likely to choose a hotel based on its social and environmental impact.

InterContinental Hotels Group CEO Keith Barr credited pressure from guests — not governments — for its decision to replace single-use plastic toiletry bottles with “bulk-size” amenities by 2021.

“Governments collectively haven’t taken significant action in this space,” Barr said in 2019. “You’ve got municipalities and local jurisdictions, but the reality is our colleagues and our customers expect us to take a leadership position on things like waste.”

Meanwhile, Skift Research has thoroughly examined the hotel industry’s sustainability efforts. The International Tourism Partnership found that hotels need to reduce their carbon emissions per room by 66 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050 compared to 2010 levels to comply with the Paris Agreement on climate change. A 2021 report examining the environmental performance of six major hotel companies revealed — and Accor notched the lowest average emissions per room of them. Skift Research also found that companies with higher-end portfolios tend to have higher emissions per room.

More recently, a 2023 report revealed that hotel companies had improved at both setting emission reduction targets and reporting their current environmental performances. However, the report also found that hotel brands have blind spots in their reporting, especially the performance of their franchised hotels. Greenhouse gas emissions are divided into three scopes, and scope 3 includes emissions from franchised hotels.


Skift has regularly tackled the aviation industry’s struggles to reduce its carbon footprint, with airlines generating roughly 3 percent of global emissions. Skift Research found in 2021 that the majority of airlines failed to reach their environmental efficiency targets.

Some aviation executives have floated the idea of expanding carbon offsets to reduce emissions. Carbon offsetting is considered a way for travelers to neutralize their proportion of an aircraft’s carbon emissions on a trip by investing in carbon reduction projects. For example, when a traveler purchases a credit, the airline uses that money to invest in projects that remove carbon from the air.

However, a 2022 February Skift article revealed that flyers were largely unenthusiastic about paying extra to offset their flights. A study mentioned in the piece found just below 5 percent of roughly 63,000 bookings made by a European airline included carbon dioxide compensation. In addition, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby acknowledged in December 2020 that there isn’t enough land to plant all the trees necessary to fully offset the carbon humans have put into the atmosphere.

However, the Chicago-based carrier opted to participate in a carbon sequestration project that Kirby said would enable the company to go 100 percent by 2050. Carbon sequestration entails taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it either underground or in vegetation.

Skift has also covered the worldwide push for airlines to adopt sustainable aviation fuel. The European Parliament approved its ReFuelEU Aviation standards in July 2022, which lay out a significant increase in sustainable aviation fuel adoption in five-year increments through 2050. Eighty-five percent of aviation fuel in the European Union will need to be sustainable by 2020.

In the U.S., President Joe Biden called for the passage in April 2022 of a sustainable aviation fuel tax credit, which Skift described as a strong endorsement of the airline’s industry aim to cut carbon emissions. Biden eventually signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which included several incentives, including tax credits, for sustainable aviation fuel.

Finally, the large-scale efforts to educate the public about the impact of flying receive a boost when Google added emissions estimates to its flight worldwide in October 2021. Although Google Flights, Kayak and Skyscanner had enabled travelers to filter their flight search results to find one with possibly lower than average emissions, Skift noted that Google was displaying specific carbon emissions estimates as well as data for almost every itinerary. Those carbon estimates though are inexact since most airlines don’t complete audits to ensure their accuracy.

And travelers’ efforts to possibly book the least damaging flight to the environment took a hit the following year when Google stopped including the impact of contrails the following year. Scientists have argued the environmental impact and global warming effects of contrails may be as great, if not greater, than those of carbon dioxide emissions. Skift reported that Google eliminated contrail data from its emissions calculations after discussions with academics who said measuring the contrail impact from specific flights isn’t precise.

Business Travel

Although corporate executives have expressed a desire for greener business trips coming out of the pandemic, Skift has reported a disconnect between their stated aims and an actual commitment to sustainability. A March 2023 story referenced a poll stating less than 10 percent of U.S.-based travel managers considered sustainability a priority. The previous year, another poll revealed only 6 percent of companies allowed employees to spend more on greener travel options.

Figures detailing the lack of emphasis companies place on sustainable travel

Meanwhile, corporate travel managers have said their efforts to create more sustainable business trips are complicated by what they consider an overabundance of sources for critical pieces of information. One former Microsoft travel manager said in an April 2022 article if emissions-related data isn’t credible, it isn’t useful.

