The Covid-19 crisis brought the world's travel and tourism industry to a standstill. As countries around the world closed borders, grounded flights and imposed new entry restrictions in a bid to prevent the virus spreading, people cancelled holiday plans and aviation plunged to its worst crisis.
Today, as vaccine programmes roll-out and case numbers in several countries begin to drop, restrictions are beginning to ease and it looks likely that it won't be too long before travel returns.
But this forced pause for the travel community should be a pause for thought.
Every year on April 22, Earth Day is celebrated to remind us how fragile our planet is. In 2021, as we emerge from the brink of a worldwide emergency with the prospect of travel lingering, it is critical that we ensure tourism restarts in a more sustainable manner.
As people tentatively start to plan future holidays, now is the time to consider what kind of travellers we want to be, and the impact that our holiday plans can have on other people and our planet.
In line with Earth Day 2021's theme of Restore Our Earth, here are seven ways to travel sustainably.
1. Find destinations that takes sustainability seriously
When it comes to travelling, the shorter the distance from home, the lower your carbon footprint will be. But as the world reopens, people are planning to go further afield. When you're deciding where to go, consider how much value a country places on sustainability.
A new report by Euromonitor International details the nations around the world making efforts to be sustainable, declaring Sweden is the number one country for sustainable tourism, closely followed by Finland, Austria, Estonia and Norway.
That's not to say that only countries ranked in this report can be on your travel list. Other destinations are also working to become more sustainable, including Scotland, the first country in the world to sign the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency pledge and Palau, where visitors must sign a climate promise upon arrival. Do your research before you travel to ensure the destination you're going to values sustainability and has the Earth and its survival firmly in its plans for the future.
2. Consider alternative means of transport
Airlines around the world are keen to get travellers back in the air, meaning there are bargain flights to be had. However, before you book that dream deal, stop and consider how getting to your destination will impact on your tourist footprint.
If you do need to fly, be sure to go with an airline that is taking sustainability seriously. Etihad, the national airline of the UAE, has pledged zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and is working to test various eco-friendly initiatives in support of sustainable aviation. In the US, United Airlines recently announced it will be the first airline to be 100 per cent green by 2050 and instead of simply offsetting carbon, it plans to use Direct Air Capture Technology to pull carbon out of the air.
If you can get to your destination by another means of transportation, not only will you avoid flygskam, or flight shaming, you'll consciously be able to lower your tourism footprint. Trains typically emit the lowest levels of greenhouse gases and also offer an opportunity for slow travel, coupled with views of your destination that you can't get from any other vantage point.
If you're island hopping, sail instead of taking a power-engine boat and if you're road-tripping across country, opt to car share or better yet hire an electric set of wheels.
3. Stay in eco-accommodation
There are so many different types of eco-accommodations and no one-size-fits-all policy on what the term actually means, so it can get a little overwhelming.
Essentially, an eco-friendly hotel is one that is built or operated in such a way as to minimise the carbon footprint of its operation, as well as the carbon footprint of those who work and stay there. These hotels, guesthouses and resorts are often also designed to have a positive impact on the environment and the local community.
"Use sustainable booking tools to help make planning easier," says Christina Beckmann, founder of Tomorrow's Air, a carbon removal collective. "The more travellers demand sustainability, the more services we find enabling it. The best thing to do when reserving a hotel is to ask the hotel about their sustainable policies. Sustainable businesses will be happy you asked and eager to share their efforts around water use, energy sources and use, waste management and local hiring."
Resources for finding sustainable accommodation and travel information include:
- Green Key
- Eco Hotels
- Book Different
- Regenerative Travel
- Green Pearls
From places such as the privately owned Islas Secas in Panama, where marine conservation is at the heart of the 14-island archipelago; to Indonesia's Bawah Reserve, a true eco-retreat in the remote Anambas Islands, there is an eco-option for everyone.
Across Africa, Great Plains Conservation offers eco-friendly luxury safaris for those keen to see the big five game animals. These retreats rely on solar power, solar battery systems, recycled materials and biomasses. The company also allows travellers to offset their carbon footprint by donating to the Great Plains Foundation’s tree-planting or solar lantern programmes.
