Sustainable Travel with Holly Tuppen

Episode 3
Sustainability Book Chat

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Do you love to travel but worry that it’s hard on the planet? Today I’m talking to Holly Tuppen, a responsible travel expert who has specialized in sustainable travel since circumnavigating the world without flying in 2010. She talks about bicycling across the US, working as part of the crew on a sailboat, and traveling on a container ship, among other adventures.

Holly’s debut book, Sustainable Travel: The Essential Guide to Positive Impact Adventures, was published in June. In the book and in our chat today, she talks about the difference between greenwashing travel and truly sustainable travel options.

What does it really means when a hotel or other travel company talks about paying for carbon offsets? What are your options for traveling without leaving a huge carbon footprint? We also talk about the newest challenge in travel — over-tourism in places that really can’t handle millions of people visiting annually.

Learn more about Holly Tuppen:

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Transcript – Sustainable Travel

Deborah Niemann 0:00
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. I am really excited to be joined today by Holly Tuppen, who is a freelance writer and responsible travel expert. She’s specialized in sustainable travels since she circumnavigated the world without flying in 2010—which sounds pretty cool. She’s a former editor of Green Hotelier and communications manager for the International Tourism Partnership. And now, she writes for the Guardian and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as helping travel companies and hotels to have a more positive impact as a consultant. She’s also communication manager for conservation-led travel organization The Long Run, and she just wrote her first book called Sustainable Travel: The Essential Guide to Positive-Impact Adventures. Welcome to the show, Holly.

Holly Tuppen 0:55
Hi, nice to meet you!

Deborah Niemann 0:57
I’m so excited to have you here, because I love to travel; I actually used to travel a lot pre-COVID, both for fun and for business. And I’ve been a homebody now for the last year. So when I saw the topic of your book, I was really excited, because I know that there are definitely some travel choices that are more green than others, more eco-friendly than others. So, let’s just start with a simple definition of your title. What exactly does “sustainable travel” mean?

Holly Tuppen 1:28
Okay, well, it’s a big topic, and it’s been hotly debated over the last 18 months during COVID. Obviously, people haven’t been able to travel. And there’s been lots of travel businesses and commentators without anything to go and experience. So I feel like there’s been a lot of talk, which is really good, because I think it’s picked the whole travel industry up, and people have maybe had some of the debates that we wouldn’t have necessarily had if everyone had just carried on traveling. Sometimes it’s amazing, isn’t it? You kind of need that pause to kind of move a conversation on.

Holly Tuppen 2:01
So yeah, so “sustainable travel.” So, one of the first points I really make in the book is that, for years, sustainable travel was all about having less of an impact on the world. So it was trying to kind of minimize our environmental impact, and kind of carbon footprint, and things like that. But I think over the last few years, since issues like overtourism—where there are places that are getting too many tourists, the kind of cities and national parks can’t handle them—have bubbled up to the surface, we’re moving into a kind of dialogue around sustainable travel. It needs to be more regenerative; it needs to be transformative; it needs to have a very positive impact on both people and places. So, I think a really good starting point is to just think about our traveling, that it suits the destination as much as it suits us as holiday-goers. So really, when you think about kind of what you teach your kids, or whoever you teach when you’re teaching, like, how to be a nice person, is to kind of put others before yourself, isn’t it, and to kind of try and look at things from all sides. And I think this is the same as that. Sustainable travel is not just kind of jumping on the first holiday that comes your way and not thinking about who it’s impacting, where it’s impacting, and how we can travel to really make sure we’re having a positive rather than a negative impact.

beautiful islands
photo credit to Liz Somers

Deborah Niemann 3:21
That’s a really great way to put it. So, one of the things that I think some people may immediately think about is “Oh, well, I stayed at that hotel that talked about doing carbon offsets,” and things like that, which, to me, that just kind of… I don’t know, that has never really felt like I was doing anything that awesome. It kind of seems like a marketing thing.

Holly Tuppen 3:44

Deborah Niemann 3:45
Is that something that is good, or no?

Holly Tuppen 3:47
Yeah, well, it’s really tricky, I think. Yeah, carbon offsetting has obviously been around a long time. And there was a massive boom in the industry, I think probably about five years ago, where it just started to make so, so much money that people started to think like, “Well, hang on a minute, where’s all this money going?” and “Is this really the right approach?” So I mean, I think going back to the like analogy of, like, how you’re a good person in life, I guess: You don’t kind of slap someone in the face and then say “Sorry,” like, repeatedly, over and over again, which in some ways is what carbon offsetting is. It’s kind of saying, “Well, I can go and do whatever I want, because I can pay to justify it.” We wouldn’t really act like that, I think, in any other area of life. So I do think, you know, it’s definitely not the solution. We can’t all rely on carbon offsetting to kind of combat the climate crisis that we’re in at the moment.

