Blue Travel: How Your Vacation Impacts The Ocean

Written byDominique Zamora
Date

. . . And How To Travel More Regeneratively

Despite covering 71% of the planet, providing over 50% of our oxygen and representing more than 80% of global biodiversity, the ocean receives relatively little support in the way of global conservation initiatives. As of 2021, only 2.7% of the ocean has been designated as “Marine Protected Areas” (MPAs) according to a study in Nature. That’s compared to 18% of protected forest areas on land.

The tourism industry can be especially damaging when it comes to climatic ocean impacts. After all, the per passenger emissions of a single 2,500 mile flight (roughly the distance from New York to Los Angeles) produces enough additional carbon dioxide to shrink the Arctic’s summer ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet, researchers discovered in 2016. And that’s just airline travel. According to The New York Times, even the most efficient cruise ships (already notorious for their air, light, noise and wastewater pollution and human rights violations) “emit 3 to 4 times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than a jet.” 

For responsible travelers, ocean-safe tourism is about minimizing environmental damage while directing as many tourism-dollars-spent as possible towards marine conservation and bolstering coastal communities. Relays the World Economic Forum, the economic value of coastal ecosystems is estimated to span from “billions to trillions,” with benefits ranging from food to storm protection to even carbon capture. Yet investments in the blue economy to date pale against the scale necessary to effectively combat climate change.

Below, we’ve compiled a handy list of tips and resources for practicing more responsible ocean stewardship both at home and abroad — whether it’s patronizing regenerative hotels or adopting more conscientious waste management. This list is by no means exhaustive, and as the Regenerative Travel industry grows, we hope this list evolves right alongside it.

With more than 80% of global tourism aggregated in coastal regions and small island developing states particularly vulnerable to global warming, it is more important than ever that we recognize ocean-based travel for the privilege it is, and do all we can to protect the shared blue ecosystem that makes our planet home.

#1: Travel Local Whenever Possible

“Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet [than flying],” writes NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus on the no-fly advocacy website No Fly Climate Sci. Annually, aviation contributes an estimated 2.4% of global CO2 emissions, most of it from commercial travel, and beyond CO2, nitrogen oxide, soot, water vapor and sulfate aerosol pollution further traps heat radiation and leads to an estimated 16,000 premature deaths per year.

Despite advancements in fuel efficiency and biofuel technology, moreover, aviation industry emissions are only expected to increase due to growing travel demand, which is projected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by 2023, according to Travel + Leisure.

So where does that leave would-be jetsetters, who rely on air travel to reach their ecologically pristine yet far-flung destinations?

“The most effective solution to reducing both the climate and health impacts of aviation would be to fly less,” writes Liz Kimbrough of Mongabay, relaying the insights of University of Oxford climate scientist Milan Klöwer. According to Klöwer, a sustained annual decrease in air traffic by 2.5% would be sufficient to halt aviation’s contribution to further warming. 

But if advocates of the no-fly movement are to be believed, such reductions don’t have to come at a loss of vacation and leisure altogether.

Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, shares with The Guardian: “I don’t have a no-fly policy, but rather a fly-less one […] If we are going to fly, it should be for truly extraordinary and important reasons […] thinking through the pros and cons of flying engenders a very different attitude towards travel, time, emissions and moral responsibility.”

Exploring destinations closer to home and choosing more emissions-friendly forms of transportation like trains are excellent ways to reduce your travel carbon footprint. Saving extended and long distance travel for once a year or even once every few years can also help build anticipation and appreciation for the rare instances such trips do occur.

Finally, if you must fly, remember: offset, pack light, and fly coach.

#2: Avoid Cruise Ships

Defendants of the industry argue that comparing the environmental impact of cruises to other forms of transportation is unfair, as cruises are not simply methods of transportation, but hotels, restaurants and floating amusement parks unto themselves.

But when so many sustainable and regenerative alternatives exist, the industry’s innumerable red flags become more difficult to ignore. Do yourself a favor: until several reliable news sources report about massive and sustained industry reform, just skip the boat. The ocean will thank you.

#3: Reduce Your Plastic Waste

“Plastic pollution kills aquatic wildlife, damages natural systems and contaminates marine food chains,” notes the World Wildlife Fund. But while carrying your own reusable bags, food containers, water bottles and straws certainly cuts down on consumer-side plastic use, consumer responsibility is only part of the equation. Contamination of the local water supply makes bottled water the only safe option in many majority world countries, and industry producers and regulatory bodies also have a responsibility to limit global plastic demand. Thankfully, some hotels have taken it upon themselves to help guests find sustainable alternatives.

At Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, for example, all guests are provided stainless steel reusable water bottles, and the hotel has eliminated straws and single use cutlery from its dining offerings. Similarly, in 2007, the Fundación Grupo Puntacana at Tortuga Bay pioneered the first Zero Waste project in the Dominican Republic, working to improve and encourage the development of recycling, waste management and environmental education programs both at the resort and throughout the local community.

If you don’t have access to filtered water, other natural and zero waste solutions like activated charcoal filters also work in a pinch.

Ocean

#4: Respect Local Flora And Fauna

Well-worn travelers are likely already familiar with the principles of “Do No Harm,” and “Leave No Trace,” but they bear repeating, particularly when applied to delicate marine ecosystems like coral reefs. After all, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, global warming has caused a progressive loss amounting to 14% of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. Irresponsible diving practices like intentionally or unintentionally breaking off corals, touching fish and kicking up sediment (which blocks light necessary for algal photosynthesis), may lead tourists to inadvertently destroy the very environments they wish to enjoy.

Initiatives like the Kwanini Marine Protected Area at The Manta Resort help protect wildlife by creating designated no-take zones in areas where overfishing has resulted in population decline and environmental degradation. According to the resort, since the implementation of the KMPA in 2013, local fish populations have rebounded “exponentially” in terms of both biodiversity and biomass. Through their Snorkeling for Conservation program, Manta guests can responsibly explore the reef, accompanied by snorkeling guides and under the supervision of the KMPA’s nine rangers, who enforce regulation and ensure no fishing takes place within the protected zone.

Of course, each ecosystem comes with its own unique risks, so make sure to check with informed local guides for the most up-to-date and responsible recreation recommendations before traveling.

#5: Choose Sustainable Sunscreens

According to the U.S. National Parks Service, between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters coral reefs every year, concentrated in the world’s 10% most popular sites and resulting in well-documented coral bleaching. This is most often due to the presence of oxybenzone, which gets absorbed by coral and disrupts the coral’s reproduction cycles, though other “reef-safe” alternatives may not be entirely in the clear either.

The best thing beach goers can do is rely on sturdy, multi-purpose forms of sun protection like hats and protective layering, which can reduce the amount of sunscreen needed by up to 90%, according to National Geographic. For when sunscreen is unavoidable, make sure to check the label and choose a formula made with natural mineral ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide, or those made for children or people with sensitive skin, as these are likely to be less reef damaging. 

#6: Donate To Conservation Organizations

Like The Manta Resort, several eco-lodges partner with local or fund their own nonprofits, who in turn direct guest funds towards impactful conservation and sustainability initiatives. These can range from establishing Marine Protected Areas, to investing in local infrastructure projects, to providing primary medical care for local residents

Since its establishment in 1994, the Fundación Grupo Puntacana at Tortuga Bay has served as a pioneer in the sustainability community. A leader of the international Partnership for Ecologically Sustainable Coastal Areas (PESCA), the group’s coral restoration gardening program has successfully propagated 8,810 transplanted corals and 5,394 linear meters of planted tissue as of 2020, while concurrent initiatives for hawksbill sea turtle restoration as well as an ornamental fish nursery have also resulted in improved livelihoods for local fishing families and reduced fishing pressures for local coral reefs.

To avoid issues of greenwashing, potential guests should take care to prioritize transparency and specificity when analyzing any organization’s sustainability claims. Robust impact measurement which provides concrete figures, as well as readily discloses possible shortcomings and areas for improvement, goes a long way in building credibility and ensuring your tourism dollars go towards companies who are legitimately creating positive impacts for their local communities.

Playa Viva Mexico resort

#7: Limit Your Water/Energy Use

Another powerfully simple way to mitigate your environmental impact is to limit your water and electricity use. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, 84% of the world’s energy consumption in 2019 came from fossil fuels, and in 2016, over 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions came from the energy sector. Researchers have warned that as Earth nears 1.5°C of global warming, more than 90% of the world’s coral reefs will suffer from an “intolerable level of thermal stress,” reports CBS News. Without drastic measures, scientists believe that we’re already well on our way to surpass 2°C.

