The head of the European Travel Commission may have summed it up best when he said recently that the pandemic spawned a revolution that has unified the travel industry to build back better.
“While it was not human-made, it was imposed upon everyone equally, rich and poor, north and south,” Eduardo Santander said. “And as hard as this has been, it will help us create a much more resilient, much more sustainable, much more forward-looking industry in the future.”
Indeed, more than a year into the pandemic, it appears the Covid-19 shutdown of most international travel has advanced a number of sustainability initiatives.
The most obvious (and most written-about) impact has been that it pressed “pause” on popular destinations like Italy, Hawaii and Amsterdam, enabling them to develop more effective and community-focused ways to manage overtourism.
But from food waste to carbon reduction, it has also served — both by design and chance — to speed up progress on sustainability-related issues across the entire global tourism ecosystem.
Coalition on travel sustainability grows to 500 strong
Among the most notable beneficial side effects of travel’s partial pause may be the momentum it has created to bring together a broad cross-section of companies and groups to advance conversations, and initiatives, around sustainability.
While the movement is far from new, the formation last July of the Future of Tourism Coalition underscores the eagerness among industry players across the industry to work more closely together on rebuilding tourism better.
What started with just 22 signatories is now an amalgam of more than 500 companies, destinations, academics and policymakers from around the globe.
“We are really committed to a multisector approach,” said Paula Vlamings, chief impact officer of Tourism Cares, one of the six nonprofits leading the coalition and the only one whose membership is primarily from the private sector. “That’s what the travel industry didn’t have before.”
It has also raised awareness about the scale of the travel and tourism industry, which is one of the world’s biggest employers and drivers of global GDP, said Shannon Guihan, who oversees sustainability efforts for the Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation, which was among the original signers.
“I hazard to say that’s a benefit, [even though] I would have much preferred the pandemic had not happened,” she said. “However, it has really awakened destinations to the role that tourism plays. Until the world stopped and governments were able to understand what an economic vehicle the sector is, I don’t think there was a really strong appreciation for that.”
Bringing together so many different companies and groups under one umbrella has also given the industry “a seat at the table in interesting conversations,” said Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, also one of the coalition founders.
“In the past month, we presented — twice — at the European Union Parliament, for example,” he said, noting that one of their signatories is a member of the parliament and sits on the body’s tourism committee.
“That’s important because we are trying to get tourism on the policy agenda.”
— Jeri Clausing
Accelerated efforts to make aviation greener
While Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, said the Future of Tourism Coalition would like to see more involvement from airlines, the pandemic has nonetheless advanced green commitments by airlines, aircraft manufacturers and governments acting on their own.
France, in particular, has been a leader. The French government committed $1.7 billion toward research of hydrogen-powered aircraft in its $17 billion Covid-19 rescue package for the French aerospace industry last year, part of a goal to develop a carbon neutral Airbus A320 replacement by 2035.
The commitment quickly jogged Airbus’ hydrogen efforts. In September, the aircraft manufacturer revealed its first design concepts for zero-emission hydrogen commercial aircraft, with entry into service targeted for 2035.
In December, the French government also turned its attention to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which emits 80% fewer greenhouse gases than traditional kerosene-based jet fuel, but at present it is estimated by the European Commission to account for just .05% of all jet fuel consumed within the EU. Beginning next year, France will require that 1% of fuel used by airlines be SAF, with that figure increasing to 5% by 2030.
And the French rule is expected to soon be superseded by an EU requirement that could reach even further. A draft proposal to set a 5% target for SAF use by 2030 was pulled in December because it was deemed to be insufficiently ambitious, Reuters reported.
“I am convinced, and not only with aviation, that many of these commitments wouldn’t have happened without the need to provide bailouts,” said Pedro Piris-Cabezas, director of sustainable international transport for the Environmental Defense Fund.
U.S. airlines have also extended commitments to going green.
In late March, Airlines for America, whose members include the six largest U.S. airlines, committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Specific U.S. carriers are making even more ambitious promises. Just this month, JetBlue pledged to reach net-zero by 2040. And in December, United pledged to be 100% “green” by 2050, but without using carbon offsets, which fit under the definition of net-zero. In order to help it achieve that goal, United announced an investment in carbon capture technology, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“I think that the industry understands that [it] really needs to get engaged,” Piris-Cabezas said.
— Robert Silk
Cruise companies reemerging with leaner, cleaner fleets
The pandemic is also accelerating the move to more environmentally friendly cruise ships.
For instance, Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company, has over the past year sold 19 of its oldest, least efficient ships. Those sold include four from Holland American Line, including the 1993-launched Maasdam; Costa Cruises’ NeoRomantica, which also entered service in 1993; and four of Carnival Cruise Line’s Fantasy-class ships that launched starting in 1990.
Arnold Donald, Carnival Corp. CEO, has explained that by ridding itself of some of its oldest and smallest tonnage and eventually replacing it with larger ships with the latest energy-saving technology, “We will emerge with a more efficient fleet.”
