The headlines were almost as surprising as the Covid-19 outbreak and the resulting global shutdown.
In Venice, which had become the poster child for overtourism, the canals normally packed with tourist-carrying gondolas were so clear you could see fish. Los Angeles reported its lowest air pollution levels ever. Residents of smog-choked cities in India could suddenly see the Himalayas. And across the world, residents of popular destinations, who had been growing weary of the seasonal hordes of visitors, were suddenly able to wander nearly empty streets.
Indeed, if there is a silver lining from the pandemic, many predict that it will be a reboot of sorts for the world and the travel industry that makes travelers and travel companies more socially aware and focused on sustainability.
“We fundamentally believe that the travel industry can only rebound stronger if it rebuilds more responsibly,” said James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Group.
“The Covid-19 crisis has brought our sector and the global economy to a crashing halt, and we would be remiss not to let it be for something good,” he said. “We shouldn’t be aspiring for things to go back to normal, but rather redefining what normal means, and use this time as a rare chance to think about how we travel and how we can aim to be more ethical and sustainable travelers and global citizens in the future.”
His counterpart at another adventure travel company known for its sustainability focus, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, agreed. He has even used part of the downtime to author a short e-book, “Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still,” about the need for travelers and travel companies “to transform, to realize how we connect as a planet.”
Long a vocal critic of mass-market tourism, Poon Tip asserts that things like mega ocean liners and all-inclusive resorts have made amenities more important than destinations.
Post-pandemic, Poon Tip, Thornton and many others in the industry predict, travel will focus more on the outdoors and less-visited places, which will benefit the sustainable travel movement and offer destinations that had been struggling with overtourism a breather.
“In general I think the mindset of the traveler will change,” Poon Tip said. “We believe [the pandemic] is going to cause a lot of mainstream travelers who might have booked resorts or cruises but now don’t want the crowds … to be more mindful and purposeful, and [they] are going to be more interested in companies that have a positive impact on the ground.
“I think there is going to be an increased interest in people wanting to have a positive impact when they travel — a more engaged traveler. I am quite confident we are seeing that already.”
Others, citing travel companies’ struggle to survive, destinations eager for tourism’s return and consumers’ basic travel dreams, are skeptical of predictions for dramatic, long-term shifts in the travel landscape and traveler habits.
“My take on it is that people travel because they want to see something,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association. “They want to have an experience that they’ve identified as something that they’ve wished for, they want to fulfill. It’ll take a monumental shift for them to say, ‘I was wrong. I didn’t want to see Rome. I wanted to go to Pesche. It’s not the same proposal, any more than people sitting in Europe are going to say, ‘I’m not going to Manhattan, I’m going to Cape May, [N.J.]’ I just don’t buy it.”
Indeed, reports that cruises and Europe remain in high demand for 2021, while Mexico’s all-inclusive capital, Cancun, tops the list of Apple Leisure Group’s international comeback destinations, seem to back that.
Looking beyond environmental protection
Still, with every crisis comes change.
And while the movement to sustainable travel is far from new, the shutdown has once again brought it to the fore of discussion and underscored just how broad in scope sustainable travel really is.
To many, sustainable is synonymous with environmental protection initiatives and movements such as the push in recent years by hotels, resorts and cruise lines to ban plastics and be more energy efficient.
But true sustainability in tourism goes much deeper. It’s also about helping protect communities and cultures in the underdeveloped regions that are increasingly popular with travelers.
Companies like Intepid, G Adventures, Abercrombie & Kent and the Travel Corporation have long-standing foundations that fund the building of wells, schools and hospitals; help locals start their own businesses; and support animal protection and other conservation efforts, to name a few initiatives.
The pandemic has underscored just how deep — and important — those ties can be as the halt to tourism has left many small communities that have grown dependent on visitors with no income to support families.
Given the months of global turmoil from the pandemic, followed by worldwide protests over racial discrimination and the recent police killings of Black Americans, sustainable travel advocates say companies focused on more meaningful, sustainable travel will lead the rebound.
“I would say that part of the misconception is that it is all just about the green aspect of sustainability. There is a green aspect, a conservation aspect,” said Greg Takehara, CEO of Tourism Cares. “But if you look at the 17 United Nations sustainability goals, it goes beyond the green side. And I think in light of what is going on in the world today, people should hone in and focus on sustainability goal No. 10, which is to reduce inequality.
“I don’t like to oversimplify, but it really matters if you’re doing the right thing and using the power of travel and the power of your business to do good.”
