Could the coronavirus lockdown be a chance for the world to reset, and for travel to bounce back stronger – and greener – than ever before?

A greener future

Clearer skies, cleaner rivers, wildlife venturing into urban areas, a drop in carbon emissions and suggestions of Earth ‘healing’ itself – we may be clutching at (compostable) straws, but could this be a slither of a silver lining in the corona tragedy that’s unfolding around the world? 

“We dearly hope that some long-term good will come from the current agonies surrounding coronavirus,” says Martyn Sumners, Executive Director of the Association of Independent Tour Operators.

AITO’s office is under the flight path to Heathrow and its staff have all noticed the reduction in air traffic since COVID-19 took hold. “That has got to translate into much-reduced carbon emissions,” says Martyn. “But will this improvement be merely a temporary blip on the horizon? 

“We all need to reassess our travel plans once this crisis is over.  One long-stay trip is far better – for the environment and us – than several weekend trips and a one-week holiday – it’s just one take-off and one landing, which are the most polluting parts of any flight.”

Even prior to the pandemic, the tide was turning. With irrefutable evidence of climate change upon us - Australia burning and the UK flooding – many travellers had already begun to tread more lightly, opting for staycations over long-haul escapes, or choosing to travel with companies that have responded to the call and opted to put responsibility centre stage. 

The ABTA Travel Trends report for 2019 found that 45% of holidaymakers listed sustainability as an important factor when booking a holiday, compared to just 20% in 2011 – a significant attitude shift.

“All travel businesses are at risk unless we  work hard to adapt,” says AITO’s Sumners. The Specialist Travel Association is helping its members, affiliates and agents to choose and implement sustainable tourism activities through its Project Protect online and live training sessions. “It’s key to the survival of the industry – and the planet,” adds Sumners.

Focus on your footprint

While the UK’s aviation industry has pledged to reduce its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, a recent report from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) shows that global transport-related emissions from tourism are predicted to increase 25% to 1,998 million tonnes between 2016 and 2030.

“Alternative biofuels still produce carbon dioxide and we forecast that over 125 million passengers will fly to and from UK airports by 2023,” says Ben Cordwell, Associate Travel & Tourism Analyst at GlobalData. “An increase of over 16 million passengers from 2018 will bring an enormous increase in carbon emissions.”  

‘Offsetting’ is one of the practices employed by airlines or travel companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, and involves calculating their carbon emissions, reducing them where they can, and offsetting the remainder by investing in environmental projects. Gold Standard certification ensures that offsetting schemes make genuine, measurable contributions to sustainable development.

ClimateCare works with travel organisations and airlines to develop bespoke offsetting schemes. “The ideal option is not to fly at all and the most desirable outcome for the climate would be that we restrict growth in aviation or even retard it,” says CEO, Vaughan Lindsay. “However, that’s unlikely to happen within the necessary timescale, so emissions need to be offset, preferably by airlines or travel companies, or by consumers themselves.”

Cut plastic waste

While many of us have switched to reusable coffee cups and water bottles at home, airlines and many resorts have been slow to make a change, meaning our single-use plastic tally can soar during a week away. Every year, a staggering eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, and it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. 

With tourism a major contributor, Radisson Hotel Group is one of 100 travel businesses that has committed to the International Tourism Plastic Pledge, which aims to reduce plastic pollution in holiday destinations around the world. 

“Plastic pollution is one of the current major global issues and our group is proud to play a leading role in driving plastic reduction across the travel and tourism industry,” says Federico J. González Tejera, President & CEO of Radisson Hospitality AB. By 2022, all mini bathroom products will be replaced with bulk dispensers, removing 57 million miniatures from circulation, while access to filtered water is being rolled out across Raddisson’s hotels.

Give back to communities

For customers keen to travel with purpose, many companies now invest a proportion of their profits into environmental or community projects, with some offering travellers the chance to see them in action. 

Now the world’s largest adventure travel company, G Adventures was one of the first to sell itself on sustainable, culturally-focused tours. The company started the non-profit Planeterra Foundation, which contributes to social enterprise, healthcare, conservation and emergency response projects in the destinations it operates in. 

“We measure our success as a company through local benefit and positive impact,” says Founder, Bruce Poon Tip. “Our travellers are funding projects around the world to alleviate poverty, create jobs and boost the local tourism economy. lt isn’t just about being a travel company anymore.”

Contribute to conservation

With nature and wildlife under threat around the world, tourism can play a huge part in protecting species and preserving ecosystems. Travellers looking to safari in Africa can choose to travel with a company with conscience, such as Great Plains Conservation. Established by National Geographic photographers, film makers and explorers, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Great Plains acquires former hunting lands and converts them for conservation tourism, funded by a collection of luxury camps offering safaris. 

“Through paying to stay at our camps, our guests become agents of positive change and ambassadors for conservation around the world,” says Dereck.

Meanwhile in Europe, The European Nature Trust (TENT) offers wildlife holidays that help to fund ‘re-wilding' projects in Spain, Romania, Italy and Scotland, protecting landscapes, planting thousands of native trees, and trying to rebalance ecosystems impacted by human habitation, industry and agriculture. “Our impact on the planet is immense and we need to treasure the wild, unpopulated places that are left,” says Founder, Paul Lister. “We must give nature a chance to come back.”

With so many trips focused on being beside or on the ocean, it’s no surprise that tourism organisations are looking at ways for visitors to help contribute to protecting our seas and marine life. Many Indian Ocean resorts have on-site marine biologists and coral-regeneration programmes to help restore reefs affected by climate change and pollution. 

Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts have two resorts in the Maldives, Vabbinfaru and Angsana Ihuru, which both have Marine Conservation Labs where guests can learn about the reef, help with coral cleaning and planting, and take part in beach clean-ups. Their 6to6 initiative sees the resorts switch off all overnight electricity once a month on the full moon to save power, offering clients candlelit dinners and snorkels by moonlight. In the Seychelles, the Hilton Northolme Resort & Spa’s own Marine Conservation Society has launched a coral nursery and a monthly ‘sustainable day’ to involve guests in its eco-programmes.

Meanwhile in Australia, travellers can enjoy environmentally conscious escapes on the Great Barrier Reef at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, which offers daily marine workshops and reef walks, plus the chance to swim with wild manta rays. 

“I’m a firm believer in hope,” says its Custodian, Peter Gash, who has implemented award-winning sustainability initiatives on the island. “We humans do belong on the planet but our brains evolved dramatically and we got overconfident. Now it’s obvious we need to rethink — and thankfully there’s a big movement of people rethinking and pushing for change.” 

As international borders reopen and the flight bans lift, perhaps it will be time for the travel industry to resist returning to ‘business as usual’ and start working together to create a green new world.