Coronavirus has shaken the tourism industry to its core and now the rules have changed. Learn how to travel more responsibly to make a positive impact on the local community.
From an economic perspective, it’s phenomenally profitable. An abundance of jobs are created, it supports peoples’ livelihoods and it blends different cultures together. However, from an environmental perspective, it’s violently damaging.
Tourism, like anything, can be both good and bad … but as we hurtle headlong towards the tipping points of global warming, the importance of eco-friendly travel has never been greater.
Climate change has been on the radar for a while now but ever since the United Nations dedicated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, people are more aware of the importance of sustainable travel.
The cold hard truth is that in one way or another your holiday is going to cause some damage to the environment and the question is to what extent you can mitigate this. By simply making a few minor adjustments, your greener approach will make a significant difference to preserving the environment.
However, since the world has fallen prey to Covid-19, we’ve got a lot more to worry about while we’re travelling - our safety and everybody else’s.
If you’re planning on going on holiday this year, then health will understandably be your number one priority - yet despite the pandemic, your safety doesn’t have to come at the cost of environmentally friendly travel. You can quite easily have both.
Want to know how? Read on to find out more about sustainable tourism and how you can travel responsibly without risking your safety.
What is sustainable tourism?
Sustainable tourism is one of the fastest-growing movements in the industry and it’s pressuring people to adopt a more environmentally friendly way of travelling. It’s a trend that we should all be welcoming with open arms because travelling is about appreciating the purities of life: history, culture, beautiful landscapes, geography, climate, and much more.
But before we go any further, what exactly is sustainable tourism?
In short, this is a form of travelling that tries to minimise the negative impact on the places visited and focuses on how it can maximise positive contributions. It relies on tourists making calculated decisions on their travels that will have an overall positive impact on the environment, society, and economy.
In its essence, it’s a solution to make tourism sustainable long-term because traditionally this sector has caused severe damage to both natural and cultural environments. Want to know how? Here are some stats and figures that illustrate the darker side of tourism:
- Every year there are one billion tourist arrivals. That’s 30 people every second.
- Greenhouse gas emissions from tourism amount to more than 5% of the global total. Of that 5%, transportation accounts for 90%.
- Every year, eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. With up to 80% of tourism taking place in coastal areas, much of the blame lies with the tourism sector.
- During peak time in the Mediterranean, marine litter increases by up to 40%.
- 70% of marine mammals are threatened.
- Experts predict that by 2050, climate change will cause the extinction of 30% of species, the death of 90% of coral reefs, and the loss of 50% of the Amazon rainforest.
These stats are harrowing, but when we translate them into concrete examples of how destructive tourism can really be, then it creates a more vivid picture: land degradation, increased air pollution, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on near-extinct species, depletion of natural resources, littering, and the ubiquity of plastic waste.
And then, of course, let’s not forget the impact tourism has on culture...
Implications on Culture
It’s no secret that many cities live in a tourist bubble ready to burst. Take Barcelona for example, a city that’s become a victim of its own success, attracting 11.9 million people last year to indulge in its wonderful climate, culture and history.
For a place that has a population of just 1.6 million, the Catalan capital has been accused of becoming a sellout city for allowing mass tourism to plague its identity. There’s even a new word to describe this: parquetematización - the deliberate process of becoming a theme park.
In 2018, the bubble burst, leading to a number of groups gathering and protesting under slogans such as ‘Barcelona is not for sale’ and ‘we will not be driven out’.
Many of Europe’s crown jewels suffer from the same toxicity caused by tourism, which is now transforming these places into playgrounds for tourists, subsequently alienating residents, damaging heritage and diluting the cultural flavour.
Combine both the cultural and environmental implications together and all of a sudden tourism becomes a form of pollution. While the circumstances are incredibly unfortunate, the coronavirus pandemic has lifted this burden from all cities, allowing locals to live and breathe freely once again in their communities. However, it’s only a matter of time before mass tourism picks up where it left off.
So, what does this all mean? Are you forever confined to the borders of your country?
Absolutely not. Travelling is, and should always be, one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it must be done responsibly. By simply making a few minor adjustments and becoming more conscious of sustainable travel (which we’ll explore below), your contribution will be significant.
But when travelling to these destinations, try and go during low tourist seasons - the locals will feel less violated and the decreased crowding will give you a more authentic insight into the culture of your destination. Alternatively, you could visit a lesser known destination or stay local for your holidays.
If you want to learn more about the damaging effects of over-tourism, then make sure to check out Sustainable Travel International.
What is sustainable travel?
From start to finish, sustainable travel hinges on the amount of responsibility you’re willing to take when you go on holiday. It encompasses all aspects of your travels, ranging from your mode of transport to accommodation, through to the products that you consume.
Similar to sustainable tourism, the objective is to minimise the harm caused to both natural and cultural environments.
But since the emergence of Covid-19 this year, we now also have to prioritise our safety along with being a sustainable traveller. For many of us, environmentally friendly travel may not be as high a priority since we now have to think about our safety. But if you plan ahead, you can still play a role in achieving eco-friendly tourism as well as safeguarding your health.
