Transportation in the Age of Sustainable Tourism

Tourims and the environment

The world is an extremely large and intriguing place, full of amazing stories and experiences that could take many lifetimes to explore fully. Earth has almost 60 million square miles of dry land with transportation networks that make up the very veins of the world, connecting travelers to destinations that were not accessible before the revolution in transportation methods that have occurred since the invention of cars in 1885.

While tourism brings a wealth of economic and cultural benefits to both the travelers and the community they visit, it can, unfortunately, have a negative impact on the environment. The carbon footprint of tourism amounts to 12.5% of total carbon emissions globally[1], with transportation accounting for 72% of tourism’s CO2 emissions . In a world working hard towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the tourism sector is slowly shifting towards more sustainable methods of enjoying our planet.

Traveling by train

Sustainable tourism

The tourism sector is related to many social, political, and economic benefits. It is calculated to contribute 10% of world GDP, produce US$ 1.5 trillion in exports from international tourism in 2015, and generate one in every eleven jobs globally [2]. However, the increase in touristic arrivals, often linked to specific locations in each country causes

“issues such as overcrowding, increased stress on public services and infrastructure, cultural homogenization and growing dissatisfaction from residents.” - [2] World Economic Forum

The concept of sustainable tourism was born to combat the negative effects of the industry, in order to provide tourists with enjoyable experiences that are geared towards the preservation of the communities and the localities they visit. Sustainable tourism is defined as ““[Meeting] the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support system.”[4]

Sustainable travel - tree tent

Therefore, many initiatives were created to ensure that tourism brings about the many benefits of its industry to local communities while preserving the environment and the cultural heritage of the various destinations the world has to offer. This includes ensuring the involvement of local communities in touristic planning, respecting cultural heritage of multiple communities, and increasing the benefits of tourism to local economies through job generation [3].

Another essential aspect to sustainable tourism, however, is ensuring that the carbon footprint of the tourism industry remains low, by making environmentally conscious choices with regards to transportation methods.

The Carbon Footprint of the Transportation Sector

The transport sector accounted for one-quarter of total emissions in 2016, which is 71% higher than what was in 1990 [6]. Almost all (95%) of the world's transportation carbon footprint comes from petroleum-based fuels, chiefly gasoline and diesel [7]. While not all of the transportation sector emissions are a result of tourism, stabilizing or decreasing the carbon footprint of the industry would bring the world closer to its greenhouse gas emissions quota.

It is worth mentioning that the carbon footprint of the transport sector varies wildly across geographic region, placing a stronger burden on areas with a high carbon footprint to engage in stronger efforts towards stabilizing their emission rates. The main reason for this fluctuation is the disparity in income levels between the different global continents, which accounts for lower trade, tourism, and personal mobility figures. As such, while the Americas have been the leading source of CO2 transport emission historically, Asian nations are slowly closing the gap due to rising economic prosperity and living standards.

Transport CO2 emissions by region

The Carbon Footprint of Different Types of Transportation Methods

Historically speaking, car and truck transport has seen the most increase in global CO2 emissions since the 1990s [6]. This increase is due mainly to the rise in both trade volume, resulting in higher reliance on the transport of goods by road, as well as the increase automobile sale since that time, which is a direct result of rising living standards, as well as greater than before reliance on long-hour commutes.

However, that does not mean that all transportation methods are responsible for emitting the same amount of greenhouse gases, or that calculations across each type of transportation method are necessarily uniform. Normally speaking, buses and rail travel are more efficient for the environment than cars and airplanes.

Aviation emissions cause a more significant climate impact than the same emissions made at ground level. This is because emissions at high altitude “prompt a host of chemical and physical processes that have climate change consequences.” Greenhouse gases from aviation stay longer in the atmosphere and cause chemical chain reactions that result in a more significant effect than their original emission rates[9].

Aviation and sustainability - art

Different factors account for the variances in emission rates between different trips of the same transportation method - whether it be cars, airplanes, and trains - such as fuel source; whether a bus is traveling a long distance with full passengers or only a short distance with a few passengers; airplane size; and carpooling vs. driving solo[10].

By far, the most efficient form of transport is cycling in terms of environment, health, and money, with a saying that says “bicycles runs on fat and saves you money, while cars run on money and make you fat.”

Transport Energy Efficiency
Source: The Conversation

Only a small proportion of households in the UK emit most of the country’s emissions. Various factors affect the chosen mode of transportation for an individual, including distance and speed of travel method, income, and social and economic status. Taking into account total emissions levels, the top 10% of households are responsible for 34% of CO2 emissions from non-business surface passenger travel, whereas households in the bottom decile emit next to nothing [12].

Transport and Carbon Emission Analysis
Source: Transport and Carbon Emission Analysis

Why is it better to travel by trains?

Traveling by train has many hidden benefits, chief among which is how you can reduce your total carbon footprint if you choose to let go of the “multiple checkpoints, stuffy artificial air, and boring plane rides.” Average domestic flights in the UK would produce 29 times more carbon dioxide than covering the same distance by rail [13]. There are many other benefits to traveling by train such as:


Traveling by train causes less noise pollution than traveling by airplanes. The European Aviation Environmental Report of 2019 listed some adverse health effects from long-term exposure to aircraft noise, even at low levels. These include ischemic heart disease, sleep disturbance, annoyance, and cognitive impairment, where residents were reported to be more annoyed by aircraft noise more than any other transport sources [14].


Compared to cars and airplanes, trains could be cheaper to use, due to fluctuations in airfare, the price of gasoline for cars and fuel economy, as well as the hidden costs of transport to and from airports. For example, a train roundtrip fare on Amtrak between New York and Montreal cost $134, as compared to $294 for the cheapest airfare to the same destination [15].

Traveling by car, while more comfortable and convenient, is more expensive than using public transport. In nearly all industrialized countries, travel money budget stands at 10–15% of total expenditure. Households without a personal car devote only 3–5% of total spending to traveling [16].

Final words

Whether you choose to travel by train because you are an environmentally conscious citizen, or because you want to enjoy the many other benefits associated with this mode of transport, you are definitely in for a treat.

Trains offer a magical experience to their passengers, as they roll over beautiful landscapes and sleepy destinations, they offer a window into a world of wonder that promises to unfold itself to the traveler, giving a glimpse into the multiple stories that make up our world.


  1. [1] Unger, Rainer et al. “Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Resulting From Tourism Travel in an Alpine Setting.” BioOne Complete.
  2. [2] International Year from Sustainable Tourism for Development. Retrieved from
  3. [3] The World Economic Forum. Retrieved from
  4. [4] UNESCO. “Sustainable Tourism Development in UNESCO Designated Sites in South-Eastern Europe”
  5. [5] The World Economic Forum. Retrieved from
  6. [6] International Energy Agency. Retrieved from
  7. [7] United States Environment Protection Agency.
  8. [8] International Energy Agency. Retrieved from
  9. [9] N. Jardine, Christian. “Part 1: Calculating the Environmental Impact of Aviation Emissions.” Climate Care. June 2005. Retrieved from
  10. [10] The Retrieved from
  11. [11]
  12. [12] Brand, Christian “Transport and Carbon Emissions Analysis.” Project Paper No. 2 March 2013
  13. [13] The
  14. [14] European Aviation Environmental Report of 2019.
  15. [15] Retrieved from
  16. [16] Schafera, Andreas and G. Victor, David. “Global passenger travel: implications for carbon dioxide Emissions.” Energy. Volume 24, Issue 8, August 1999, Pages 657-679