Is Travel Sustainable in a Post-Pandemic World?
June 28, 2022
This article was originally published on O’Dwyer’s on June 28, 2022.
Travelers are making more conscious decisions about their travel experiences in a post-pandemic world, which includes their preferred mode of transport and where they stay. Writers are mulling over the trends they’re seeing, wondering whether everything will return to normal or whether they’re witnessing a permanent and accelerating change in behavior. Companies are looking deeply into how and whether they need to pivot their business models, to accelerate their path toward sustainability. Destinations are both frightened by the volumes of tourists now returning and grateful to be once again receiving the dollars that drive economic growth and jobs.
The world isn’t exiting the pandemic lockdown in a uniform manner. Political leaders are making different choices. China is still closed, taking a zero-tolerance policy toward the virus. Before the pandemic, tourism and travel accounted for more than 10 percent of global gross domestic product, and no country sent more travelers abroad than China. In 2019, the Chinese took 154 million foreign trips, compared with Americans, who took just under 100 million trips. COVID completely disrupted the travel boom and in 2021, a mere 8.5 million outbound travelers left China, down more than 95 percent from the pre-pandemic position. The $255 billion those Chinese tourists spent abroad in 2019 has largely disappeared, leaving Asian tourism-dependent economies with a large economic hole. Those visitors and their money transformed entire destinations. In 2021, Thailand, which relied on tourism for around 20 percent of its GDP before COVID, experienced its largest economic contraction since the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
What are we to make of the impact of COVID on the sustainability of travel and tourism?
Sustainable travel means so much more than “greenwashing” by hanging your towels up in the hotel room, as consumers become more conscious about waste and recycling. Travelers are becoming more sensitive to local communities, to the environment and to the impact that their footprint is having on the planet. More people are seeking authentic cultural experiences to enrich their vacations but crucially also give back to local communities, whilst actively avoiding overcrowded destinations.
The Travel Foundation describes sustainable tourism: “By its very nature, tourism values the things that are most precious in our world: stunning landscapes, wildlife, history, culture, and people. Tourism can be a catalyst for growth in the local economy, providing good quality jobs, opportunities for enterprise and funds for conservation. But if it’s not managed well, tourism can have negative impacts on local communities and environments, creating long-term problems for residents, which can ultimately lead to the decline of tourism in the destination.”
Whatever the broad definition, sustainable travel means traveling in a way that minimizes our negative impact on the planet and does not harm the destination’s cultural and natural environments for the long-term. This definition is often tied with responsible travel, green travel and eco-tourism, where tourists are more conscious of how their decisions affect the local people in destinations. As the climate crisis deepens and global awareness increases, people are becoming more focused on traveling more thoughtfully and creatively.
What are we to make of the changing consumer mindset toward travel habits?
The pandemic has driven some key changes in behavior, with more consumers wanting to holiday closer to home, to avoid crowded spaces and airport lines, to find a blend of work and leisure by staying away from offices, to spend more quality time with family and friends, to experience nature and support local businesses and, importantly, to reflect on what’s truly important in life.
The area that epitomizes all this change of focus and mindset is the trend toward “slow travel.”
Travel blogger Charlie Marchant defines slow travel as “a conscious decision to travel at your own pace. When you travel slow, you decide not to rush around. Slow travel focuses on a deeper travel experience of understanding of local culture and lifestyle. Slow travel is inextricably linked to sustainable travel as it focuses on meeting and supporting local people. Because of this, slow travel is often considered low impact and opposite to mass tourism.”
Despite the return to the skies witnessed during the last few months, there are many people for whom aviation is truly an unsustainable form of travel and who actively choose rail or car travel as short trip alternatives. Just as Uber and Airbnb were born in the financial crisis years, other travel businesses have launched in the middle of the COVID crisis to take advantage of this new trend.
“I set Byway up the week we went into lockdown in March, so I got a lot of skeptical looks,” said Founder and CEO Cat Jones, who left her job with an investment company to do so. “But I think this is the perfect time. People are looking for a different way to travel than they were pre-COVID. Sustainability is really driving people’s decisions now, and travel needs to change.”
Byway will focus on slow travel, often multi-stop journeys featuring family-run, independent accommodation in off-the-beaten-track places.
So, as the world comes out of the grip of the coronavirus lockdown, has the consumer mindset toward travel really changed? For some, it has changed on a permanent basis, creating a new target for the marketers, but for the vast majority the memory is short and life will return to normal.
This broader range of flexible consumers presents an opportunity for destinations to build messaging around a more sustainable kind of tourism “that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry the environment and host communities.” It’s no longer acceptable to hide behind the generic messaging of “Tourism is a Force for Good.”
Travel: Sustainable or unsustainable? That’s still the question in this post-pandemic world.