The reopening of borders represents a relief for the tourism industry, highly affected by the pandemic. However, environmentalists do not share the same joy, as it also means a comeback to old polluting habits. How can we travel while maintaining a low carbon footprint?
“Good evening passengers. This is your captain speaking. I would like to welcome everyone on board. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet at an airspeed of 400 miles per hour.”
Every traveller has been dreaming to hear those words again as they buckle their seatbelt and await the usual safety measures demonstration. After more than a year and a half of restrictions, tourism is experiencing a boom since borders started reopening. While this lift on constraints will undoubtedly help the industry recover from the important losses incurred, we should take the opportunity to learn some lessons from the pandemic. In 2020, the outbreak forced a decrease of 62.3% in air traffic, contributing to the biggest fall in greenhouse gas emissions since World War II.
Over the past years, governments have adopted different environmental policies, yet they failed to obtain results at least close to those. This observation tells us that we need clear and drastic developments to make the green transition once and for all. It is a wake-up call reminding us it is not too late to act for a significant change. As the travel industry is responsible for 8% of the world’s GHG emissions, it is a sector not to be neglected, especially since there are easy alternatives to decrease our collective environmental footprint. Travelling is in vogue, and with globalization it is a safe bet to say departures will only increase from now on. Therefore, it is unrealistic to rely on a further slow-down in the tourism industry.
We have seen the rise in popularity of concepts such as slow and responsible travel which aim to limit the impact travelling has on the environment and communities. Transportation accounts for most of tourism’s gas emissions and it should be the first issue to tackle when booking a trip. It is no surprise that airplanes are the most polluting means of transport and whenever possible, it is preferable to hop on trains or buses instead. When overland journey is unconceivable, there is still the option to offset the carbon emissions for the flight through an extra fee paid to airline companies. It is important to understand that this action does not make your flight less polluting, so it is often seen as a greenwashing tool. The money goes to environmental projects, usually for reforestation or the development of renewable technologies, but there is still a lack of traceability.
Hence, when an overland journey is not possible, the best way to lower the ecological impact is to take public transportation once at the destination. Using buses, tramways or even walking are easy options to live like a local and conserve your footprint on the low. Moreover, they are usually the least expensive ways to get around.
Beyond environmental concerns, responsible travel also approaches social issues. The United Nations define the concept as: “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” In short terms, we must leave no trace. When going abroad, we must replace our classic Big Mac for local specialties. Besides being the best way to discover the culture and experience the country, it benefits the local economy.
The same idea applies to tours where we must look out for local guides and to souvenirs shops where we should ask for locally made art to bring back home. Choosing accommodation is also an important decision as there is an increasing number of eco-friendly lodges and hotels which follow environmental best practices that should be prioritized to big hotel chains where money will shift to another country. Keeping money locally is a sign of awareness of our impact on communities and it assures us that our tourism money is giving a positive influence.
Another aspect we should be careful about is Instagram tourism. The place of social media in our life is undeniable and is here to stay on the long run. Nonetheless, there are responsible ways to make the most out of the media, starting with avoiding geotagging places. Mass tourism is devastating for the environment and Instagram’s geotagging option contributes directly to the detriment of recluse locations. A study revealed that 40% of millenials travellers value the “Instagrammability” of a site to choose their holiday destination.
Finding hidden gems where you are not bothered by hordes of tourists and can have the views to yourself is one of the most enjoyable moments while being abroad. Unfortunately, there are fewer untouched natural sites or not overcrowded attractions as time goes by, and Instagram is a huge cause of this phenomenon. If one goes to Rome and posts a picture in front of the Colosseum, geotagging might not have a noxious impact on the city, since the ruins are already well-known by the public. On the other hand, a small, isolated beach can greatly suffer from the geotagging effect as everyone who has never thought of this destination adds it to their bucket list as soon as they see a picture. An example of its impact can be found at Boracay island, Philippines where the government had to close the area for restoration purposes following waste management issues and beach degradation due to over-tourism. The white sandy beaches that were posted on Instagram brought massive tourism to the small island, causing overdevelopment of resorts, hotels, and restaurants and disrupted the inhabitants’ lifestyle.
Hence, borders reopening could be a celebration for both environmentalists and travellers if the latter would change their habits for good. Responsible tourism allows us to explore new countries without compromising the future of communities and the environment, making it an easy alternative to satisfy both our needs and the ones of the next generations. The pandemic has reduced temporarily our carbon footprint, but what if we would make it permanent? What if the only footprints we leave behind were those in the sand of some beaches on some island paradise?