What Is Sustainable Travel In 2021?
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|June 2021
As the pandemic subsides and 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?
Francisca Kellett

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 shipfree 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 University 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.

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?”

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