Holly Tuppen 4:41
That said, there are lots of parts of the travel industry that are really kind of desperately struggling with trying to have as positive an impact as they possibly can. And aviation is the kind of massive elephant in the room in terms of carbon, because we don’t yet have the technology to fly without burning huge amounts of carbon. So, you know, for lots of travel companies, they do offset flights, because, you know, that’s the only way they can see that they can at least be doing something. And I can totally sympathize with that approach. So I think it’s a balancing act. I think, at the moment, the danger is that everyone’s saying, “We’re carbon zero,” or “We’re carbon positive,” or “We’re carbon neutral.” You know, everyone from kind of hotel chains to burger joints to aviation companies. And actually, when you drill down some of that, you’re like, “Well, if you haven’t changed your behavior at all as a business, and all you’ve done is pay for someone else to plant trees,” often the carbon calculations that are used are quite false. And actually, the amount of planting trees doesn’t necessarily absorb the carbon that we need to. Yeah, I think we all need to kind of scrutinize some of those claims a little bit more.

Deborah Niemann 5:51
Yeah. So, since you mentioned flying, and since you have circumnavigated the globe without flying, that is something I’d love to hear more about. So, how on earth did you manage to circumnavigate the globe without flying? What did you do for transportation?

Holly Tuppen 6:09
Yeah, so um, it was really amazing. And I would definitely recommend it to anyone. I mean, at the moment, I can imagine it’d be hugely challenging to circumnavigate the world. That’s, like, pretty hard to go places flying at the moment, let alone not flying. But as adventures go, the reason we decided to do that was that we just wanted a true adventure. Like, we wanted to find ourselves in situations that were challenging both mentally and physically. We wanted to be… When you travel overland, you kind of end up in places that you would never choose to go to. So kind of border towns, or in China kind of in the middle of the desert and kind of out towards Kashgar, and places that we probably wouldn’t have gone to unless we had to kind of carve a route through. So, that’s kind of why we did it.

Holly Tuppen 6:53
And in terms of transport, we had a tandem bicycle—because it was with my boyfriend at the time. So, we had a tandem bicycle that we cycled quite a lot, including up the States, which was definitely one of our most memorable legs of the trip. So we picked up in El Paso, and we cycled up to Vancouver, up the Rockies. So, and as you can imagine, two English people on a tandem bicycle in places like Utah and Colorado—we got an equal amount of kind of trucker beeps and hollers to kind of people welcoming us into their homes with open arms, just thinking this was the weirdest and best they’ve ever seen. So yeah, we did a lot of cycling. We did… There’s something called Crewseekers, where you can advertise that you’re up for kind of crewing a sailing boat, so we hopped on a sailing boat across the Atlantic. You can actually book rooms on container ships that are taking freight across oceans. So, we went from Vancouver to South Korea on a big container ship. And in between, we just did loads of kind of hitchhiking, buses, trains, we walked a bit of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. And yeah, it was great. I really miss that kind of travel where you don’t really know where you’re going, or where you’re going to end up, or whose house you’re going to be kind of welcomed into and having dinner or staying the night at. That, to me, is the best kind of travel.

cycling through the Grand Tetons
photo credit to Liz Somers

Deborah Niemann 8:15
That does sound like a huge adventure, like nothing that anyone else could even compare. And I loved it that you mentioned container ships as a way to travel in your book. When I saw that, I was like, “What? Container ships?” It never occurred to me that that was even possible! And you mentioned the travel agents who can book you on container ships. And I would imagine… Because, back when my husband was in the Navy, we heard that we could fly for free on Navy planes. And so we did that once. And so we flew on a cargo plane.

Holly Tuppen 8:55
Oh, cool!

Deborah Niemann 8:57
You know, and so when you go to get on a cargo plane and, like, instead of, you know, having food and stuff like that, you get handed a pair of earplugs. And you’re sitting in a jumpsuit, and it is nothing like you have ever seen before on an airplane. So, I would imagine that being on a container ship is nothing like being on a cruise ship. What were the accommodations like?

