International tourist arrivals jumped from 25 million in 1950 to 1.4 billion in 2019, and experts expect those numbers to reach 1.9 billion by 2030. With these growing numbers of people on the move comes potential to shift our impact on the world in positive ways—with travel options that are fun and responsible. To help build a sustainable future for tourism, the national, nonprofit United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) is empowering travelers with more responsible practices, whether it’s where, how, or with whom they travel.
At the heart of this collaborative effort is Susan Greenfield, otherwise known as Sustainable Suzie. She’s one of the many USTOA tour operator member guides who believes that, through sustainable practices, travel can be a force for good. As the protagonist of a new comic from USTOA, Sustainable Suzie spends Issue #1 traveling the globe battling pollution, ignorance, and greed, with an eye on saving the world. Following Suzie’s lead, you can scour the globe in search of options—from more sustainable destinations like Korea, Tenerife, and Norway to an airline that’s doing its part such as United—that are great for intrepid travelers, and better for the earth herself.
Looking to South Korea’s past
Sustainable Suzie’s first stop is South Korea, where sustainability has been a fundamental part of Buddhist life for more than 1,600 years. Focusing on a plant-based, zero-waste diet, dedicated monks live their lives with a minimal footprint on temple grounds, proving that food doesn’t have to be complicated, exotic, or harmful to the environment to be delicious.
Those interested in immersing themselves in the Buddhist lifestyle are in luck: Templestay offers travelers the incredible opportunity of choosing from several Buddhist temples located throughout South Korea, where they can learn from monks while participating in daily monastic rituals and enjoying their meals in harmony with nature.
Those looking for a more comprehensive view of the country, past and present, might instead opt for Alexander + Roberts’ eight-day “Korea Discovery” tour. This voyage begins in Seoul, where guests can view the changing of the guard at the city’s 500-year-old Gyeongbokgung Palace or taste a kaleidoscope of cuisine from some 5,000-odd vendors at Gwangjang Market, one of the first–and largest–in the nation.
Moving southeast to the coastal city of Gyeongju, visitors can scale Tohamsan Mountain en route to Seokguram Grotto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring an 8th-century monumental statue of the Buddha overlooking the sea. Later, at Golgulsa Temple, you can train in the Buddhist martial art called sunmudo, partake in a monastic tea ceremony, and enjoy a healthy, traditional lunch onsite.
Letting nature shine in Tenerife
Following Sustainable Suzie to Europe, our next stop is off the coast of Spain in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Those awestruck by its wild beauty should keep in mind that it takes considerable effort to keep things so pristine.
The Island Council of Tenerife works to strike a balance between tourism and nature, fighting to stave off climate change’s impact while using travel funds to help combat local poverty and inequality. The Council does so through public projects that touch on everything from gastronomic preservation to waste management, earning Tenerife the designation of a Biosphere Tourism Destination by the Responsible Tourism Institute in 2021.
The island’s “Zero Footprint” policy, with nearly half of its land under strict environmental protections, makes it an extremely attractive destination. Tenerife’s western waters, recognized by the European Union as the Teno-Rasca Marine Strip Special Conservation Area, boast 21 species of whales and dolphins, as well as a bounty of turtles and seabirds.
Spain’s highest peak is in Teide National Park, under which lies a cave containing Europe’s largest lava tubes just waiting to be explored. If that’s not enough, visitors can enjoy 185 miles of bike trails throughout the island’s forests, capped off by a visit to one of its many historic towns, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of San Cristobal de La Laguna.
Those traveling on their own to Tenerife can look to the expertise of a travel advisor who can work with a USTOA tour operator such as GOGO Vacations to design an itinerary that suits their needs. Want to spend some time in the capital of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, visiting Calatrava’s trailblazing, sea-facing Auditorium of the Sea or the epic Museum of Nature and Man? Perhaps you’d prefer to spend your time in the Biosphere Reserve Anaga Country Park for mountainous hikes and refreshing ocean plunges? In working with travel experts, you can do all of this and more, getting the most out of Tenerife while doing your part to protect the island’s beauty for generations to come.
Norway’s future remains prehistoric
On this issue’s final stop, Sustainable Suzie heads to Norway to spend nights gazing at Northern Lights. However, travelers shouldn’t overlook the land that lies beneath those cosmic colors. At the heart of any trip should be visiting one of the nearly 1,200 fjords comprising Norway’s 18,000-mile coastline, each a narrow inlet carved into mammoth mountains by the gradual melting of prehistoric glaciers.
Derived from Old Norse for “passage,” these waters have been well-traversed for eons, but of late, Norwegian tour companies have been turning to electric and hybrid-electric ferries with underwater drones, ensuring that passengers can appreciate wildlife with low-to-no emissions, limited sound pollution, and minimal environmental disturbance. The belief is that by supporting innovation and sustainability, everyone benefits in the long run, not just environmentally and economically, but educationally as well.
Goway Travel’s Highlights of Norway tour offers guests five full days to explore the cultural and natural side of the country, fjords and all. Starting in the western city of Bergen and ending in Oslo, it offers ample time to take in Norway’s historic hotspots including a visit to Bryggen Harbor, a 12th-century trade center and one of few remaining examples of Hanseatic wooden architecture.
Of course, travelers also see the country’s rugged fjords, namely Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord, with their narrow cliff faces reaching nearly 5,000 feet high, surrounded by native flora and fauna, dramatic waterfalls, and underwater moraines (masses of rocks and sediment deposited by glaciers) that help define Norway’s legendary landscape.
Getting there and staying there
Mitigating the effects of traveling long distances puts particular pressure on aviation. As Air Transport World’s 2021 Eco-Airline of the Year, United Airlines is committed to protecting its destinations for generations to come—ambitiously pledging to cut 100 percent of greenhouse emissions by 2050.
Since 1990, United improved fuel efficiency by 45 percent through initiatives, from streamlining fleet weight to single-engine taxiing, which equates to a savings of upwards of five million gallons of fuel yearly. In forming the Eco-Skies Alliance, the airline sets the tone for corporate partners to take steps toward sustainability too through carbon-reducing policies and technologies.
For the airline’s part, this involves the development of zero-emission, hydrogen-electric aircraft, as well as carbon capture as they continue to scale up the usage of sustainable aviation fuels, which the airline claims will emit up to “80 percent less carbon on a lifecycle basis.” Flight efficiency also helps reduce carbon footprint, and United offers multiple direct flights to Korea, Tenerife, and Norway so you can ensure the path to these more sustainable destinations is as sustainable as possible too.
To Seoul, United offers a daily flight from San Francisco direct to Seoul, as well as other nonstop routes from Los Angeles, Honolulu, New York, and Toronto through Asiana, part of the Star Alliance. And the airline flies direct from Newark to Tenerife three times weekly. Also departing from Newark and available three days per week, United has flights to Bergen, and it has frequent direct options from Newark to Oslo with Star Alliance member Scandinavian Airlines.
Choosing better airlines, USTOA tour operators, and other more ethical ways to see destinations that are also doing their part to help us travel more responsibly is one key step in bucking the trend of what the World Meteorological Organization says is a five-fold increase in climate and weather-related crises over the last fifty years. Travel can be a force for good—for the planet and travelers alike—if we can learn from the responsible practices of our neighbors to forge onward, in the spirit of that great superhero named Sustainable Suzie, in pursuit of a better world.
Visit USTOA’s website to follow Sustainable Suzie’s travels, discover tour operators, and inspire your own responsible, epic adventure!