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What does it mean to travel sustainably in 2021?

As travel tentatively resumes, the frequently misappropriated and misunderstood concept of sustainability is due a timely reassessment. What role can travellers play in protecting the balance of the natural world?

Published 14 May 2021, 17:21 BST, Updated 4 Jun 2021, 08:47 BST
Cyclists make their way through Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales. Sustainable travel is complicated and, ...

Cyclists make their way through Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales. Sustainable travel is complicated and, as Fran Cellet explains, even the term is flawed.

Photograph by 4Corners Images

Do you remember all the fuss about plastic straws? It wasn’t long ago when company after company realised that handing out 4.7 billion plastic straws each year in England alone wasn’t such a great idea after all. Hotels were quick to jump on that ‘green’ bandwagon. It was a clear win: something easy to phase out, that represented both a cost saving and a simple way of showing a brand’s eco credentials. 

Reducing single-use plastic is of course hugely important, and plastic straws and stirrers have now been banned in England. But when it comes to sustainability in travel, plastic straws are a drop in the ocean. They’re a good example of how ideas around sustainability can be misused and narrowed down to a very simple — and not particularly meaningful — issue.  

Sustainability isn’t simple. It can’t be boiled down. It isn’t a quick win. A hotel might declare it’s eliminated straws, but does that make it sustainable? What about its energy use, its food waste, its track record on environmental protection and community engagement? 

Sustainable travel is complicated; even the term is flawed. According to a National Geographic survey in 2019, while 42% of travellers would be willing to prioritise sustainable travel in the future, only 15% of them knew what sustainable travel actually meant. Which raises the question: is it in fact a misnomer? Or even a contradictory set of ideas? 

“Caring about sustainability doesn’t mean giving up on holidays altogether,” says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel. He’s right, of course, given that tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, responsible for 10.4% of global GDP in 2019 and employing roughly one in 10 people on the planet. Post-pandemic, we have a responsibility to start travelling again — and an environmental responsibility to do so sustainably.  

Take conservation. After Covid-19 struck, there were numerous reports of fragile ecosystems ‘getting a break’ — of dolphins frolicking once again in Venice’s cruise ship-free lagoon, of deer wandering through quietened towns, of turtles hatching in peace on emptied beaches. 

As pleasing as those images were, the reality was that billions of dollars of tourism revenue which usually goes towards supporting complex networks of protected areas and local communities came to a grinding halt. The impact was devastating.

According to the African Leadership School of Wildlife Conservation, Kenya is a good case in point. More than two million tourists visited Kenya’s wildlife areas in 2019, earning the country $1.03bn (£740m). Since the pandemic, Kenya has lost $750m (£538m) and almost 1.3 million jobs in its travel industry. Visits to national parks have dropped by 87% and communities dependent on tourism have been financially decimated. And while the poaching of big game does not seem to have increased (due to the difficulties in moving across borders during the pandemic) the killing of bushmeat — whereby local communities infringe on protected land to hunt out of necessity — has risen.

Read more: How has the pandemic affected African safari tourism and the communities that depend on it?

A family goes camping in a field in East Sussex. Around 80% of a holiday’s carbon footprint comes from your flight, but, according to Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, carbon offsetting is a distraction — and the onus shouldn’t be on the traveller anyway. 

Photograph by 4Corners Images

Building back better

Simply turning off the tourism dollar tap isn’t an option, nor should we rush back en masse post-Covid. The big question is how we travel in the future.

“There’s this conversation in the travel industry about ‘building back better’,” says Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, which helps tourism businesses and destinations to improve their sustainability. “But this is an empty platitude unless some real changes are made. If we go back to 2019 numbers, does that make sense? Were people happy with that?”

The short answer is no, and the industry knows it. While Sampson predicts a short-term rush back to mass tourism to deal with pent-up demand, in the longer term he does see the industry changing, driven by heightened consumer awareness of the climate crisis and impact on local communities. Booking.com’s 2019 Sustainable Travel Report, for example, found that 70% of global travellers would be more likely to book accommodation knowing it was eco-friendly. And according to IHG, which owns 16 hotel brands and almost 6,000 hotels, 82% of adults say they are committed to taking their everyday sustainable habits with them when they travel. The quick wins of a few years ago no longer seem to cut the mustard. Talk of straws is over, and instead the buzz words are ‘slow’, ‘conscious’ or ‘purposeful’ travel — finding a more meaningful way to spend our money. 

Travel companies are listening and taking stock. Sampson says that even before Covid-19 hit, more of the big-brand travel companies (not just the little eco-lodges you might expect) were approaching The Travel Foundation and wanting to improve their green credentials.

Hilton Hotels, for example, has set science-based targets aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement, committing to reducing its carbon intensity by 61% and its water use intensity by 50% by 2030. It also has an international soap recycling programme, redistributing millions of bars to communities in need. IHG, which includes Holiday Inn and Six Senses, has pledged to eliminate its 200 million single-use mini toiletries across its hotels by the end of this year, switching to bulk dispensers.

The Travel Corporation, which owns 40 brands including Contiki and Uniworld, has gone a step further, incorporating its CSR strategy into customer experiences. It recently launched the ‘Make Travel Matter’ Experiences, which assess the impact of tours and excursions using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) as a framework. Each experience aims to have a positive impact, such as Insight’s itinerary to India, which includes a visit to the Sheroes Hangout, female survivors of acid attacks. The cafe provides secure employment for these vulnerable women, in line with UNSDG number five: Gender Equality.