Holly Tuppen 9:23
Yeah, so it’s funny you say that, and that is… And we did do a fair bit of hopping around on quite industrial boats when we were in the Caribbean, and I have to say, you’re in pretty sweaty kind of engine rooms and things. But on these container ships that you book on to, you have an amazing setup. Like, you’ve got your own suite with, like, a bathroom and a living room and a bedroom. You’re treated like the captain. So, these boats are often divided into, like, captain and crew. And so you’re welcomed into the captain’s mess, where you have your three-course meals at every single meal time. You’re also allowed up on the bridge, so you can go up onto the bridge where all the captains are doing all their important shipping stuff that they do. You can go out there and look out from there whenever you want. You’ve kind of got free rein of the boat; it’s kind of ridiculous.

Holly Tuppen 10:14
We also—the crew on our boat was Filipino. And, as you might know, the Filipinos love karaoke. So we were also welcomed into the Filipino crew karaoke room, which was a good contrast from the German officers in the captain’s room. So yeah, it was, um… It’s kind of not what you imagine. It’s totally…

Deborah Niemann 10:35

Holly Tuppen 10:35
It’s just bonkers. And actually seeing the ocean from those boats, and those shipping routes, and kind of getting a little bit of an understanding of how all those shipping routes work, is also an amazing insight, because it’s such a huge part of how the globe operates. And yet, it’s this totally different world that we don’t often… Well, why would we ever dip into it? So yeah, it definitely felt like a privilege to experience a bit of that.

Deborah Niemann 11:01
Wow! So, I know they talk a lot about, on cruise ships, that they’ve got baffles and stuff that make them less likely to cause seasickness. Since a container ship is mostly for containers, I would think they probably don’t have that. So, this would not be something good for somebody who’s prone to seasickness?

Holly Tuppen 11:20
Probably not. No. I remember it getting pretty… Uh, I think we were going past the Aleutian Islands, and it was pretty rolly. Yeah. So yeah, we had our sea legs by then, because we’d done a fair bit of sailing, so…

Deborah Niemann 11:35
Alright, so that’s a good tip. I was, like, almost sold and then like, “Oh, my goodness, I’ve got to go to one of these agents who booked you on there!” And then I started thinking about the seasickness part of it might not be a good thing.

Holly Tuppen 11:48
Maybe try and kill your seasickness and then booking. It would be a shame to miss out. And it’s quite cool to cross an ocean. Like, it’s a good thing to do in life.

Deborah Niemann 11:58
Yeah, it really does sound like something to put on your bucket list.

Holly Tuppen 12:02

lovely beach
photo credit to Liz Somers

Deborah Niemann 12:03
So in terms of where to travel, then, you mentioned briefly in the beginning about overtourism. In some places, it’s super obvious, like Machu Picchu. You know, if you just look that up, I mean, the people are just like sardines in this outdoor place. I heard about that a couple years ago. And it was just so sad to just see, like, these thousands and thousands of people who go there every single day. And Mount Everest—like, I nearly fainted. Like, oh my gosh, who wants to go to Mount Everest? Like, when you see these people on these, like, cliffs, and they’re, like, shoulder-to-shoulder and I’m like, “How many people, like, die every year on there?” Like, it’s just, it was crazy to me. So, those are a couple that I know are super obvious. But, like, in terms of choosing where to go, like, what other tips would you have for people on choosing places that are more sustainable destinations?

Holly Tuppen 13:06
Yeah. So, I think on the overtourism thing—because I feel like it’s going to be more and more prevalent. The more of us that travel in the world, that is going to be a problem. And I think, you know, you often get all these kind of lists of like, “Don’t go to London. Go to Nottingham instead.” And you’re like, “Hmm, Nottingham is nice, but it’s not London.” And, you know, you get a lot of those lists coming out. So I think, you know, you can go places that are talked about being quite overtouristed, like even Machu Picchu. You can find ways of doing them that have less of an impact on the environment, and you avoid the crowded elements. So, I think more and more travel companies now are kind of doing alternative routes up to certain mountains. So, you might do kind of a longer trek, like, on totally different mountain paths to the one that kind of all the tourists do. So, I think it’s definitely worth it. If there’s somewhere you really want to go, it’s worth exploring, “Okay, what’s the, like, least crowded way of going there?” And the same in cities. Like, often in cities, tourists all crowd to, like, a few sites, which actually, if you live in the city, you wouldn’t spend any of your time there. So it’s just kind of working out, “Okay, maybe I could go see a few of those, but then spend more time in kind of neighborhoods a bit further out.”