Individual measures like turning off lights and relying on nature-based heating and cooling are certainly the most direct approach travelers can take to reduce their energy consumption, but broader, industry-level transitions to renewables also provide invaluable support in keeping us within safe planetary boundaries.

Alongside the resort’s robust turtle conservation program, Playa Viva in Mexico also minimizes its environmental footprint by running entirely on solar energy. Additionally, the resort’s lighting systems are generally limited to an amber color to reduce negative light effects on nesting turtles, and on-site smart water design conservation measures ensure that all gray water flows to irrigate nearby gardens, all water pulled from the local aquifer is cleaned and replenished and all black water from toilets is processed with mini-living systems.

Fogo Island Inn iceberg

#8: Choose Sustainable Seafood

Overfishing yields deleterious effects not only for the fished species, but also the broader ecosystem. “When too many fish are taken out of the ocean,” the World Wildlife Fund shares, “it creates an imbalance that can erode the food web and lead to a loss of other important marine life, including vulnerable species like sea turtles and corals.” With the number of overfished stocks tripling globally in the past half-century and half the world’s population dependent on fish as their primary source of protein, choosing sustainable seafood is no longer simply a luxury, but a necessity, especially for those with the adequate means to do so. 

“Community managed areas,” the WWF goes on to explain, “often based on traditional knowledge and customary practices, benefit people in places where fishing is such an important part of livelihoods of coastal communities.” Such community-driven benefits are exemplified nowhere better than Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn.

Self-dubbed a charitable foundation with a luxury inn rather than a luxury inn with a charity foundation, 100% of Fogo Island’s profits are reinvested back into the local community through various social and environmental initiatives, including the creation and re-popularization of sustainable fishing practices like cod potting. This “slow-fishing” method, which reduces bycatch and ghost fishing, also allows local fishermen to receive significantly higher prices for their yields when compared to more commercialized methods.

The resort shared with Regenerative Travel that it has begun initial research on a regenerative seaweed farming program, a form of community-supported aquaculture which aims to create a rich environment for marine life and provide a nutrient-rich product which can be used for food, nutritional supplements and skin and hair care.

#9: Educate Yourself

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make the effort to educate yourself on your trip’s environmental impacts. Look for resorts with strong guest educational programs like Hamanasi, which hosts a weekly Green Happy Hour during which the company’s Green Team can answer guest questions about the resort’s environmental conservation initiatives.

Located in Belize, a country with the world’s second largest barrier reef, Hamanasi is deeply committed to preserving its marine environment for present and future generations, with all tours provided by certified guides who take the time to inform guests about the local flora and fauna and emphasize Do No Harm principles.

Additionally, informational booklets about the resort’s tours and environmental programs are provided in every room, guests are disallowed from using reef-damaging sunscreen and Hamanasi partners with local nonprofits to provide additional educational opportunities. For World Oceans Day 2022 in particular, Hamanasi conducted reef and beach clean-ups for guests, as well as educational presentations and an ocean-themed paint and sip and movie night on the beach.

Manta Resort Blue Hole Underwater Room Overhead

This year’s UN World Oceans Day event theme is “Revitalization: Collective Action for the Ocean.” Though these tips focus primarily on the choices individual travelers can make, ocean conservation starts with applying these principles at home. Participating in local beach cleanups, limiting your water and energy use and reducing single-use plastics all have far-reaching impacts, long before your vacation even begins. 

Whenever you do travel, tourism provides incredible opportunities to convene intimately with the vast underwater ecosystems which are so critical to human life — but only when done with great reverence and care, ideally through the guidance and in support of crucial frontline organizations dedicated to conserving these delicate environments.

For tourism businesses and industry influencers, bridging the gap between conscious consumer demand and leading sustainability principles can not only offer key competitive advantages, but also help engender the broader cultural shifts necessary to transition towards more responsible models of consumption. Doing so requires the conviction, transparency and imagination to embrace nature- and community-based solutions and challenge the status quo. Innovations in blue technology and finance such as those championed by NOAH Regen and the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, moreover, can help to mobilize the private sector with the speed and resources necessary to effectively combat the climate crisis.

Though these issues may feel distant or even insurmountable at times, it is only through our combined efforts and mutual solidarity that we may actively turn the tide on climate change, and realize a truly vibrant and sustainable future for all.

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