How to be a sustainable traveller
Environmentally friendly transportationThe carbon footprint from flying is astronomical. Worldwide, the CO2 emissions from aviation amount to 915 million tonnes, contributing 12% of overall CO2 emissions from all forms of transport.
What’s more, a study published in Nature Climate Change in 2018 highlighted that 8% of all carbon emissions come from tourism, with air travel making up the vast majority of this. The recent pandemic has offered a golden opportunity for introspection as we see first hand the environmental benefits of banning non-essential travel.
But sooner or later you’ll have the liberty to travel freely again, which poses the question: how does flying compare with other forms of transport? Take a look below to find out.
Co2 Emissions per passenger per km of travel.
- domestic flight: 133g
- long haul flight: 102g
- car (1passenger): 171g
- bus: 104g
- car (4 passengers): 43g
- domestic rail: 41g
- coach: 27g
- eurostar: 6g
Take the train insteadIf you’re faced with a long-distance trip, your only real option is taking the train, but thankfully it’s an excellent one. Rail travel is substantially more eco-friendly compared to flying: simply taking the Eurostar from London to Paris cuts your carbon emissions by 90%.
Similarly, the train from London to Glasgow emits 52g of carbon emissions per kilometre as opposed to 133g from a flight. As well as being a green mode of transport, trains offer many more advantages:
But what about coronavirus? What transport is safest?
No mode of transport is 100% safe. Planes have better ventilation systems but being crammed next to strangers in a metal tube will always leave you susceptible.
Train stations tend to be more densely packed and attract large gatherings of people when boarding on platforms, but you may have more space once you’re on board. The reality is that when it comes to travelling long-distance, both modes of transport leave you equally exposed to the coronavirus.
If you’re really concerned about your safety, it would be best to opt for a ‘staycation’ which we’ll explore more below.
If flying is your only option, there are still ways you can reduce your carbon footprint:
- Fly economy class. Business-class occupies more room on the plane, reducing its overall capacity for passengers, leading to more carbon emissions emitted per passenger.
- Try to fly with the latest planes. Newer plane models are more carbon efficient. The only downside is that they tend to be more expensive.
- Take less luggage. The heavier your luggage, the more fuel is required for transport. Avoid bringing your entire wardrobe and try to only pack the essentials.
Walk, cycle, or use public transport at your destinationCan you fit in a walk and cycle on your holiday? Both options create zero air pollution and both allow you to fit in some exercise whilst being able to fully appreciate your surroundings. If neither of these options is practical, then using public transport would be a greener approach than hiring an Uber or a taxi.
Bear in mind that we’re still in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, so there will likely be special regulations for travelling safely using public transport. Always bring a face mask with you, since in many destinations wearing one is a mandatory requirement. Keep your ears on the ground for any important updates that may affect the way you travel.
And most importantly, always weigh up the risk.
Public transport isn’t the safest way of commuting, so if you’re conscious about your safety, don’t feel guilty about taking a taxi or an Uber. Instead, look to make concessions elsewhere on your trip.
Choosing environmentally friendly accommodation
Ever considered how green your accommodation is? There’s increasing pressure in the hospitality sector for hotels to adopt a greener approach in their operations but unfortunately there isn’t a universal certification scheme that determines whether a hotel is environmentally friendly.
Instead, you’re going to have to be a bit more proactive in your search … but don’t let this discourage you! Sustainable tourism is on the rise and it’s becoming a lot more common for people to ask hotels about their efforts in preserving the environment.
Don’t be afraid to phone them and directly quiz them on their sustainability efforts. Below are a few questions to get you started:
- What kind of energy-saving measures do you have in place? Simple but effective eco-friendly procedures such as special LED lighting systems and automatic room temperature control systems can go a long way to reduce energy consumption. Hotels investing in numerous green technologies such as these can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by as much as 130 tonnes per year!
- Do you follow any water-saving practices? Water conservation is fast becoming standard practice in many hotels across the world. This is especially true of hotels in destinations where rainfall is rare. Ask them if their toilets have low-consumption toilets along with low-flow taps and showers.
- Do you use any alternative energy systems? This refers to using energy systems like solar or wind energy. Hotels have discovered that solar energy in particular is one of the most efficient ways to reduce energy bills and save energy. Wind energy, on the other hand, is less common so if your hotel has this energy system in place, then they’re off to a good start.
- What waste disposal and recycling systems do you have in place? These procedures are standard and expected across the entire hospitality sector. Not having any in place is a red flag and shows a lack of commitment to preserving the environment. Try and dig deeper and ask what policies they have and if they have recycling bins available in the rooms and public living spaces.
- Does the kitchen use any locally sourced ingredients? Eating locally sourced food means fewer food miles, which drastically reduces air pollution and greenhouse gases. But you can also ask them if they use organic food or have any vegan options. Plant-based foods cause less damage to the environment by saving water, fossil fuels and land resources.