Earlier this month, the Preferred Hotel Group launched Beyond Green, a collection of 27 properties around the world designed for travellers looking for sustainable getaways where luxury is guaranteed.
Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts have also recently announced plans to partner with Earthday.org to support their reforestation programme.
4. Travel longer and slower
One positive thing to have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic that could work in favour of sustainable tourism is an increase in remote working policies. Several companies around the world now allow employees to work from somewhere other than the office and this has led to a rise in long-stay workation packages.
When people take longer trips, they are more likely to use more sustainable methods of transport getting around in their destination. A bus or train ride may take longer than a domestic flight, but it's more sustainable and, if you have the time to do it, offers a much more engaged travel experience.
"Stay as long as you can, leverage any 'digital nomad' potential available to you, this will naturally cause you to burrow deeper into a place. You'll get to know its quirks, learn more, spread your money around, and have more stories to tell when you get back home," advised Beckmann.
Staying longer in a place also means that overtourism caused by day-trippers becomes somewhat irrelevant. By staying overnight, travellers can visit popular attractions before or after day-trippers have left, therefore diluting their own tourist footprint.
Spending money during your stay at local eateries and hotels also means that revenue goes directly back into the local community, rather than to large hotel chains or travel agents based out of town.
5. Pack a sustainable suitcase
Start with the basics and make sure your bag is eco-friendly. Samsonite has launched a new lightweight luggage collection to celebrate Earth Day 2021. It's called Magnum Eco and is made from recycled PET bottles and yoghurt tops.
Once you've found a sustainable bag, be conscious of what you put in it.
- Replace bottles of shampoo, conditioner, soap and deodorant cans with plastic and packaging-free solid bars.
- Pack a bamboo toothbrush. You may not want to take your electric toothbrush with you when you travel, but don't opt for a plastic alternative that will likely end up in the ocean.
- Take reusable keep-cups or water bottles. Not only does this allow you to fill up from water sources on the go, it also makes using water sanitising tablets easier.
- Choose reef-safe sunscreen. Research shows that many sunscreens contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, both of which can be harmful to the environment. Check ingredient lists before purchasing products and opt for brands approved by the International Coral Reef Foundation (ICRF). In the UAE, the all-new SunKiss range is toxic and paraben-free, it comes packaged in recyclable and refillable aluminium and is currently under the process of gaining ICRF approval.
6. Always go local
In the most sustainable destinations, the locals want tourists to come and offer a range of experiences to visitors that also give something back to the community. As a traveller, seek out these experiences from on-the-ground providers rather than booking through large travel agents out of town.
Consider biking or walking tours to ensure you don't add to the local carbon count, and hire a guide who can share the secrets of their home town. If you're looking for activities, contemplate things that combine experiences with environmental benefits, such as beach clean-ups or turtle-monitoring patrols.
Skip the pre-holiday clothes shopping and instead purchase some items locally from a small business when you arrive in your destination. When you're shopping, be conscious of your consumption by asking retailers about their environmental impact and the conditions for their workers, and opt to buy local by largely avoiding malls, chain stores and large markets. Eco-friendly boutiques, museum stores and shops stocked with goods made in the village, town or city you're visiting are good places to start.
7. Accept your social responsibility as a traveller
Akin to Corporate Social Responsibility, Traveller Social Responsibility is a concept that places responsibility on travellers to commit to treading lightly on the land they visit while respecting the people and culture they are visiting.
Following a TSR-led way of travel means approaching it under the direction of various sustainable pillars – from supporting the development of a destination by consuming local products and services, to finding out more about any place visited by learning about customs, dialects, traditions and social norms.
Respecting diversity, minimising impact, avoiding excessive consumption or waste of water and paying attention to how spaces exist in a destination to ensure travellers don’t alter local life, also play a major role in the philosophy.
Accepting your social responsibility as a traveller means being aware of social and cultural issues every time you travel and understanding that your presence in a place will impact the destination and the people you meet. Embracing that responsibility means the effort of trying to make your impact, wherever in the world you go, a positive one.