The importance of sustainable travel after the pandemic

The importance of sustainable travel after the pandemic

There’s been a lot of talk through the pandemic of travel ‘coming back better’. More people seem to have had a genuine realisation about the devastating effects of our travel habits – namely, the impact of over-tourism, ‘thoughtless’ travel and the frequency of flying. The fact that many of us have had to ‘pause’ our exploring for over a year, has meant that we have been able to actually witness some of the world’s beauty spots without the presence of swarms of tourists, and seen how the inherent wildlife in these places have flourished without us being there. In short, when travel resumes again, there’s hope that tourists will give more thought about their impact on the planet.

But how many of us actually know what this means in reality? Do we really understand how we can effectively put this desire into practice?

Travel expert and writer Holly Tuppen has pondered the issue a lot. Back in 2008 she embarked on a 20-month around-the-world-without-flying adventure, which cemented her interest in sustainable travel. On her return, she began to work for no-fly platform Green Traveller and was editor of Green Hotelier. In addition, as communications manager at the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), she helped to shape corporate social responsibility strategies for the world’s largest hotel chains.

Is it an oxymoron to say ‘sustainable travel’?

The importance of sustainable travel after the pandemic
Holly Tuppen (Credit: Holly Tuppen)

We are slowly realising that travel can be sustainable, but only if we acknowledge that there isn’t time or space for unlimited growth. For several years, I’ve struggled with this tension. On the one hand, travel brings inspiration, creates connections, and can renew people and places. On the other, it undermines local lives, causes environmental damage, and has become an unrelenting commodity. 

Rather than battle it, I’ve come to accept this lurching between the highs and lows of travel. It keeps me in check and encourages me to challenge. It stops me greedily jumping on a plane at every opportunity and helps me to embrace doorstep adventures. When I do get on a plane, it drives me to make it count by supporting the change-makers and telling their story; since tourism was knocked sideways by Covid-19, this is more important than ever.

What prompted your round-the-world-without-flying adventure? What were the main things that you ‘learnt’ from that experience?

We wanted an adventure that took us to unexpected places and challenged us physically and mentally. So much of our life is carefully curated; overland travel snatches any notion of control and hands your fate over to strangers, the elements, and the open road. It throws grit and beauty at you in equal measure, and there’s no knowing where the magic will sweep you up. 

I learnt so much – such as: how much richer life is when you choose to trust strangers and take risks; how similar we all are in our needs and aspirations; how you can’t judge anyone until you fully understand their unique context, and that adventure is everywhere if you’re open to it. I hope I’ll never forget how tiny and insignificant we felt becalmed in the middle of The Atlantic.  

Do you think the effects of the pandemic will have a positive impact on the way we will travel? Or is there a danger – due to pent-up demand – that people will just travel anywhere, without thinking about their impact?

A bit of both. There is pent up demand, and that’s a worry. I’ve heard reports of snorkelling boats taking up to 600 people a day to fragile reefs in places across South East Asia. People are understandably desperate to make money, and so visitor number limits go out the window. 

But there’s also much to be optimistic about. Covid-19’s forced pause has led many travel companies and hotels to embed sustainability and regenerative practices into business operations. Most businesses wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to do this if life had carried on as before. For example, nearly 300 companies have signed up to the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency initiative. Consumers have also had time to reflect and connect with landscapes, people, and nature closer to home, inevitably changing their travel aspirations and needs. Travellers are also savvier than ever when it comes to responsible business and demanding greater transparency. 

Meanwhile, destinations have had a taste of what life is like without tourists, which has helped to readdress the visitor/resident balance. Places like Amsterdam, for example, have started to move the red-light district out of the city centre. Venice is finally standing up to cruise ships (albeit with a chequered start). New Zealand has revamped its sustainability commitment, emphasising how communities can benefit from visitors. 

It’s a big question – but how imminent is the climate crisis?

It’s here and no longer a distant threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that a 1.5°C increase in global warming is the limit the planet can handle. At the current trajectory, it is estimated that we will reach the 1.5°C limit as early as 2030. To halt our advance beyond it, we need to cut carbon emissions in half by then globally. To put this in context, we need to reduce carbon to the same extent we have during Covid-19 every year.

If we reach 3°C of global warming in the next century, sea levels will rise by three feet, displacing 680 million people in low-lying coastal zones, along with 65 million citizens of small island states. That’s not to mention the fires, extreme weather events and drought. 

According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2019, weather-related hazards triggered some 24.9 million displacements in 140 countries. It predicts that by 2050 climate-related disasters could double the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance to over 2,000 million each year.  

How would you sum up what ‘sustainable travel’ really means to those who may be confused by some of the jargon that is often used?

The World Tourism Organization, The United Nations’ agency, defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors needs, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

But such a vague definition is no longer fit for purpose. Surely the needs of visitors and the travel industry should come after the needs of the environment and host communities? Is now the time to move beyond taking account of the negative and instead positively impact wherever we go? 

Rather than dwelling on the notion of sustainability (where sustainability simply means being able to continue over and over again), perhaps now, in the midst of an urgent environmental crisis, we need to seek out transformative and regenerative experiences: travel that funds the protection of nature; travel that empowers marginalised parts of society; travel that is designed and driven by communities; travel that helps us learn from indigenous peoples; travel that heals; travel that brings us closer to our doorstep natural and cultural heritage; travel that uplifts the host as much as the visitor; travel that changes hearts and minds for the better.

 What top three things can we all do to ensure we travel better?

Taking responsibility for our carbon emissions is vital. This doesn’t mean never flying again or only eating foraged seeds, but it does mean educating ourselves about what impact every single action we take has on the planet. We need to be a little more mindful about our decisions, like travelling less but for longer. 

Considering the impact of our trips from the perspective of the destination is also important. It helps to take a moment to flip roles and ask a few questions. Would you like tourists snapping photos of your kids at school? Would it feel fair if only visitors were allowed in a fenced-off section of your local park? Where does the water come from to keep that golf course green? How do local people and the environment really benefit from your snorkelling with a marine biologist? By putting ourselves in the shoes of the place and people we visit, we’re more likely to seek experiences that have a positive impact. 

We also need to tackle tourism’s economic leakage problem, where money mostly leaves a destination to benefit multi-nationals or international companies rather than local lives. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for every $100 spent by a tourist on a holiday to a developing country, only $5 remains in the host community. The best way to solve the problem is to seek out locally-owned businesses from tour operators. Now, more than ever, we also need to embrace travel’s potential to transform, connect and inspire us to contribute to a greener and fairer society.  

Holly’s new book, Sustainable Travel: An essential guide to positive impact adventures, will be released by White Lion Publishing, 22nd June. Order on Bookshop to send profits to independent bookstores.

This is an excerpt from an interview by Angelina Villa-Clarke, originally published by Forbes.

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