The global tourism sector is responsible for 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions, meaning it has a role to play in fighting climate change. As transport between origin and destination explains three quarter of this impact, reducing the distances traveled, especially by airplane and car, has been proposed as a way to go. To achieve this reduction in distance traveled for leisure tourism, its determinants must be addressed. While it is known that tourist preference for certain activities or atmospheres influences destination choice, it is not yet clear how this translates into distance traveled and carbon emissions.

Therefore, our research generates insights into the preferences underlying leisure travel within the European Union, and its environmental impact.

We first collected data from various sources, including results from large scale surveys about Europeans’ preferences regarding tourism and spatial data indicating the presence of tourism assets such as museums, music festivals, and sandy beaches. We integrated these data to estimate and map leisure tourism flows between EU NUTS regions for eight holiday styles, specifying the modes of transport used. Based on this picture of actual flows of tourists and their motivation, we mapped demand for the eight holiday styles in EU regions, and calculated the carbon footprint of the different holiday styles.

Our results show evidence that the eight holiday styles contribute differently to the carbon footprint of leisure travel in the EU. Visiting relatives and nature tourism have a high aggregate carbon footprint because many trips are made for these holiday styles. The aggregate impact of sea, sun and sand tourism is also high, but because trips for that holiday style are of relatively long distance and more often by air. Travel to foreign destinations is most pronounced for active outdoor, city, culture, and sea, sun and sand tourism, which contributes to raise the aggregate impact of these holiday styles, as an international trip is on average three times more carbon intensive than a domestic one. Yet, international trips do not necessarily involve long distance travel, because the size of EU countries varies greatly and because some tourists live close to national borders.

Distribution of the total distance travelled within the EU for the different holiday styles, according to the one-way distance of trips.

Moreover, our maps of demand for the different holiday styles reveal some determinants of the distance traveled. Overall, we find that demand for the different holiday styles tends to be higher in regions where potential is also high, which explains why a majority of leisure trips within the European Union are relatively short distance. Nevertheless, we find that tourist preference for certain holiday styles influences their decision to travel to farther destinations. Indeed, long-distance travel seems to be motivated by tourists’ search for specific climatic and environmental conditions that they cannot find near their place of residence (sea, sun and sand tourism), or by their desire to escape and discover other cultures (city tourism, culture tourism).

Maps of the average one-way distance per trip for each holiday style, by origin region.

Our preferences regarding tourism are shaped by the wealth of information we receive about what there is to see and do in this world and how easy it is to move around, whether we hear it from our friends and family, or discover it through the media. Efforts by the tourism industry to develop and communicate the appeal of different places based on their natural assets, history or cuisine, for example, are also important in influencing our perception of the potential of different destinations to fulfill our holiday dreams.

Our study, published in Tourism Management, proposes several avenues to promote the reduction of the distance traveled for leisure. European tourism operators should take into account the preferences of tourists when developing strategies to achieve sustainability goals. Also in the transport sector, tourists’ preferences can inspire the development of new transport services, such as night trains to ski resorts in the winter. Governments should support the development of tourist experiences to attract locals, particularly in relation to nature, wellness, and active outdoor tourism, for which preferences might have been stimulated by the covid pandemic. Finally, booking platforms should practice targeted marketing of certain locations to favor nearby markets.

Awareness of the environmental impact of aviation does not seem to be enough to outweigh wanderlust. So, addressing the norms and values surrounding leisure travel seems a promising approach to reducing the impact of tourism. Especially since the covid pandemic has shown that tourist preferences are capable of evolving rapidly in response to changes or constraints on the supply side. Covid-19 did not end tourism, but it may have created the fertile ground for shifting practices.


Perrine C.S.J. Laroche, Catharina J.E. Schulp, Thomas Kastner, Peter H. Verburg (2023). The role of holiday styles in shaping the carbon footprint of leisure travel within the European Union. Tourism Management. 94. 104630.

Link to the dataset supporting the results and provided open access by authors:

Source image: Pixabay

The author

Perrine Laroche


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