Costas Christ, founder of the sustainable tourism services and consulting firm Beyond Green Travel, agrees. “Sustainable tourism and the desire on the part of travelers to have a nice vacation that’s also positive for local people and the places they visit has been steadily growing for the last 30 years,” he said.
“Companies that understand this today are the companies that are going to be in the vanguard of leadership and business success of tourism tomorrow,” he said. “And those companies that don’t understand the importance of sustainability are going to fall by the wayside.
“It’s not a trend. It’s a transformation of travel that has been underway for several decades.”
Keith Sproule, who as executive director Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy oversees the luxury tour operator’s sustainability efforts, said he sees it with guests of all ages as they plan their trips, looking for “a different type of journey.”
Like many of the conversations about priorities in life post-Covid-19, he said he expects those about the “travel experience are going to be more for embracing the local experiences, well-thought-out, well-planned time together.”
“The mad-dash journey, those [trips] that have a lower price point, I just don’t know if that demand is going to return so quickly.”
Industry shifts toward sustainability
Still, traditional travel products and sustainability aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Among those positioning themselves as leaders in sustainable travel is the Travel Corporation, whose companies run a host of guided coach tours, including across some of the popular European destinations that were struggling to contain overtourism before the pandemic.
Likewise, Tauck CEO Dan Mahar said his company was already moving toward many of the expected post-pandemic changes that could lead to more sustainable travel, including smaller groups and using smaller ships for cruise packages, changes he said are intended to make “travel more personal.”
“We are building on the trends,” he said. “Sometimes, in times of crisis you see innovation result. So we are encouraging people to think very creatively. … I think there are going to be a number of new strategies that emerge.”
Hotel companies are also responding. Preferred Hotel Group, for instance, recently purchased Christ’s company, a deal that came about after Preferred secured Christ’s services to help its group of hotels advance sustainability.
Shannon Guihan, the Travel Corporation’s chief sustainability officer and head of its TreadRight Foundation that supports people and businesses in communities where its brands offer guided group trips, said offering sustainably focused travel to communities both far-flung and urban requires a complex balance.
Currently, she said, TreadRight is reviewing all of the Travel Corporation’s programs and destination activities to “ensure that the services, the restaurants, the experiences that we offer genuinely benefit the community. That’s something that we have done for a number of years. That balance is critical, the way in which you operate and who and how you choose to work with.”
Despite the advances and leadership by companies large and small over the years, Christ said the travel industry overall has a long way to go. Many companies, he said, “are stuck in a place that they see sustainability as an option or an add-on to be considered.”
“Sustainable tourism is no longer an experiment,” he said. “The success of what sustainable tourism can deliver to protect the environment and improve the wellbeing of local people has been documented in hundreds of case studies around the world. The question is, how far can we take it? Will the travel industry truly make this a fundamental pillar and core value. That remains a question mark.”
Sustainable travel stalwarts back up words with action
While the Covid-19 pandemic and global shutdown has hammered the travel industry, some leaders in the sustainable travel movement have nonetheless upped their commitment to supporting communities that rely on tourism for survival.
Abercrombie & Kent, for instance, made a decision from the outset to exempt employees of its foundation, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, from furloughs and layoffs so that on-the-ground workers could coordinate relief efforts.
The thinking, said executive director Keith Sproule, was that “if we are going to be going through a tough time, they are going to be going through a really tough time.”
The organization also upped by 60% its funding for the delivery of medical supplies through its partnership with Project Cure and coordinated other relief deliveries, primarily bulk food.
G Adventures, meantime, recently launched three funds to support its guides and other workers as well as community projects in places that have been impacted by the travel shutdown.
Founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip has committed to matching the first $50,000 donated to two of the funds: the CEO Wellbeing Fund, which supports the company’s “chief experience officers,” and the Planeterra Impact Fund, benefiting the company’s Planeterra Foundation.
A third fund, the Porters Support Fund, has been established specifically for Inca Trail porters, cooks and horsemen who have been unable to work due to the pandemic.
And Intrepid said it will soon be launching a series of initiatives and partnerships to support a responsible rebuild of the travel industry.
Intrepid CEO James Thornton said the initiatives will center on key areas the company has identified as critical to rebounding responsibly, such as advocating for net-zero emissions by 2030, ending exploitative wildlife tourism, empowering communities and establishing stronger governance and compliance.
“The goal of these initiatives, which are being developed with other key partners and organizations in tourism and responsible business, will be to provide a low barrier and easy way for other travel companies to adopt more sustainable and ethical practices,” Thornton said. —J.C.