Some travel brands have taken concrete steps to provide corporations greener options. Corporate travel agency CWT added car rental and train booking capabilities to its mobile and web channels in 2022. Those platforms will have indicators highlighting electric and hybrid car options, with carbon emission emissions estimates to be added later.

Business travelers’ views on if their employers are taking sustainability seriously

In addition, Skift reported in August 2022 that Hilton was actively promoting its corporate responsibility measurement platform LightStay to help travel managers better understand their own environmental impact. LightStay provides Hilton’s managed and franchised hotels the opportunity to report on their energy, water and waste data monthly. However, one executive said not all corporations were asking for Hilton’s data. Jean Garris Hand, Hilton’s vice president, global environmental, social and corporate governance, acknowledged the company had to communicate its platform’s benefits better.

Skift Research has also examined sustainability-related issues pertaining to corporate travel, with business trips rising from pre-Covid levels in the past six months prior to April 2023. Skift Research found a majority business travelers from the U.S., UK, Australia, and India believe their companies eager to increase sustainable corporate travel, regardless of the cost.

An image from the April 2023 Skift Research report, Business Travelers: A Multi-Country Survey Report,
Findings from an April 2023 Skift Research report. Source: Skift Research.

The push to reduce carbon emissions has helped drive more business travelers in Europe to opt for trains instead of planes, with travel agencies stating they had noticed a surge in rail trips longer than three hours.


The cruise industry has long struggled to go green despite claims in 2016 from MSC Cruises executive chair Pierfrancesco Vago that concerns about the sector’s sustainability weren’t factual.

Skift reported that year that most cruise lines had made miniscule progress on sustainability. In addition, cruise companies have largely failed to be transparent regarding disclosing their impact on the environment. Marcie Keever, the oceans and vessels program director for environmental organization Friends of the Earth, said the cruise industry was getting an ‘F’ for transparency.

The industry has taken steps to be greener, though. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line, announced in December 2019 that it joined the Getting to Zero Coalition, a cross-sector initiative including the maritime, energy and finances industries to boost the de-carbonization of the shipping industry. Carnival reported a 4 percent drop in per unit fuel consumption in 2019.

In addition, Norway-based cruise and transportation company Hurtigruten Group launched the world’s first battery hybrid-powered cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, that year. Hurtigruten Group CEO Daniel Skjeldam explained its reasoning for building a hybrid electric ship as well as its other efforts to reduce emissions in an October 2022 article.

“We strongly believe sustainability is a key driver for our guests. It’s a key driver for the regions with sailing,” Skjeldam said.

However, an internal report from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in February 2020 cast doubt on how safely exhaust gas cleaning systems, commonly referred to as scrubbers, could reduce air pollution on cruise ships. Skift reported the previous October that much of the cruise industry opted to meet the IMO’s stricter 2020 power standard by using scrubbers instead of cleaner-burning, more expensive fuel.


The desire for greener travel has grown in recent years, especially in Asia. Ninety-five percent of Asian travelers said they prefer sustainable travel, according to a 2022 Expedia Sustainable Travel Study.

So destinations on the continent are among those worldwide working to make their tourism industries more sustainable, including Singapore. The city-state launched its Green Plan 2030 in February 2021, which Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said would help make it a top sustainable and innovative urban destination.

Elsewhere, in Asia, Bhutan raised the sustainable development fee all foreign visitors must pay in 2022 — from $65 per person a night to $200. The government said the fee hike would go toward offsetting the carbon footprint of tourists.

Meanwhile, a growing number of U.S. destinations have enhanced their electric vehicle infrastructure in part to attract visitors. Skift reported in November 2022 that some destination marketing organizations were working with state government officials to identify where to put electric vehicle charging stations, with Visit North Carolina as one example. Wit Tuttell, the organization’s executive director, hoped to make electric vehicle drivers comfortable enough to travel around the state.

But while the U.S. Travel Association unveiled a five-point plan for sustainable tourism in March 2022, Skift reported in an article the following February that the U.S. needed to step up its proof of sustainability to attract European tourists. Peter van Berkel, chair of the International Inbound Travel Association, said European countries are considered more advanced regarding sustainability, leading some potential visitors to believe the U.S. isn’t doing much compared to Europe.


The Daily Newsletter

Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.

Tags: airlines, carbon emissions, climate change, environment, ESG, green, hotels, sustainability

Photo credit: A collage created by Skift Creative Strategist Aishwarya Agarwal Source: Aishwarya Agarwal Aishwarya Agarwal

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