For example, the company said, Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship, the Mardi Gras, consumes about 33% less fuel and emits about half as much carbon per person as one of its Fantasy-class ships.
Part of that is simply due to ships being larger: with scale, ships generally gain efficiency. But the main drivers are various energy-efficient technologies that have been implemented on cruise ships over time, including more efficient hulls and engines, LED lighting and advanced HVAC systems that are more efficient and use smart automation.
From 2008 through 2019, Carnival Corp. reduced by 32% its cumulative fuel consumption by focusing on more efficient itineraries, implementing energy-efficient upgrades and implementing energy use awareness and training. While it can’t yet be measured, that rate of reduction is expected to accelerate starting this year as it replaces older ships with some of the most advanced vessels at sea, including 10 that are powered by low-carbon liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Carnival Corp.’s AidaNova in 2018 became the first cruise ship to sail on LNG, followed by the Costa Smeralda, P&O Cruises’ Iona and the Mardi Gras, which will be the first LNG-fueled ship in the North American market when it enters service this year. LNG eliminates the emission of soot particles and sulfur oxides and emits 25% less greenhouse gases.
Walter Nadolny, professor of marine transportation at the State University of New York Maritime College, said that when taking into account all of the advanced features on the Mardi Gras, it is likely twice as efficient as a Fantasy-class ship.
“The ship will have state-of-the-art environmental features that the passengers will not see,” he said. “The engines will be more efficient, in some cases using LNG as a fuel. The stack emissions will likely be cut significantly. It will have a much more modern sewage treatment plant, resulting in less harmful discharges. It will have a better system for treating and holding waste oil. This is important due to increased regulations regarding discharges in Alaskan waters, whereby ships need to hold treated sewage and bilge water for several days prior to discharge.
“All of these changes will allow more flexibility in assigning vessels to more profitable routes as the seasons change. For example, shifting a vessel from a spring Mediterranean schedule to a summer Alaska.”
— Johanna Jainchill
Less food waste without self-serve dining options
Another sustainability bonus from the pandemic is expected to be a reduction in food costs and food waste as new health and safety protocols have done away with — at least in the near term — the self-serve buffets that are so common across cruise ships and many hotels, particularly all-inclusive resorts.
Companies and groups focused on helping hospitality companies tackle food waste say it will be hard to estimate impacts until travel resumes more broadly. Still, companies say they expect to see cost savings and waste reduction both from fewer buffet options and the fact that when being served rather than helping oneself, travelers are less likely to heap their plates full.
At Holland America Line, vice president of food and beverage Frits van der Werff said the company was “already a bit ahead of the curve” by moving 80% of its food away from self-serve before the pandemic.
“We did that for a number of reasons,” he said. “We did that from a hygienic standpoint. We did that from a portion-control standpoint. We did that from an appearance standpoint. Because often in self-service buffets, it looks good in the first 10 minutes, then it looks like a battlefield.”
The move has reduced food waste anywhere from 25% to 40%, van der Werff said, a number that he expects will increase when sailings resume with no self-service options.
The focus on reducing food waste is also gaining greater emphasis on smaller ships that never had traditional buffets but offered self-service options in addition to full service.
At AmaWaterways, for example, co-founder and president Rudi Schreiner said revamping food service, reducing food waste and offering more dining venues has become a major focus over the past year and a change he expects will take hold for the long term.
“It will be focusing more on getting away from the buffet but still providing fast service with a big variety,” he said. “It might come to the point where we may actually have to increase service staff and take out some passenger cabins. But the idea is to come up with a completely different way of doing it.”
— Jeri Clausing
Hotel health measures come at a cost
While the pandemic has heightened awareness and advancement of some sustainability initiatives, it has dealt a setback for others.
“As a hotelier, unfortunately, we are seeing more waste now, due to health measures most hotels and other hospitality companies must implement,” said David Leventhal, owner of the Playa Viva ecoresort in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. “Seems like protective masks are the new plastic bag — I see more discarded masks on the ground these days than I do plastic bags.”
The pandemic has also disrupted long-standing energy-saving efforts by hotels and resorts.
“Back in the ’70s, HVACs were changed to be able to recycle old air in order to use less energy,” said J.J. Steeley, chief marketing officer for Carbon Lighthouse, a California-based company that specializes in helping building owners eliminate both the carbon emissions and high costs associated with wasted energy. “But that’s become a problem today, because with Covid, you have to mix a huge amount of outdoor air into the system for things to be safe.”
Indeed, with evidence that most Covid-19 infections are spread through the airborne transmission of aerosolized respiratory droplets, many hotels have updated their systems to increase the outdoor-air-exchange rate and add HEPA filters or ultraviolet technologies.
That, Steeley said, has had the unintended effect of increasing energy usage, adding to operational costs.
“As air’s being exchanged, you’re running really heavy equipment at a much higher rate,” Steeley said.
On the bright side, Steeley said, Carbon Lighthouse is seeing growing demand for its “energy savings-as-a-service” business model, especially within the hospitality sector, which has been forced to become ever more cost-conscious amid the pandemic.
—Jeri Clausing and Christina Jelski