A big part of eco-friendly tourism is about supporting the local economy. Try to focus your spending on the location you’re visiting and be weary of imported products. And of course, always think of the environment.
Shop in local markets and buy locally grown produceAs you’d expect, food that’s imported leaves a heavy carbon footprint, whereas the damage done to the environment by local produce is minimal. Try to focus your spending on local supermarkets since you’ll also be supporting local businesses as well as preserving the environment.
Purchase gifts from local artisansSimilar to the above, try to localise your spending as much as possible since many of these businesses are entirely dependent on tourism to support their livelihood. Moreover, you’ll be doing less harm to the environment. Imported souvenirs will have been flown or shipped, leaving a larger carbon footprint.
Plastic, packaging, & waste
Plastic waste is destroying the environment, so much so that many supermarkets are committed to reducing the amount of packaging they use. You should too since a lot of environmentally friendly travel depends on waste reduction. Here’s how you can help:
- Reusable coffee mugs: In the UK, we use 7.5 billion plastic coffee mugs a year. Getting yourself a reusable coffee mug for your travels (or permanently) will reduce plastic waste.
- Reusable water bottle: Being both cheap and convenient, the amount of plastic water bottles we go through on holiday is likely to be a lot. That’s a lot of unnecessary waste. Purchasing a reusable water bottle will reduce your plastic waste and cut this considerably.
- Avoid wet wipes, face wipes and baby wipes: Yes, we’re aware that there’s a pandemic but there are other ways to maintain hygiene. All of these wipes contain plastic fibres and many end up in the ocean, which is dangerous to marine life. Instead, buy recyclable hand sanitizers.
- Avoid plastic bags. Rucksacks and sports bags offer more space and convenience than plastic bags. Most importantly, they’re eco-friendly.
Pack Eco-Friendly Essentials
The rules here are simple: avoid bringing your entire wardrobe, only pack what you need, and if possible, make sure they’re all eco-friendly. Remember, less luggage means less carbon emissions.
But you can go one step further by making sure that the items you bring are environmentally friendly. Want to know how? Here’s a list of essentials that you can replace with ‘greener’ equivalents:
- Suncream. Around 14,000 tonnes of suncream ends up in coral reef areas each year. The chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate found in sunscreen are poisonous to marine wildlife. Instead, opt for more eco-friendly suncreams that are plant-based, mineral-dense, and contain non-nano particles. Ren skincare is a good brand to look to for tackling these problems.
- Reusable water bottles and coffee mugs. Although we’ve touched on this before, it’s certainly worth repeating - avoid plastic water bottles and purchase a reusable alternative. Similarly, packing a reusable coffee mug will eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste for when you want a hot beverage on the move.
- Travel toiletry kits. Many hotels are aiming to eliminate single-use plastics as well as recycling used soaps. Purchasing a travel toiletry kit helps to encourage this by reducing your amount of unnecessary waste.
- Straws. Britain goes through 8.5 billion plastic straws a year - that’s an astronomical amount of plastic going to waste. Reusable straws will last you years and substantially reduce plastic waste.
- Reusable face masks. Wearing a face mask is likely to be a mandatory requirement in many countries in certain scenarios. Disposable face masks contain plastic and many unfortunately end up in the sea. Instead, buy a reusable one that has multiple layers of cloth, which can also fit securely on your face. You’ll be killing two birds with one stone by protecting yourself and the environment.
With all of the calamity surrounding the pandemic, travel remains somewhat restricted. If you don’t feel safe going overseas or would rather avoid the complexities of adapting to different coronavirus procedures, then it would be a great idea to holiday locally.
And let’s be honest … it’s much easier to achieve an environmentally friendly holiday by staying locally as opposed to going overseas. If you’re serious about sustainable tourism, then why not be a tourist in your own country? Here are some of the benefits of staying locally:
- Reduces your carbon footprint. 75% of the world’s tourism-related greenhouse gas emissions come from flying. A staycation makes train or coach journeys a more viable alternative to flying.
- Reduces waste and increases recycling. Some people may find it harder to grasp the recycling and waste habits in other cultures and in some areas there may not be any recycling initiatives. Staying locally makes it much easier to maintain eco-friendly habits whilst being on holiday.
- Supports the local economy. Staycations help the local economy in a number of ways. They support local businesses and provides jobs for people, all of which will have a positive impact on the country you’re living in.
- There’s less risk regarding Covid-19 issues. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and with a potential second wave arriving soon, it would be a lot safer to opt for a domestic holiday. Having to push through your holiday during a second wave would cause a range of problems.
Before we finish, let’s finish on one last important note - a lot of sustainable travel comes down to judgement. Quite often you’ll have to weigh up what’s best for the environment with what’s practical and financially viable.
But always remember that your safety comes first! Eco-friendly travel is important but so is your health. The pandemic has changed the dynamic of travelling for the foreseeable future, so it’s important that you plan ahead to get the most out of your holiday.
For more updates on travelling and sustainable tourism, then stay tuned to our Travel Notes section.
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