In 2019, some of the world’s biggest digital travel brands including Booking.com, Skyscanner and Tripadvisor clubbed together to launch Travalyst. Fronted by The Duke of Sussex, it aims to bring about ‘systemic changes’ to make sustainable travel mainstream. Skyscanner, for example, now has a Greener Choice label which displays the carbon footprint of different flight options.

Read more: The future of travel: Hay Festival authors discuss a responsible return to global exploration

Marine wildlife such as this green sea turtle swimming over a coral reef off Maui need to be protected. But when it comes to sustainability in travel, reducing plastic straws are a drop in the ocean. They’re a good example of how ideas around sustainability can be misused and narrowed down to a very simple — and not particularly meaningful — issue. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Taking flight

This brings us to the very large elephant in the room: flying. There’s no point discussing sustainability without addressing the fact that 80% of a holiday’s carbon footprint comes from your flight, and 2% of all global CO2 emissions come from aviation. “Staying in an eco lodge doesn’t compensate for the flight you’ve taken to get there,” explains Xavier Font, professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey. 

But we can just carbon offset, right? Pay an extra levy to plant some trees and hop merrily on that plane? No, says Font. If anything, carbon offsetting is another problem, not a solution. “The moment you start telling people their carbon has been offset, they stop caring,” he says. “They see it as a free pass.”

Francis agrees. Carbon offsetting is a distraction, he says, and the onus shouldn’t be on the traveller anyway — it should be on the producer. This ties into all sorts of issues, from taxing jet fuel to research and investment into new technologies.

“The science has moved on enormously,” Francis says, mainly due to the evolution of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which currently make up 6% of global jet fuel. While SAFs have been linked with environmental degradation and deforestation, second-generation SAFs are made from waste produced by the food industry and are thought to reduce emissions by more than 70% — and they can be used in existing planes. The Jet Zero Council, a partnership between the UK government and the aviation industry, has launched a competition to develop SAFs with the hope of them making up 83% of global jet fuels by 2030.

There’s also talk of electric aircraft. EasyJet, for example, is investing in a project to build a battery-powered, 186-seat plane to be operational by 2030, although the weight of batteries is thought by some experts to hinder the development of full-scale passenger jets — which is where hydrogen comes in.

ZeroAvia, for example, has run successful test flights for a small five-seater plane powered by hydrogen. Several companies, including British Airways (recently reported as one of Europe’s most polluting airlines), are investing £17.6m to create larger passenger jets with the hope of 50-seaters being in the skies within five years. 

Zero-emission flights will of course be a game-changer, but for now they remain theoretical. “We’re in a transition,” says Francis. “But we’re a long way from telling people they shouldn’t fly so much.” There’s the key. Until the day we can all happily hop on a zero-carbon flight, there’s only one thing to do: fly less. 

Read more: How to plan sustainable trips to the world’s most iconic destinations

Places like the Society Islands of Bora Bora, French Polynesia are under threat from environmental pressures and climate change.

Photograph by Getty Images

What can we do?

So, putting the onus back on the consumer, what else can we actually do? What questions should we be asking? 

A good starting point is the Impact Travel Alliance, which offers online resources and events to encourage travellers to make more responsible decisions. “We try to translate a lot of the noise,” says Kelley Louise, the founder, “and help our members understand what greenwashing is, what certification looks like, what diversity and inclusion means in travel.” The organisation has grown from 20,000 to 30,000 members in the last year. 

For ethical lodges, have a look at those collated by The Long Run, an organisation that aims to ensure every trip has a positive impact. It collectively protects more than 23 million acres around the world as well as 400 endangered species, improving the lives of 750,000 people. The NOW Alliance for Good, meanwhile, allows you book stringently vetted sustainable hotels.

Launched as a direct response to the pandemic, The Conscious Travel Foundation is a new not-for-profit network that shares responsible travel practices through mentorship programmes and seminars. “Lots of small businesses want to do better,” says Katie Terrington, one of the founders, “but don’t know where to start. This pause made us realise we had an opportunity to unite them, to create a think tank to essentially change behaviour within the travel industry.” The foundation currently has 36 members and a waiting list of 150 for the next intake this summer. 

Asking questions is key. “Savvy travellers should try to understand if their money is going into the local economy,” explains Font. Does your all-inclusive resort send all its profits back to some far-away corporation? Or are local people actively engaged and profiting from your presence through fair-paid jobs? “Do the research, ask where it’s coming from.” 

You can also check if your accommodation has certification credentials approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and think about food waste, which is the second-largest contributor to our carbon footprints when we travel. Look for genuine measures such as reducing lavish breakfast buffets and buying locally, rather than flying in ingredients. 

Consider the length of your trip, too. Your flight footprint will be the same whether you’re away for a weekend or a month, and staying longer ensures your tourist dollars are, at least, going further in the local economy. 

And, finally, do you really have to fly? If it’s a short hop to Europe, driving or taking the train might take a bit longer (and in the case of trains, is, generally, more pricey) but both have considerably smaller carbon footprints than flying. 

We can — and should — get back to travelling as soon as we’re able, making conscious decisions during the booking stages. Fly less, stay longer, choose hotels and operators that have a sustainable approach. Travel can be a force for good; we just need to realise the implications of the old status quo when it comes to consuming travel.

“It’s a bit like drinking wine in a lot of ways,” says Font. “We’re all aware we shouldn’t binge drink. We should be sufficiently grown up to understand which wine is worth drinking, and we should enjoy it, savour it. It’s really the same with travel.”  

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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