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Last Updated on 23/12/2020
Pre-coronavirus, more people were travelling than ever but sustainable travel was on the rise. In 2019, Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish climate activist was at the front of a flight-shaming movement that was growing momentum across the world. People wanted to make greener choices.
Now, with the coronavirus in full swing around the globe, many industries have been hit hard, not least the tourism sector. Non-essential travel is a risky business with airlines operating at reduced capacity, holidays being postponed or cancelled and destinations subject to quarantine lists.
To be clear, no good has come out of the coronavirus pandemic but we can observe the impact of reduced human activity on the planet. When flights were grounded there was a temporary reduction of CO2-causing air pollution. In fact, a record drop in carbon emissions has been estimated this year due to worldwide lockdowns.
A global pandemic is not the answer to our environmental problems, but has it at least given us a pause to reflect on how we can make travel more eco-friendly going forward? I spoke to Sarah Swank from Suitcase Six, a sustainable travel and lifestyle blog (check it out here!) about the future of sustainable travel after the pandemic. I asked her what measures the industry could take and what we can all do to support struggling tourism businesses during this time.
For good and bad, the pandemic has shown us just how interconnected we are. Will it ever be the same again do you think?
I hope not! I think the pandemic has taught us really important lessons about how we all rely on each other and impact each other. To go back to normal would be to throw away some of that insight we’ve gained.
We’re seeing destinations that were experiencing overtourism recover. It’s my hope that those places can incorporate sustainable infrastructure as they reopen rather than just reverting back to the way they operated before.
We’re also seeing an uptick in local travel and a general increase in awareness about the fragility of our beloved travel service providers. These mindsets – that we don’t have to travel far to explore, for example – are fantastic in my opinion and I want them to stay!
That said, I’m anxious for a level of moderate safety to return and for tour providers who rely on international travelers to be able to reopen. I know so many travel operators are hurting or have even had to close their doors permanently, which breaks my heart.
How do you think social distancing measures impact tourism?
There are obviously a lot of safety concerns for places where tourism has been historically high and where people are in close proximity – major cities, transportation hubs, tourist attractions like theme parks and children’s museums. In those places, I anticipate a long-term shift toward distancing measures, be it greater sanitation procedures or more limits on capacity.
On the more positive side, I think people will be looking more toward less-frequented locations and more remote nature experiences. I spoke with a tour operator group in Norway who felt like this was a great opportunity for them to attract more tourists once the pandemic lessens because they are a country with so much natural beauty and space, allowing people to spread out more easily than they can in much of mainland Europe.
Since people will be more cautious about going abroad, do you think there will be more interest in slow and local travel? How do you think that will affect the environment?
Certainly to a degree, if for no other reason than necessity. Millions of people are passionate about travel and if we’re not allowed to travel internationally, we have to find a way to attend to that desire. I know personally, it’s forced me to explore my own state a bit which has helped me appreciate all it has to offer more than I ever have before.
I think while the pandemic goes on, it will be a positive thing for the environment as there won’t be as many flights for super short trips around the world. However, I’m not convinced that the trend will continue when borders open up again. I’d love for that to be the case, but I could see people feeling like they have waited so long to travel they’re more willing to hop on an international flight for a short weekend trip than before.
Thailand, a popular backpacking destination, has decided to rethink its tourism strategy post-COVID by targeting big spenders. Is this a good idea? What does this mean for sustainable travel?
I think that’s a very interesting idea with a lot of varied potential implications. High-income travelers are typically contributing a lot more to the environmental degradation travel can cause because they simply can afford more international flights, more cruises, or more extravagant experiences which are often less sustainable.
At the same time, there’s an opportunity to create high-end sustainable experiences that might shift luxury travel more toward the eco-friendly realm than before. While that might be disappointing for backpackers and budget travelers, I could understand how targeting big spenders might allow Thailand’s tourism industry more capital to dedicate to protecting their natural resources.
Some popular destinations were suffering from overtourism pre-COVID. Do you think the pandemic will have some part to play in alleviating this problem slightly?
Definitely. Locations that were really struggling with too many tourists are finally seeing what things might return to if travel was more restricted or redirected to other locations. Some natural attractions are starting to see regeneration and healing occur.
I would never say this pandemic has been a good thing, but there are certainly some good things that have occurred as a ripple effect. It will really depend on whether these destinations decide to implement any restrictions going forward to curb overtourism, and if so, how they decide to enforce those.
Do you think travellers will be looking to go off the beaten path to escape the crowds? How can this be managed sustainably?
I think that it’s going to be a dual responsibility of travelers to learn how to be more sustainable in their behavior on the road, and of tour operators to create more sustainable offerings. I really believe it has to come from both sides. People are going to travel, and we have an unarguable responsibility to protect the places we visit. But people have to have realistic options to be able to travel sustainably and ethically – which requires tour operators to design and market travel opportunities in a responsible way.
It’s predicted that travellers will favour driving to destinations over public transport. What does this mean for sustainable travel?
Trends in the travel industry are constantly changing. If people are driving more instead of flying, that could be a good thing. Obviously it’s not a great thing if everyone forgoes buses and trains in favor of driving everywhere though.
Again, I think this is really an opportunity for tour providers to focus on marketing – people need to know that they’ll be safe on public transportation and understand why it’s beneficial for the environment.
Many small businesses across the globe that rely on tourism have been struggling during the pandemic. Do you have any tips about how we can support them while we’re at home?
If you’re able, book trips with open-ended dates to be scheduled when travel opens again. Spread the word about your favorite travel gems, especially with any locals who might be able to enjoy those experiences from their own countries. Look for local operators in your home towns and cities and take them up on their offers. Leave reviews. And be kind and patient as they try to navigate this turbulent era if things don’t go according to plan – they aren’t able to control the pandemic and its whims any more than we are as travelers.
Right up to the beginning of 2020, we all took travel for granted. It was easy to just hop on a budget flight whenever we wanted. Do you think now is the chance to foster more meaning and purpose in our travels?
Absolutely! I’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic that there’s never been a better time to mindfully plan future trips than right now. To be clear – it’s not the time to take them. But with extra time on our hands, it’s a fantastic time to do additional research and figure out how we can take those dream trips in the future in a much more sustainable, impactful way.
Dig around and find some off-the-beaten-path experiences at home or with smaller operators you might not usually take. Look for some locations that are handling the pandemic better and are more ready for visitors. Consider putting a pause on some places that have been hardest hit or which were really needing a break before the pandemic anyway.
If we didn’t know before, we know now that every decision we make – in travel and in life – affects those around us. We have an impact, every day, all the time, whether it’s teeny or enormous.
It’s a privilege and a responsibility to make that impact as positive and helpful for the rest of the world as we can. I’m really optimistic and excited about the prospect of a travel industry that takes better care of travel operators, locals, and our precious home that we all share.
Want to learn more about what sustainable travel means? You can read my guide here.
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