Holly Tuppen 14:22
In terms of choosing sustainable destinations to go to… So, there’s a whole chapter of the book about how to have kind of regenerative travel experiences. So, where can you really make your travel count? So yeah, unfortunately, getting on a plane does mean that there’s going to be a big chunk of our carbon emissions in our year or in our lifetime. So, how do we really make that count? And so, you can find places that really kind of need tourists that might be certain destinations. Like, for example, Guyana in South America: The kind of Tourist Board have committed to very much community-run and -led travel experiences. So by going there, you know that your money is staying with local people. And you also know that your money is helping local people to protect their environment. So, I think looking for examples like that. And that can be the same in cities as well. So for example, in Slovenia, Ljubljana, the capital, has a really, really strong green ethos. And they do loads of zoning things so that visitors—certain parts of the city have been totally pedestrianized. So, kind of, it makes it actually a nicer environment for people who live there as well as visitors. All of their transport is green, their infrastructure is totally sustainable, so they’ve kind of made sure that the visitors and the people who live there are kind of benefiting alongside one another. So there’s loads of different ways of kind of picking where we go. I think, with the kind of quandary of the climate crisis and carbon emissions and traveling, for me, kind of trying to travel places where I know my money is contributing to conservation to some extent. So, if I know that by staying on a certain farm that’s helping that farmer to kind of rewild a certain chunk of his land, rather than intensely farm it, to me, that feels like a really positive way I can spend my money.

Deborah Niemann 16:17
I noticed you also have a section in the book about when to travel—which I admit, that is not something I ever thought of as being a decision about sustainability. I just kind of think of the weather and the crowds. You know, like, I want to try to find that happy medium when the weather is not bad, but the crowds are not huge.

Holly Tuppen 16:38

Deborah Niemann 16:38
So how does sustainability play into your decision about when to travel?

Holly Tuppen 16:43
Yeah, sure. So, there’s two things. So one is going back to the overtourism point. So, if a city like Barcelona is at kind of 500% capacity in August, but actually has very few visitors in January, it’s kind of thinking, “Well, okay, yeah, we all want to go and sit and have tapas in the sunshine in summer in Barcelona.” But, I’ve been to Barcelona in January, and actually, it’s a totally different experience. But it’s kind of as valid of one; it’s kind of, you know, that old, ancient, misty, cobbled streets, and you kind of cozy up around tapas rather than necessarily sitting out in squares. Obviously, that’s quite an extreme example, but I think it’s just thinking to try and avoid the peak times. So that’s from a kind of overtourism perspective, but that also really helps destinations economically as well. So, the destinations where there tends to be a kind of slight conflict with tourism is where they might only make money from tourists for half the year. And so, therefore, they need to kind of get a load of staff that maybe come from somewhere totally different to work. So actually, local people aren’t necessarily benefiting from those jobs. So that’s not a very kind of sustainable, economic model. It’s… You know, so I think in Africa, they call it the “green season,” where it’s kind of going during the rainier season, where it is trickier to see wildlife, but at the same time, you’ve kind of got everything growing up around you. And there’s different ways you can experience that destination. And it’s helping to kind of fill a bit of a gap where there’s not any economic activity at that time of year. So yeah, so definitely something worth thinking about—I think for your experience, as well. Sometimes it’s really nice being kind of the only tourists around, because you’re treated a bit more special than when everywhere, it’s just overrun.

Deborah Niemann 18:34
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It’s funny you use Barcelona in January is an example, because I’ve been there in January. And I loved it! It did not feel crowded at all. It seemed like a wonderful city. And I kind of felt like there were not a lot of tourists, because everybody was running around in these heavy winter coats.

Holly Tuppen 18:56

Deborah Niemann 18:56
Because it was in the 50s. And we’re from Illinois. And we’re like, “Whoa, it’s so warm! This is awesome! It’s like spring.” So, we thought it was fantastic.

Holly Tuppen 19:09
Yeah, yeah.

Deborah Niemann 19:09
So, when it comes to how to get to a place, we’ve already talked about the fact that air travel is not very friendly to the environment. And container ships are an awesome option that I want to check out. What’s another really good option for an eco-friendly mode of travel?

