Grindelwald electric railway in Switzerland

Sustainable travel trends

Will the impact of Covid-19 lead to significant changes in the way we choose to travel, asks Anna Melville-James

Our summer holidays seem a long way off right now, though many of us are still dreaming of getting away in the – hopefully – not too distant future. But what will travel actually look like post-pandemic?

Trends towards greener, more mindful, kinder and less impactful travel have the power to transform global tourism whilst building a more sustainable travel industry over the long-term. What might it look like?

Straighten up and fly right

Modern aviation may have helped connect the world but its contribution to global warming has been equally powerful. Aeroplane emissions are expected to make up 25 percent of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050.

No surprise then that flying is the single biggest contributor to an individual’s personal carbon footprint. Even before Covid-19 grounded the aviation industry there was a growing sense that the age of unchecked, consequence-free air travel had peaked. In 2018, the Swedes were the first to give this phenomenon a name: ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shaming’. The concept of flygskam caught on so quickly in Sweden, it’s claimed it caused air traffic to fall by 12% the following year.

The origins of flight shame lie in increasing awareness amongst consumers towards living greener, more responsible and more balanced lives. This initiative certainly hasn’t originated with the airlines: there’s been barely any effort by the aviation industry to explore more sustainable solutions such as renewable fuels. Aviation fuel is heavily subsidised and is the world’s only untaxed fuel. To date, the focus has been on improved efficiencies and carbon offsets, both of which have been essentially wiped out by a growth in the number of flights taken each year. More sustainable electric aircraft are on the way – Boeing has successfully tested its eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft last year and Airbus’s hybrid-electric E-Fan X aircraft is scheduled for flight in 2021 – but zero-emission electric flight is still decades away from mass adoption; and unless there are significant changes in battery density, they’ll only be useful for regional flights.

So how may Covid-19 affect consumer travel? Post-pandemic, the potential for significant price hikes may actually start to encourage us to ditch short-haul flights in favour of other transport methods, including trains.

But it’s not the method of travel that it most significant it is the philosophy of travel that seems most likely to change. It seems reasonable to surmise that, post-pandemic, a new mentality may emerge from the lockdown that, for most people, has enforced a slower, more thoughtful lifestyle. Flying less, taking longer holidays and simply making the journey itself part of the holiday – in the way that our predecessors expected to have to do – could yet contribute to a re-adjustment of our work-life balance and a whole new outlook on and approach to travel.

No wonder train journeys are becoming a romantic ideal again. Emitting far less CO2 than air travel, Europe is particularly well-placed to lead a rail renaissance thanks to its compact size and easy connections. The Swedes have also coined a zeitgeist phrase for swapping flights for rail travel too – ‘tagskryt’, or “train bragging’.

Looking to encourage this trend, rail operators are striving to change the perception of train travel by moving upmarket: with offerings of plush sleeping quarters, and on-board entertainment and in-car dining.

However, it will take more than a nice glass of Pinot Noir while rattling through the countryside to change society’s ingrained habits. Encouraging train travel as a viable flying alternative in the long term requires wider systemic change.

Incentives such as free travel for teenagers or subsidised fares will help to level the playing field pricewise – while businesses rewarding employees with additional holiday allowance to offset the time taken to travel by train can help remove another barrier to change.

Undertourism: The road less travelled

For decades tourism’s basic tenet was that destinations should try to attract as many visitors as possible. Little thought was given to the levels of visitor numbers; beyond which local people’s lives, as well as the tourist experiences themselves, would start to suffer.

However, in recent years unchecked tourism has been shown to be subject to the law of diminishing returns. As Airbnb hollowed-out city areas, cruise ships flooded destinations with day-trippers and price hikes hit families hard during holiday seasons; the search for sustainability began to hit home.

In 2015 Barcelona‘s mayor banned large tourist groups from the city’s Boqueria market. In 2016 Thailand closed the island of Koh Tachai indefinitely due to overcrowding and in 2019 the Dutch Tourist Board announced it would stop promoting The Netherlands as a tourist destination completely. And they’re not alone in looking for ways to disperse the annual 1.4 billion international tourists who all seem to want to visit the world’s most popular tourist attractions at the same time during the high holiday season: Tackling tourist overload has become a huge concern.

Individual travellers though can play a part in solving the problem; “under tourism” is another trend on the rise. By taking holidays in the “off” or “shoulder” seasons travellers can avoid crowds and pay less.

This travel trend has the potential to ease negative impacts on both infrastructure and the environment; creating more certainty for local businesses while easing the normally overwhelming peak season tide on communities and local cultures.

After all, Madrid’s Prado museum is just as impressive in winter as it is in summer, especially without standing in line for hours to get in. Tuscany in October is harvest season, an enticing option for foodies who want its watercolour hills to themselves, and if you can put up with the odd rainy day, the Caribbean is not only cheaper but more relaxed in November than in January.

Responsible tourists can spread the load even further by taking the road less travelled. In Iceland, for example, where tourist numbers have jumped from 250,000 to 1.6m in 10 years, the Golden Circle is one of the most popular tourist trails. In summer you’ll join a caravan of cars queuing for geysers and waterfalls, but even in peak season, there are plenty of alternative destinations with a fraction of visitor numbers. Exchange Gullfoss waterfall for Urioafoss falls near Reykjavik, for example, and you’ll have no trouble taking a picture of the stunning scenery without any strangers in it.

A natural holiday choice

The most positive travel trend is the role tourism is beginning to play in protecting land and habitats for carbon capture and the endangered species that live in them. Bio tourism, which fosters environmental and cultural understanding and the appreciation and conservation of natural areas, is a trend with real potential to change the impact our tourism has on the world.

According to leading bio tourism operator Responsible Travel, “The loss of biodiversity is beginning to bite; we are experiencing the next great extinction. More and more responsible tourism businesses are beginning to use incomes to protect land and habitats for some of the world’s most endangered species, realising that the future of tourism depends on it. Educating local people and the next generations on the importance of biodiversity is also crucial.”

As such, travel initiatives working with the local community or businesses have the power to transform vulnerable ecosystems into valuable assets and ensure their preservation – whether through a holiday working on local coral restoration projects or a tree-planting drive in the Amazon to replace rainforest damaged by logging. Booking a holiday through a reputable operator such as Responsible Travel or Steppes Discovery is the easiest way to avoid “greenwashing” when looking for genuine bio-tourism credentials.

The perception of bio-tourism holidays is also changing as the trend gathers momentum; once seen as a backpacker or ‘worthy’ initiative, bio tourism is increasingly partnering with luxury hotels and resorts keen to create projects that can genuinely benefit their local environment while offering a high-end travel experience.

And many of these initiatives are having a significant impact; boutique hotel Alladale in the Scottish Highlands, for example, has planted 800,00 Scots pine in the past 10 years and is a key partner in rewilding schemes for native species such as eagles, elk and boar as well as a 224-hectare restoration of peatland, a wetland habitat that is one of the world’s most potent carbon sinks.

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