Sustainability has been a buzzword for the past few years, but in 2020 it took on a whole new meaning in travel.
Only a short while ago, it meant being less damaging to the planet; now, it doubles as a term to describe simply staying in business.
Post-Covid, the word will be reclaimed for its more usual purpose, but meanwhile, has the pandemic made us more aware of our responsibility to the planet?
Mid-outbreak, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip said lockdown meant “we are all at ground zero” in travel.
He asked: “Why fight to get back to normal when you have such a fantastic opportunity to become a transformative industry as opposed to just selling capacity?”
Cynics will say the answer came only days later, when people were (literally) fighting for a few metres of space on the UK’s beaches, leaving behind 11 tonnes of rubbish on a single stretch of coast on one notable day.
So much for enlightened tourism.
Poon Tip’s vision and the bad British seaside behaviour are poles apart. So can travel’s ambition to be more sustainable survive post-crisis?
Fiona Jeffery, founder of water charity Just a Drop and WTM’s Responsible Tourism programme, also believes the pandemic is an opportunity for the industry to reset.
“My hope is that this pandemic has brought it further into consumer consciousness and that we will all start behaving in a more responsible way, but we also need to be presented with more responsible choices.”
Flying is often the target for environmentalists and the reset is happening, although not totally by design.
Aviation emissions are now back to 1995 levels, according to Shell’s global aviation president Anna Mascolo, and measures such as British Airways removing thirsty Boeing 747s from its fleet ahead of time will slow the return to 2019 quantities.
Critical to how quickly the world’s airline fleets return to the skies will be business travel.
Zoom’s video conferencing had 10 million meeting participants in December 2019, but an astonishing 300 million by April 2020, so virtual meetings will surely supplant a proportion of corporate travel.
Outwardly, the airline industry’s growing self-awareness does not seem to have diminished during the pandemic, at least in Europe.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren pointed out recently that his was “one of the few airlines that have reconfirmed our commitment” to carbon reduction.
Others, like Air France, have been firmly reminded of their duty. Its €7 billion state aid package was tied to CO2 emission reductions of 50% per passenger kilometre by 2030.
An Ipsos Mori poll of the general public carried out in March but published last month found 70% thought reducing emissions a priority, compared with 52% only two years ago.
The poll was produced for NATS, which provides air traffic control. Another surprising finding was that even before Covid, only 19% wanted more airport capacity – a fall of five percentage points in two years.
The Responsible Tourism Partnership’s managing director Dr Harold Goodwin advises WTM on its Responsible Tourism programme.
He also believes change will be consumer-led. “What Covid has done is probably accelerate changes that were beginning to occur.
"For example, think how many more people got their bikes out during lockdown; they’re now more likely to do that on holiday.”
Nevertheless there remains the question of how destinations will respond post-Covid to the issue of overtourism, particularly when there will be such pent-up demand.
“I suspect it’s going to be very different in different places,” Goodwin says. He mentions Magaluf, “where the party tourists stormed back in”.
“Some of that is going to be very difficult to change because unfortunately where you have too many hotels and need to fill them you will have too many tourists, because inevitably hoteliers will push the marketing.”
There is little evidence anyone who normally heads to Magaluf’s party strip will swap it for a yoga retreat, but broadly speaking, consumer attitudes are undoubtedly changing.
Further research, this time from Abta’s Tourism for Good report, found 52% of 2,000 people surveyed in August 2020 believe the travel industry should reopen in a greener way.
The proof is in the statistics: an increased focus on sustainability is another Covid era “new norm”; ignore it at your business’s peril.