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Can Sustainable Travel Survive in a Post COVID World?

by Ali Wunderman Feb 4, 2021

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, there seemed to be nothing trendier in the tourism industry than sustainability programs. Being the greenest, most eco-friendly hotel, airline, or tour operator was a competitive selling point, one that, in a rare occurrence, benefited business owners and the planet alike.

But like just about every aspect of the travel industry, sustainability programs were immediately altered by the coronavirus, with some eco initiatives becoming suddenly incompatible with new health protocols. It wasn’t as if there was a calculated shift to punish the earth; it’s that businesses had to introduce these health protocols very quickly to stay afloat, and that meant — understandably — introducing safety precautions like ensuring certain objects were not being reused, while keeping human contact to a minimum.

Single-use surges back

“The prevention of COVID-19 has added an additional level of complexity to businesses’ purchasing decisions,” explains Dr. Susanne Etti, environmental impact specialist at Intrepid Travel.

Sustainability additions like water stations and reusable totes were swapped out with water bottles and plastic bags, while disposable wipes, masks, and gloves became ubiquitous, quickly leading to a surge in litter.

While all of these items are essential for preventing disease spread, Etti says, “These significantly harm the oceans and create greenhouse gas emissions resulting from production and after-use incineration.”

For example, on many US airlines, passengers will notice the implementation of a single sanitizing wipe in a plastic pouch given out upon boarding, and a plastic bag with snacks, bottled water, and another wipe for the meal service. While the biggest environmental impact of airplanes comes from how much fuel they use (the more weight is inside the plane, the more they use), the increase in single-use plastic products is nonetheless indicative of an industry-wide shift that could have a long-standing impact.

But eco-commitments remain

However, a pre-existing commitment to sustainability has allowed airlines like United to handle the sudden increase in waste without having to deviate from their environmental goals, allowing them to move forward with their announcement in December of 2020 that they will become 100 percent green by 2050 – meaning they’ll have net zero carbon emissions — by investing in a novel carbon sequestration plan, rather than relying on carbon offsets alone.

Meanwhile, tourist destinations are experiencing the balancing act of maintaining a commitment to the environment while reconfiguring toward fighting the spread of the virus. Belize, which earns a whopping 45.5 percent of its GDP from tourism, was months away from ending the manufacturing of 17 million single-use plastic items, plus another 35 million plastic bags when COVID-19 forced the small Central American country to push back its deadline.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, use of these throw-away plastic items increased,” explains Belize’s Oceana Vice President Janelle Chanona, who is actively monitoring the impact COVID-related single-use items have on the marine ecosystem. “Fear of transmission of the virus itself and an increase in take-away food orders completely wiped out the in-country inventory of these items.”

While that sudden loss of plastic products could have given way to non-plastic alternatives, those items were typically imported, and the makers of biodegradable items were unable to meet the sudden demand, which was not limited to Belize alone.

While Belize remains dedicated to putting single-use products behind them – Chanona believes the plastics ban will still take place this year — the uptick in their use was a direct consequence of the pandemic.

Reduced travel gives us time to strategize

The sustainability situation as it relates to COVID-19 is undoubtedly complicated, with the re-emergence of single-use plastics at least momentarily balanced out by the decrease in global emissions — given that travel contributes eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions. No matter what, more information will be needed before a clear impact of the pandemic’s impact on the planet can be properly calculated.

What the travel halt has definitely allowed for, though, is time to reassess the way we travel and to strategize a more responsible future.

“The pandemic’s carbon emissions data has shown us that drastically reducing air travel is not the silver-bullet answer to neutralizing the climate threat; a multi-faceted approach is required,” Etti says.

It will take cross-industry collaboration to achieve a future in which climate change is no longer a threat, and buy-in from travelers that protecting the planet is not in conflict with vacationing.

Moving toward regenerative travel

Despite the immediate fears of the pandemic causing a loss in focus on sustainability, the pandemic has actually spawned the conditions for regenerative travel, a concept which builds on the legacy of sustainable eco-travel.

“Regeneration is a paradigm shift,” explains Amanda Ho, co-founder and brand director of Regenerative Travel, a collection of resorts leading the way on how to embody environmental and social impact. “It requires a change in how we think to create a new framework for how we see the world and interact with nature. We say in the most basic terms, sustainability is about achieving net neutral impact, while regeneration is actually making a place better than you found it.”

Destinations as broad as New Zealand and Hawaii are exploring ways to put the principles of regenerative travel to work — emphasizing things like quality over quantity and an interest in the local culture. Travel operators want to move away from the scourge of overtourism and ensure instead that trips support local economies and development in a meaningful way.

As travelers use this time to consider how they will move around the world in the future, there is a clear emphasis on that ethos, with more interest in local travel, longer-term adventures, and connecting more deeply with destinations.

So while single-use plastics may be getting their final moment in the spotlight, it’s clear the next act of green travel is only just beginning.

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