Will the pandemic turn us into more conscious travellers?

As we tentatively start to pencil in future holidays, it is time to consider what kind of tourists we want to be

Responsible Travel offers a dolphin conservation holiday in Greece, where 85 per cent of the cost of this trip goes straight to a Greek marine conservation NGO. Courtesy Responsible Travel
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No one imagined that the global travel industry could ever come to a complete standstill, but once it did earlier this year, we grew accustomed to our plane-less skies.

But as international flights begin to take off again and we tentatively pencil in travel plans, it is time to ask ourselves: “What kind of traveller do we want to be?”

Confined to their own towns, cities and villages across the world, seasoned travellers have been forced to appreciate what’s on their own turf. And even if we do choose to travel this year, we must be conscious of where we go, how we travel and our behaviour once we get there.

While Covid-19 has dealt crippling blows to the travel industry, camper van conversion companies around the world are experiencing a surge in interest, indicating a turning tide away from air travel. Whether we like it or not, tourism has become more conscious, catalysing the slow-travel movement that was beginning to ferment long before the pandemic hit.

Thanks in no small part to the likes of teenage climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough and Hollywood celebrities including Jane Fonda and Leonardo DiCaprio drawing attention to the climate emergency even before Covid-19 struck, consumers were already starting to make increasingly conscious choices when booking holidays. This is a particularly prevalent trend among younger consumers.

A study in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change found that tourism as a whole contributes up to 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Finally catching on to the consequences of their wanderlust, 85 per cent of millennial and Generation Z travellers say they want to make sure any far-flung trips are worth the corresponding carbon footprint. They are more willing to spend time on activities that offset the environmental impact of their stay in their chosen holiday destination, according to a recent survey by holiday accommodation booking platform Booking.com.

“It’s often the children of the families choosing our vacations who are driving the environmental agenda and their parents’ purchasing decision,” says Dave Waddell at Journeys by Design and Wild Philanthropy, specialists in responsible frontier and classic African safaris.

For its family safari in Kenya, Responsible Travel partners with a local operator, which works in partnership with the Masai community and supports local wildlife through conservation and education, along with re-forestation efforts. Courtesy Basecamp Explorer

It isn't only the environment young travellers are becoming increasingly aware of. Booking.com also found that 49 per cent of these tourists feel social issues at their destination of choice are of real importance, with 58 per cent choosing not to go to a destination if they feel it negatively impacts the people who live there. Group travel company Intrepid Travel conducted a survey with One Poll, which found that those aged 18 to 29 consider social responsibility to be as important as affordability when booking a trip.

Once demand changes, so does supply. Tour companies have gradually been transforming the ways in which they deliver trips to consumers. Focusing on the social, economic and environmental impact of tourism in Africa, Journeys by Design and Wild Philanthropy work to preserve some of the world's last great wildernesses in the face of exponential growth, the effects of climate change and the pressure of fast-growing economies.

In Responsible Travel's family safari, visitors are guided by Kenya's indigenous Masai people. Courtesy Basecamp Explorer

“Africa is the second-fastest growing tourist market,” says Waddell, “where the long-term negative impact – environmentally, socially and economically – of tourism on destinations and their local communities far outweighs any short-term benefits.”

In a bid to tackle the issue, this tour operator offers no more than 300 trips a year, with low-volume, “positive-impact” travel being a priority. To achieve this, it works closely with on-the-ground destination management companies to ensure that it benefits the local communities for whom the destinations are home. In this way, travel serves as both catalyst and support for wider sustainable development schemes. This, in turn, wins over local communities and encourages more responsible tourism practices.

“Without the support of the local community, any sustainable development of a given wilderness will fail,” says Waddell. “That support is guaranteed by the demonstration through commerce that the animals and their wild habitat hold more value than other forms of land use.”

The argument for the conservation of the wilderness is as much an economic one as it is anything else, and one in which sustainable travel has an important part to play

When the local community understands the economic value that preservation holds, they are more inclined to conserve the wilderness and contribute to positive tourism initiatives. “The argument for the conservation of the wilderness is as much an economic one as it is anything else, and one in which sustainable travel has an important part to play,” Waddell says.

Pristine, underdeveloped spots have become so rare, it’s logical that travellers will seek them out – especially now we’re all so aware of the distance that needs to be maintained between humans. Covid-19 may well be the death of the all-inclusive holiday and the now claustrophobia-inducing cruise liner.

With tours that aim to counter the loss of biodiversity, tour company Responsible Travel also nods to the importance of conservation and preservation. “More and more responsible tourism businesses are beginning to use incomes to protect land and habitats for some of the world’s most endangered species, realising that the future of tourism depends on it,” says Krissy Roe, head of values at the company.

Responsible Travel offers diving holidays designed to tackle overfishing, dynamite fishing, shark finning and coral destruction. Its luxury safaris have contributed to preserving 50,000 acres of land for biodiversity.

Re-wilding initiatives are also being worked into tourist activity, offering travellers a chance to get out into the wild to discover lynx in Spain or track wolves in Sweden, while tour guides measure important data on each outing that contributes to restoring landscapes and reintroducing wild animals back into nature.

Higher up the chain, forward-thinking governments are beginning to increase tourist taxes in a bid to tackle excessive tourism. Amsterdam, which already implements a 7 per cent tax, recently implemented a €3 (Dh13) charge a night to tourists staying in the city. In the UK, the Scottish Highlands plans to introduce a tourist tax on campers, while in New Zealand, anyone who is not a resident is required to pay a NZ$35 (Dh85) fee to enter the country. Considerably higher is the tax on tourists in Bhutan, who must pay $200 per day (Dh735) between December and February, then $250 per day for the other months in the year. The money is invested into preserving the Bhutanese environment.

During Responsible Travel's dolphin conservation holidays in Greece, visitors stay on the island of Alonnisos. Courtesy Responsible Travel

“We expect to see more and more destinations bringing in taxes as part of their arsenal for fighting back against overtourism,” says Roe, also highlighting a trend for off-season travel. “Both destinations and tourists will look for ways to experience places without the prohibitive crowding associated with peak season.”

One example might be an olive harvest holiday in Greece, run by Responsible Travel between the months of October and December.

Perhaps less obvious but now a mounting concern in light of Covid-19 is the impact of our food choices when travelling. Roe underlines a need for tourists to choose wisely at mealtimes. "It's better to buy locally produced food and drink wherever possible, to reduce the carbon dioxide impact from transporting your food," she says. Responsible Travel has predicted that in the year ahead, customers will demand – and more hotels will begin to offer – a menu that features lower meat, lower food miles, lower waste and increasingly ethical and fair trade options.

As tourists begin to tentatively spread their wings once more, the hope is that we will begin to travel with a newly acquired consciousness, which could have far-reaching consequences on both people and the planet.