Sustainable travel and tourism beyond 2020

By Madelyn Postman


Global travel hastened the spread of Covid-19, and then suddenly everything ground to a halt, disrupting supply chains and at the same time decreasing air pollution. We’ve all been forced to adapt, and some of these new ways of life will stay. In terms of travel, many people can imagine no longer jetting off on a day trip for a business meeting, and at the same time we’re yearning to go to a warm beach abroad for our summer holiday.

Tourism supports many economies. It inspires appreciation for culture and nature, and it can jump start conservation efforts.

There is a growing need and awareness for sustainable travel and tourism. Headlines on the climate strikes and flight shaming have been replaced by Covid-19 and protests about racial and social inequality. How can we make the crisis into an opportunity for a green recovery, to “build back better”, also in travel and tourism?

On June 24th, the UK Steering Committee of 1% for the Planet held an online panel on sustainable travel and tourism beyond 20200. The speakers were Soraya Shattuck, who founded the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund in 2016, and Kurt Weinsheimer, board member of 1% for the Planet and Chief Solutions Officer at Sojern, which specialises in traveller path to purchase data. I have been a member of 1% for the Planet since 2008 and serve on the UK Steering Committee, and had the pleasure of moderating the panel.

Sustainability is on the agenda

It is heartening that the largest travel industry conference, Skift, already made sustainability the focus of its Global Forum in New York in September, 2019. And initiatives like the World Economic Forum’s The Great Reset and the European Commission’s Green Deal will continue to keep sustainability front and centre as we recover from the pandemic.

Though air travel accounts for “only” about 3% of the contribution to global warming (and may create further knock-on effects), it’s one area where individuals’ choices can have an impact. And we need to make every contribution possible in order to keep the global warming increase below 2°C as per the Paris Agreement.

Business or pleasure?

From Sojern data, Kurt revealed that traditionally, 60-70% of travel is for leisure, not business — and it’s domestic and local travel for pleasure which is bouncing back the fastest. Business meetings and conferences can be moved online, but holidays can’t be replaced so easily. Most business travel is air travel, which will probably come back very slowly: one point for sustainability. A new way to travel for work could be the “workation” which combines travel for business and pleasure.

Stay local, and keep it slow

Local, surface travel will inevitably produce less carbon. Flying from Paris to Barcelona creates an estimated 238kg of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger, while the equivalent train journey creates only 11kg. 

There is a movement following in the footsteps of Slow Food called Slow Travel, which encourages more in-depth experiences: enjoying the journey and then supporting the people, culture and the ecosystems of the destination once you arrive. This type of travel with purpose is also called experiential travel.

Carbon offsetting

Does carbon offsetting mitigate the negative effects of travel, particularly by air? It’s a confusing area which is not always transparent. The advice from Kurt is to find schemes accredited by a third party, and in particular to focus on preservation, not restoration. 

Preserving forests and jungles as carbon sinks is much more effective than planting seedlings which will take years to reach maturity.

What are the action points for individuals?

Generally, be aware of how and why you travel. Sustainable travel may reflect true costs and impact and will therefore be more expensive. Consider taking fewer but perhaps longer holidays. 

There are no internationally implemented standards for sustainable travel and tourism, but the Global Sustainable Tourism Council comes closest. Costa Rica is at the forefront of ecotourism, with its Certification of Sustainable Tourism. Unfortunately, not every country has this type of certification scheme.

Different locations face different challenges, ranging from clean water to biodiversity to a need for education.

To support where guidance is lacking, the non-profit TreadRight has created a helpful Make Travel Matter Checklist

Travel is a privilege

Soraya wrapped up the panel by reminding us that travel is a privilege. During lockdown, our world has become smaller, getting to know our neighbours, supporting local shops (the only ones with flour and eggs!) and exploring our own vicinity. In some ways, it feels like another type of travel — back in time. We have discovered gems on our own doorsteps. 

We need to rethink our pre-2020 paradigm which may have included weekly or monthly business travel, an annual ski trip, a summer break and some long weekends away. How will you commit to sustainable travel? Limit yourself to one long-haul flight per year? Give up flying altogether? Food for thought.

The recording of the event is available here.