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Creating a sustainable travel industry, post-Covid

Taking advantage of the pause in long-haul travel to assess the state of the industry, innovators are exploring ways to make tourism in the Covid era more sustainable

Kudadoo, a private island in the Maldives, designed to be totally solar-powered. CREDIT: Kudadoo

As the Covid-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown and put the brakes on travel, the environmental side effects were undeniably beneficial. Air pollution in cities fell dramatically, for instance, while fish could be seen in Venice’s canals again. And, with tourism accounting for at least 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, it is clear that certain forms of transport are incompatible with the sustainability agenda. But borders are reopening and international travel is resuming, so what’s to be done?

Even pre-pandemic, there was a surge in consumer consciousness and brands being built on sustainability.

Capitalising on increased consumer consciousness

Even before Covid halted long-haul travel, consumer interest in sustainability was increasing. TUI Group reported an 84% increase in the number of its clients choosing “greener and fairer” holiday packages between 2015 and 2020, for instance.

Observing this trend, Cat Jones founded no-fly travel company Byway in March 2020. “Even before the pandemic, there was a surge in consumer consciousness and the number of businesses being built on sustainability,” she says. “With the first lockdown coming, I knew that if there was ever a time to give people a travel experience grounded in the fact that they aren’t flying, this was it.”

Covid gives us “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things differently

Japan is one of many markets where the eco-travel sector has yet to make much headway, but younger consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about sustainability issues, reports Kenji Itakura, deputy sales director at the Tokyu Hotels Group. With an eye on attracting millennial travellers in particular, his company is implementing sustainability practices throughout its property portfolio and adopting new technologies.

Destinations leading the way

The Kawasaki King Skyfront Tokyu Rei Hotel is the world’s first ‘hydrogen hotel’, for instance, generating all of its energy from waste plastic and food. Itakura notes that it was developed as part of a project started by the Ministry of the Environment in 2015 “to combat pollution and make effective use of hydrogen energy”.

This kind of public-sector backing is vital for continued innovation in travel. As Byway builds the complex dynamic packaging technology that will underpin its product, it has been supported by a £100,000 Innovate UK grant, which Jones describes as “exceptionally useful”.

Alexandra Pastollnigg is the founder of Fair Voyage, an online travel agency specialising in socially and environmentally responsible trips to lower-income countries. She believes that Covid has offered the industry “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things differently”, but governments must first lead the way with sustainable development plans and investments.

It feels like many people are expecting that a company will produce some sort of technological silver bullet . But that won’t be in our lifetime.

Travel was already a low-margin, high-competition industry before the arrival of Covid-19. The pandemic has created further pressure, with consumers expecting low prices and free cancellations to tempt them back. 

“Local travel agencies, tour operators and travel businesses haven’t had customers for a long time and are struggling to survive,” Pastollnigg says. “The harsh economic reality is that few consumers can afford to pay a sustainability premium.”

Hence the need for government incentives. In the UAE, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority provides a case in point. The authority, established by the government of Ras Al Khaimah in 2011, has used the pause in international travel to strengthen the emirate’s sustainability focus.

Marketing itself as ‘the nature emirate”, Ras Al Khaimah has decided to target socially and environmentally aware travellers and is investing in developments aligned with that goal. The May 2021 announcement of £96m in funding for the sector shows that the emirate is truly “serious about investing in sustainable tourism”, according to the authority’s CEO, Raki Phillips.

Technological innovation in the luxury travel market

At the luxury end of the market, there is more financial freedom to innovate. For instance, New York firm Yuji Yamazaki Architecture designed Kudadoo, a fully solar-powered private island in the Maldives, in 2018.

“This was a big design statement and a big investment at the time,” says the practice’s principal architect, Yuji Yamazaki. “But, as the price of solar panels goes down, I hope that going fully solar will become a more viable option for many smaller projects, particularly in equatorial countries.”

Although Kudadoo remains largely “symbolic” for now, according to Yamazaki, its renewable energy generation system may be adopted more widely in the Maldives over the longer term. The low-lying archipelago is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and its tourism industry is far from sustainable. In 2019, the sector accounted for 40% of the nation’s total CO2 emissions, more than three-quarters of which resulted from electricity generation.

Covid’s negative sustainability impacts

According to the World Bank, tourism directly accounts for about 25% of the Maldives’ economy, which contracted by an estimated 28% in 2020. In many territories that depend this heavily on income from holidaymakers, Covid has not offered a golden opportunity for ecosystems to recover. Rather, local populations have suffered, while tourism-reliant conservation programmes have foundered.

Paul Gardiner is CEO of the Mantis Collection, a company that owns ‘eco-lodges’ and hotels on every continent. Although the firm is investing in exciting projects at its eco-lodge innovation hub in the South African province of Eastern Cape, he reports that the focus has been on damage limitation.

In 2018, Mantis and French hotel giant Accor entered a partnership to establish a not-for-profit enterprise called the Community Conservation Fund Africa (CCFA) in their bid to tackle the continent’s social and ecological problems. Throughout the Covid pandemic, the CCFA has distributed thousands of food parcels to communities affected by the sharp drop in tourism income. The aim, Gardiner says, has been “to help them through this awful period and also to prevent them from having to poach wildlife in order to sustain themselves”.

The harsh economic reality is that few businesses can afford to pay a sustainability premium

Alongside this, Mantis has continued investing in innovative business models and initiatives, including the ‘Adopt a Beehive’ campaign, in which “the CCFA donates hives to local communities, trains people in beekeeping and then purchases the honey to use at Mantis properties”.

The complex path to industry-wide change

“I feel many people are expecting a company to produce some sort of technological silver bullet that will enable us to take 20 long-haul flights a year with no environmental impact. That won’t happen in our lifetimes,” 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 so-called digital nomad 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’s clear that the path towards sustainability in the travel industry is not straightforward, but innovators are helping to chart a course. And they’re responding to a clear public interest in sustainable tourism. But the real question is: will travel-starved consumers be prepared, once the Covid restrictions are finally lifted, to put their money where their mouth is?