While the Covid-19 pandemic has put the world in lockdown and slowed down travel, the environmental side effects have been undeniably beneficial. Air pollution in cities dropped dramatically, for example, as fish could again be seen in the canals of Venice. And, with tourism accounting for at least 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, it is clear that some forms of transport are incompatible with the sustainable development agenda. But borders are reopening and international travel resumes, so what to do?
Capitalize on increased consumer awareness
Even before Covid stopped long-haul travel, consumer interest in sustainability was growing. TUI Group reported an 84% increase in the number of its customers choosing “greener and fairer” vacation packages between 2015 and 2020, for example.
Observing this trend, Cat Jones founded the flightless travel company Byway in March 2020. “Even before the pandemic, there had been an increase in consumer awareness and in the number of businesses built on sustainability,” says- it. “With the first lockdown coming, I knew if there was ever a time to give people a travel experience based on not stealing, this was it.”
Japan is one of the many markets where the green travel industry has yet to make much headway, but young consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability issues, reports Kenji Itakura, deputy sales manager of the Tokyu Group. Hotels. With the aim of attracting millennial travelers in particular, his company implements sustainable development practices throughout its real estate portfolio and adopts new technologies.
The Kawasaki King Skyfront Tokyu Rei Hotel is for example the first “hydrogen hotel” in the world, generating all its energy from plastic and food waste. Itakura notes that it was developed as part of a project launched by the Ministry of the Environment in 2015 “to fight pollution and efficiently use hydrogen energy”.
This type of public sector support is vital for the pursuit of innovation in travel. As Byway builds the complex dynamic packaging technology that will underpin his product, he was supported by an Innovate UK grant of £ 100,000, which Jones describes as “exceptionally useful”.
Alexandra Pastollnigg is the founder of Fair Voyage, an online travel agency specializing in socially and environmentally responsible travel to low-income countries. She believes Covid has offered the industry “a unique opportunity to do things differently,” but governments must first lead the way with sustainability plans and investments.
Travel was already a low-margin, high-competition industry before the arrival of Covid-19. The pandemic has created additional pressure, with consumers expecting low prices and free cancellations to tempt them to return,
“Local travel agencies, tour operators and travel companies haven’t had customers for a long time and are struggling to survive,” says Pastollnigg. “The harsh economic reality is that few companies can afford to pay a sustainability premium.”
Hence the need for government incentives. In the United Arab Emirates, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority provides an example. The authority, established by the government of Ras Al Khaimah in 2011, has used the hiatus in international travel to reinforce the emirate’s focus on sustainability.
Presenting itself as “the emirate of nature”, Ras Al Khaimah has decided to target socially and environmentally conscious travelers and is investing in developments aligned with this objective. The May 2021 announcement of £ 96million in funding for the sector shows that the emirate is genuinely “serious about investing in sustainable tourism,” according to the authority’s CEO Raki Phillips.
Technological innovation in the luxury travel market
On the luxury side, there is more financial freedom to innovate. For example, New York-based firm Yuji Yamazaki Architecture designed Kudadoo, a fully solar-powered private island in the Maldives, in 2018.
“It was a big design statement and a big investment at the time,” says the firm’s lead architect Yuji Yamazaki. “But, as the price of solar panels drops, I hope solar becomes a more viable option for many small projects, especially in equatorial countries.”
Although Kudadoo remains largely “symbolic” for now, according to Yamazaki, its renewable energy production system could be adopted more widely in the Maldives in the longer term. The low-lying archipelago is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and its tourism industry is far from sustainable. In 2019, the sector accounted for 40% of the country’s total CO emissions2 emissions, more than three quarters of which are due to electricity production.
The negative impacts of Covid on sustainability
According to the World Bank, tourism directly accounts for around 25% of the Maldives ‘economy, which contracted by around 28% in 2020. In many territories that rely heavily on holidaymakers’ incomes, Covid has not offered a golden opportunity for ecosystems to recover. On the contrary, local people have suffered, while conservation programs based on tourism have failed.
Paul Gardiner is CEO of Mantis Collection, a company that owns “eco-lodges” and hotels on all continents. Although the company is investing in exciting projects at its eco-lodge innovation center in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, it reports that the focus has been on damage limitation.
In 2018, Mantis and French hotel giant Accor entered into a partnership to create a non-profit company called Community Conservation Fund Africa (CCFA) with the aim of tackling social and ecological issues on the continent. Throughout the Covid pandemic, the CCFA distributed thousands of food packages to communities affected by the sharp drop in tourism income. The goal, Gardiner says, has been to “help them get through this terrible time and also prevent them from having to poach wildlife to support themselves.”
At the same time, Mantis continued to invest in innovative business models and initiatives, including the ‘Adopt a Beehive’ campaign, in which ‘CCFA donates beehives to local communities, trains people in beekeeping, and then purchases the honey to be used in the properties of Mantis’.
The complex path to industry-wide change
“I think a lot of people expect a company to produce some kind of technological miracle solution that will allow us to perform 20 long-haul flights a year without environmental impact. It won’t happen in our lifetime, ”predicts Simon Willmore, Chairman of the British Guild of Travel Writers and Digital Manager at Bradt Travel Guides.
Instead, there will be more “intangible” innovations, including digital nomadic visas. Jurisdictions ranging from Croatia to Bermuda have established them to “allow people to visit new places, but with a ‘travel less, stay longer’ mantra,” he says.
It is clear that the path to sustainability in the travel industry is not straightforward, but innovators are helping to chart a course. And they respond to a clear public interest in sustainable tourism. But the real question is: will travel-hungry consumers be ready, once Covid restrictions are finally lifted, to put their money where their mouth is?