Sustainable travel – a way of traveling that aims to be as environmentally friendly as possible – has been gaining much more attention and popularity in the past years. After all, most of us travel because we love the planet and because we can’t get enough of its vibrant communities and pristine nature. It’s in our own best interest as travelers to try and protect it. Thus, it comes as no surprise that many travelers are becoming more and more aware of the environmental issues around tourism and showed a lot of interest in learning how to travel in a way that is gentle on the planet.
Why did we suck at sustainable travel pre-COVID?
If you google “How to travel sustainably” you will find hundreds of articles explaining the basics of sustainable travel: Bringing your own water bottle, spending your money on local businesses rather than big international chains, and choosing eco-friendly lodging and dining options. Many of us are well-aware of all the small things we can do.
While this is a wonderful development in the right direction, other areas of travel have remained virtually unchanged by sustainability concerns.
The biggest problem: Flights. Despite anti-flying movements like Flygskam and general knowledge about the negative impact of air travel, passenger numbers have been breaking records every year since 2009. Given that tourism accounts for over 60% of all air travel, it’s clear that leisure travel is the main offender in this case. And whether or not you shop locally during your two-week vacation in Thailand doesn’t make such a big difference anymore, if you take a long-distance flight from London to get there and back.
It’s really ironic: At the same time travelers are realizing that we want to protect the planet we admire so much by being more sustainable travelers, we also hop on more flights than ever before, harming the very same planet we want to protect.
The prompt behind it certainly was the great availability of cheap flights. The best proof: We did not stop taking flights from one day to the other because of our love for the planet or our noble cause of sustainability, but simply because they became unavailable to us.
We didn’t need another reusable water bottle, no room at an eco-resort, and no backpack made from recycled bottles. Instead, it was a global pandemic, that forced us, for the sake of our own and other’s well-being, to stay home and not travel anywhere by plane.
Why is this now more important than ever?
This doesn’t mean to say that our sustainable travel efforts were useless. Especially now in times of the COVID-pandemic and the travel restrictions, they can turn out to be very important tools to keep exploring the world and support the tourism industry in a meaningful way.
Exploring new ways of traveling
The pandemic has cost many of us our yearly vacation(s) abroad, for one reason or the other. But travelers wouldn’t be travelers if we wouldn’t make the best of the situation and become creative.
Most of my friends back home in Berlin are, like me, avid travelers who would usually spend their summer in South America or South East Asia, or wherever else they’d find a cheap flight to get to.
This year, however, their Instagram stories are filled with pictures of them camping together with their friends in a quiet forest only two hours away from their city. Since traveling abroad is off charts for them, they use their vacation days to visit friends and family by train, hike in nearby mountains or spend time at home and tend to their garden (or balcony, for that matter).
It’s not the epic sunsets over the beach, the Instagram-worthy shots of tropical cocktails or the typical funny missed-flights-because-drunk posts that I’m used to seeing in their stories, for sure. But they look happy. Connected. They are in their community. And since they are traveling to domestic destinations, as opposed to flying to another country or continent – they are actually traveling in a way that is very gentle on the planet. They are nailing sustainable travel in a very wholesome way.
The good news here is that the ways of traveling that are still possible in a world of social distancing and travel restrictions – namely domestic travel, outdoor travel, or stay-cations – are at the same time very sustainable ways of spending your vacation days.
The big change here is that many people are trying out alternative ways to travel who would have never done so before. Although this most certainly won’t stop jet-setting from resuming in the post-COVID world, it might still make us experience and see the benefits of sustainable travel and, possibly, incorporating it more into our future travel plans.
Sustainable values make for meaningful travel decisions
In terms of sustainable travel, it’s good to see how people are embracing more slow and mindful ways of traveling once flying is taken out of the equation.
But whether we’re traveling close to home or abroad, the values of sustainable travel are becoming more important than ever in 2020 as well.
Support local businesses
A very important aspect of sustainable travel is keeping things local. That means booking a room in a family-run bed and breakfast over a room in a large chain hotel resort. Getting your beers at the small corner store as opposed to the big box store, even if it costs a little bit more. And having dinner in a small local restaurant that maybe focuses on sourcing their products locally.
This sustainable travel value is more important than ever in 2020. The global COVID- pandemic has hit many industries very hard, but especially the tourism industry. Many small, family-operated businesses, such as restaurants, shops, and guesthouses, that have no big corporation behind them are at risk of going bankrupt if they don’t make their revenue. Even more, a lot of them face problems to make sufficient revenue while holding up hygiene and safety standards.
Thus, it is now more important than ever for those of us who can afford to travel that we are mindful of where we spend our money – and that we choose to spend it locally.
Being responsible travelers – Protecting communities
Sustainable travel is not only about making eco-friendly decisions while you travel but also about being a responsible traveler: For example, by making sure that your way of traveling does not pose harm to the local communities while you are traveling.
While this was an important sustainable travel value to master pre-COVID – for example by being polite, not being noisy at night when staying in a residential area and picking up your own trash behind you – it’s taking the center stage in 2020.
Yielding to safety and social distancing measures of the place you’re in, wearing your mask in public spaces, washing your hands and not engaging in risky behavior while you’re out somewhere (e.g. hosting a big party) are important steps to take if we want ourselves and the communities around us to be safe.
Sustainable travel matters – even if we can’t travel
Our passports may be taking a little rest this year – and so are we. But slowing down is also a chance to reflect our own actions, to change our perspective and learn new things. This is not about making anyone feel ashamed of not nailing sustainable travel 100%, or to make them feel bad about taking international flights once they’re available again.
In fact, traveling will never be fully sustainable and flights will most likely remain an inevitable part of being a traveler – simply because we need them to get from A to B. But in the meantime, exploring sustainable travel options that we may not have considered before can help us see the benefits of this way of traveling more than we maybe did before. It can be a chance for us to grow personally and gain new perspectives on places we thought we already knew very well. Take these new habits and perspectives with us when we use our passport the next time.