After 16 months without flying, I recently boarded a trans-Atlantic flight from my country of residence in Eastern Europe to the United States. We made the trip for a variety of reasons, least of which was to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But even with the necessity of the trip, I was hesitant: Is it justifiable to fly halfway around the world, stomping my carbon footprint on this planet, even for a worthy reason?
Working in the tourism industry, I am highly aware of the positive and negative impacts of my travel-related decisions — from booking flights to supporting locally owned businesses. Yet, even with this knowledge, experience, and, yes, a sense of guilt, making the “best” environmental, social, and cultural choices is hard.
Is there a way to fly that isn’t environmentally harmful, especially if you want to fly premium economy or business class? Why should someone take the infrequent shuttle bus between cities when they can trade in earned credit card points to rent a car? How do you find a local café that serves vegan burritos when you know Chipotle has what you want? Which carbon offsetting schemes can be funded with confidence, especially knowing so many are bogus?
Right now, tourism professionals are pointing at Booking.com’s recent research as evidence that travelers are increasingly conscious consumers. Yes, these are promising statistics, but they must be touted with extreme caution.
Even if mindful travelers are interested in making more responsible decisions, desire is not enough. People must be able to act on their interest. Further, the ability to make the most responsible, least environmentally taxing decisions must be accessible, frictionless, and affordable in comparison to alternatives.
If they aren’t, even people with a vast amount of knowledge, desire, and drive will do what I did in moments of indecision: They’ll upgrade out of economy class because that’s what’s comfortable on a long-haul flight. They’ll rent a car instead of taking public transportation because it’s cheaper and easier. They’ll worry they don’t know enough about carbon offsetting and don’t want to do additional harm, so they’ll stress about whether there’s anything that can be done to alleviate personal guilt. They’ll pull through Chipotle’s drive-thru because there’s no simple way to search each local cafe’s website (especially without local cell service and modified offerings not reflected in online menus due to COVID-19), and they know what they’re getting at Chipotle, even if the food is mediocre at best.
The limitation of promising statistics is crystal clear: The easier, most comfortable, and most familiar options win over awareness, knowledge, and good intentions.
In addition to getting vaccinated and seeing family after nearly two years apart, I spent my recent trip listening and observing. What are people concerned about? What are their plans in the coming months? And, what can the tourism industry learn from people beyond the statistics it leans on and the boundaries of its insulated silo?
I offer the following insight based on my own observations, lived experiences, personal perspective, and place of privilege.
1. We do not live in a “post-pandemic” world.
The story being touted by many travel companies and destinations has been one of jubilant re-openings and a push to get back to “normal.” And, for all intents and purposes, life in America’s Midwest felt very much like the days before the pandemic hit.
I received my vaccination the very first morning I was on U.S. soil, but that meant I was not fully inoculated until I was already on a flight headed home — a country with a vaccination rate that barely hovers above 3%. I wore a mask the entire time I was in the U.S. even though most people around me did not, and I continue to wear a mask in my home country even though I am now fully vaccinated.
Promoting tourism as if the vast majority of the world is not still living in the throes of a devastating pandemic is ignorant at its best and downright deadly at its worst. I understand the desire and need to kickstart tourism again, but vaccine inequity and hesitancy is still very much a real and present challenge in the world. It is essential that the tourism industry recognize and acknowledge this, or the industry risks centering travelers at the expense of local communities where they travel.
2. Conscious consumers may pull back on traveling.
Just as I had a lot of hesitancy about the conditions under which I traveled, other conscious consumers do too. This is especially true for conscious consumers who are also hyper-aware of the coronavirus situation on a greater scale. Instead of traveling more sustainably, conscious consumers are completely rethinking whether they should be traveling at all. Personal ethics are overriding a desire to travel today, and as the climate crisis becomes ever more urgent, travel may take a backseat altogether.
Presumably, these conscious consumers are the “desirable” travelers that tour companies and destinations want to attract. But, with the wider perspective of the climate crisis on the horizon, will the tourism industry’s carbon-heavy reputation and the difficulty of taking action turn them off from traveling altogether?
3. Casual travelers cling to their bucket lists.
If COVID-19 offered one lesson, it was that we never know what tomorrow will bring. In other words, do it now because you don’t know when you’ll have a chance to do it again. Life is short; don’t waste it. Eager to make up for lost time, casual travelers are embodying the “do it now” urgency of last-chance tourism bolstered by the revenge tourism trend.
What this means is that, even as the tourism industry pushes against the bucket list mindset, many people are more committed than ever to ticking theirs off. They are more determined than ever to hop on a plane to make up for lost time. They want to climb Mt. Everest simply because they can, and they don't know if that opportunity will be taken away again. They are eager to island hop around the Caribbean because they’re tired of being at home.
This mindset has the potential to drive unprepared travelers to participate in activities for which they’re ill-equipped, and encourage inappropriate behavior at the expense of locals’ needs and wishes.
4. For the tourism industry to support sustainable development, it must move beyond tourist sites and amenities.
By now, it is clear that tourism can’t exist in a vacuum, but the urgency of breaking out of this silo is more apparent than ever. It must be easy for people to get information that supports local businesses and social impact projects beyond tourism-focused websites, apps, and initiatives.
Most people aren’t actively looking for the “most responsible” option — or they don’t know how or what to look for. That means that people working for destinations must consider the wider community ecosystem to amplify and promote local, sustainable businesses over mainstream, national brands.
5. Sustainability must be the default option within the tourism ecosystem.
According to a survey conducted by National Geographic in 2019, 42% of respondents said they would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel, yet only 15% knew what that meant. How can people be expected to travel in a “sustainable” way if they aren’t even clear about what that looks like?
While individual decisions and actions are important, these statistics highlight why tourism must become sustainable by default.
When someone upgrades their seat on a flight, could an extra fee be added to the cost to fund sustainable aviation fuel development? Governments must invest in reliable and affordable public transportation so that it’s a legitimate option for travelers. Or, can they incentivize drivers to rent e-vehicles instead of fuel-injected ones?
And, while the proliferation of responsible booking platforms and offsetting programs offers a lot of options for people, their benefits need to be obvious, transparent, and verifiable. The many new startups in this area are promising, and the tourism industry at large should support them. But, sustainability must simply be the default option across the board, whether companies are large or small, international or local brands, well known or new.
It needs to be easy for consumers to act in a responsible and mindful way, whether they intend to or not. Lots of choices with unclear impacts isn’t necessarily a good thing. Overwhelming guilt combined with an overwhelming number of choices can lead to inaction.
6. Sustainability must be the default option, period.
Just as tourism can not exist within a silo, sustainability by default must be the mode of operation across all industries and sectors. Tourism touches transportation, food and agriculture, entertainment, and a myriad of other corners of life.
This means that all industries must be open to breaking out of their typical modes of operation and collaborating with each other. Choosing to pull through Chipotle’s drive-thru might not be the best option for supporting a hyper-local business. However, if the company’s business model is tightly aligned with responsible business practices, human rights, and climate action, then making this choice doesn’t have to sit heavily on anyone’s shoulders.
7. Time is not on our side.
Everyone wants to return to “normal.” What “normal” looks like is determined by each person’s perspective shaped by their place in the world at a given moment, and right now there is a wide array of what that means. On the heels of the coronavirus pandemic is the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse. The world as we’ve known it in the past is forever changed, and it will only continue to evolve in a more complicated way.
With ambassadors in all corners of the world, the tourism industry has an opportunity to be models of responsible, sustainable behavior as we candidly address the world’s many complex challenges. But, it must look beyond statistics to “prove” success and do the hard work of turning intention into meaningful action.