Holly Tuppen 19:30
Sure. So, I should probably caveat that container ships in themselves aren’t very sustainable. I often get pulled up on this. But, obviously, you’re hitching a ride on a boat that’s already going, so you’re not the one causing the emissions there, so, I think we can justify that. So, for me—and the trip that we did really proved this—is that a lot of sustainable travel is really about going a little bit slower. And so, it’s all the slower modes of transport that are better for the environment. It tends to be the slower you go, the better it is in terms of your carbon footprint. And also, I think it really helps you to kind of delve a bit deeper into a destination, as well. So, if you slowly travel through somewhere, you’re much more likely to have more touch points with its culture, with its landscape, and kind of in a more meaningful way than if we kind of carry on doing this slight tendency of, like, “Right, I’m going to go to Europe. I want to tick off, like, all of these cities. I’m just going to whiz between them all, and not really have any time to take in anything in between.”

Holly Tuppen 20:30
Also, traveling slowly does open up a bit more of a world of spontaneity, which I think is so important in travel. So, you want to be able to have the time to be, kind of, take a detour, or kind of be encouraged to go and see something that a local might tell you about that isn’t on your itinerary. So, for me, trains are probably… In Europe, in particular, I love whizzing around on trains. And they’re super green, much more sustainable than driving, or planes, obviously. But ferry travel, as well, is always really interesting. And in lots of parts of the world, ferry travel is a very local way to get about, and can often be much more rewarding in a way than jumping on a kind of boat trip for tourists. And then, kind of on our trip, we absolutely loved cycling, walking, kayaking. So as much as possible, kind of using on your own steam to really get to kind of understand the landscape. And yeah, there are lots of options out there. But it’s a bit harder to organize than jumping on a flight, unfortunately.

Deborah Niemann 21:31
Right, yeah. The idea of traveling by train sounds like a lot of fun to me. I haven’t done it very much. But it sounds fun. Like, you get to go somewhere, you get to see the landscape as you’re traveling, but you don’t have to drive so you can pay more attention to what the landscape has.

Holly Tuppen 21:50
Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Deborah Niemann 21:52
So, if somebody wants to make an effort to travel more sustainably, what would you say is a good starting point for them?

Holly Tuppen 22:00
I think, first of all, it’s daunting. There’s lots to think about. And I think now, all the time, if we’re looking to make more kind of ethical, sustainable choices, we’re getting bombarded with information all the time. So, I think kind of taking a step back from all that is quite important. And really just thinking about the kind of incremental smaller things that we can do to make a difference. So, when it comes to travel, some of the things that I kind of live by are trying to travel less, but for longer. So, I know that the getting somewhere is the thing that really uses up all the carbon emissions, and that has the most negative impact on my traveling. Yeah, so, I try to just fly once a year, kind of really make it count—whether that’s short haul or long haul. So, I think we all maybe need to get a little bit more in the habit of doing that rather than this, like, kind of six big holidays a year, flying all over the place. It’s, like, really thinking about how and when we’re flying. Another thing that you can do is fly direct—that produces a lot less carbon emissions. And also, kind of once you get somewhere, make sure that you’re not flying within the destination, so maybe fly somewhere and then use trains and buses and other ways to get around. I, then, like to think about, kind of who I’m spending my money with is a massive one. So, I really want to scrutinize and understand where my money is going. So, if I’m using a tour operator, I will ask them, I’ll say, “Okay, so what percentage of my money is going to stay in this destination? Who owns all the lodges or hotels or little B&Bs that I’m staying in? Are they owned by local people? Or are they owned by a big international group?” And then, kind of in the destination itself, I think it’s just always thinking about the same thing. Like, the biggest one is where you’re spending your money and what people are doing with that. I think as kind of tourists, that the biggest impact is our tourist pound or dollar, what that ends up doing in the destination that we’re traveling to.

Deborah Niemann 24:04
I think that is an excellent summary of what somebody can do to get started and not feel so overwhelmed with this. So again, the book is Sustainable Travel: The Essential Guide to Positive-Impact Adventures. I love the fact that you have “adventures” in the title of the book. So, people can buy that, of course, at any of their bookstores, local bookstores. If they don’t have it, ask them to order it, because it is available through a major publisher. And where can people find you online, Holly?

Holly Tuppen 24:33
So, I’ve got a website, just, which is just all my journalist work that I’ve done. There’s a little bit about the book on there. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter, just “Holly Tuppen”—you’ll find me. And I do a lot of writing, so, I guess, look out for articles. But yeah, I really hope people buy the book as a bit of a guide to how we can all think a bit more mindfully about how we travel, and get out there and have adventures when we can.

Deborah Niemann 24:59
Yeah, and it is an absolutely gorgeous book. As you can imagine, it is full of lots of color photographs that are just stunning. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Holly Tuppen 25:09
Thanks for having me!

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