A New Era of Sustainable Global Travel Takes Off

With borders reopening and restrictions easing globally, international travel is making a comeback. But it’s not the same old story – perhaps that’s for the best.

Long lines at airports. Cancelled flights. Rowdy passengers. The return to travel has been far from smooth so far. And the industry has been playing catch up in more ways than one. The pandemic and accelerating fallout from climate change have brought our relationship with the environment into sharp focus – and the lion’s share of travellers want to see the industry evolve and transform.

Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report found that 83% of global travellers think sustainable travel is “vital”, and 61% said the pandemic has made them aspire to travel more sustainably in the future. Furthermore, McKinsey’s 2021 survey of 5,500 people in 13 countries found that travellers are most concerned about aviation emissions, and almost 40% are willing to pay at least 2% more for carbon-neutral tickets.

With borders reopening and global travel back on the books, individuals, companies, and countries alike have set out to reform the way we travel and help everyone make better choices for the future of our planet.

From national initiatives to new products and services, here are some of the most interesting ways tourism stakeholders have taken meaningful steps to encourage and facilitate more sustainable travel.

Greener choices

Travellers today don’t have to work quite as hard to make sustainable choices anymore. Google Flights, for example, has added carbon emissions estimates to its searches, and Skyscanner’s “Greener Choice” filter allows users to find flights with lower-than-average carbon emissions.

Major booking engines have also heightened transparency around sustainability. Last year, Booking.com introduced a Travel Sustainable badge and a filter highlighting eco-friendly accommodation.

Now you can even select travel destinations in advance based on their environmental performance, thanks to a project by Yale and Columbia Universities. The Ivy League schools have partnered to produce the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a data-driven ranking of nations based on their “climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality.”

The UAE turns over a new leaf

The Arabian Peninsula is usually associated with fossil fuels, but some regions have sought to offset the environmentally damaging industry by promoting nature preservation and eco-friendly tourism.

Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), the United Arab Emirate’s northernmost emirate, for instance, has billed itself as the “nature-based emirate.” It’s easy to see why: picture a brilliant coastline and mangroves backed by rugged mountains and shimmering dunes. To highlight its many natural wonders, RAK has adopted a “balanced tourism” approach that seeks to put sustainability at the core of new attractions, initiatives and investments. The emirate has also signed a three year partnership to host the Global Citizen Forum’s acclaimed Annual Summit, which gathers a global community of world leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists to unlock the power of global citizenship.

The RAK Tourism Development Authority emirate has invested US$134 million in 20 sustainable tourism projects that seek to enhance rather than just maintain natural sites, such as Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest peak. In addition, the tourism department works with EarthCheck to implement sustainable practices in the tourism industry and adopts a measured approach to avoid over-tourism.

“The far-reaching effects of the pandemic brought into razor focus the need more so than ever to accelerate our environmental tourism agenda,” said Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. “However, instead of focusing only on one area – the environment – we broadened our approach to address all areas of sustainability ranging from cultural preservation, employee mental well-being to industry-wide protocols and carbon emission goals.”

Costa Rica: The world’s ‘decarbonization lab’?

While many countries have pledged to cut carbon emissions, few have put actual plans into place quite like Costa Rica, which aims to reach net zero-carbon by 2050. A recent analysis by the non-profit RAND Corporation revealed that Costa Rica is on track to meet or exceed most of its goals, thanks to renewable energy, forestry policies and low-carbon transport plans.

Tourism, which accounts for around 5% of Costa Rica’s GDP, significantly influences those decarbonization efforts. In 2020, Costa Rica promoted the Pura Vida Pledge, a campaign that encouraged travellers to offset their carbon emissions by contributing to a fund for ecological initiatives.

At the same time, Costa Rican officials made it easier to identify tourism providers that contribute to sustainable development. The country’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism program (CST) serves as a seal of approval, highlighting everything from rainforest lodges that contribute to jungle conservation to farm-to-table regenerative experiences. As of 2019, more than 400 companies, ranging from hotels and restaurants to tour operators, have received CST certification.

Kenya embraces community-led conservancy

Before the pandemic, Africa’s tourism industry was the second-fastest-growing in the world, behind only Asia-Pacific. That growth, fuelled by foreign arrivals, came to a screeching halt in 2020. But the slowdown enabled some countries to re-envision their tourism models.

Kenya, for example, has embraced community conservancies – tracts of land set aside for wildlife protection and other sustainable purposes – on a larger scale. These have become mainstream, offering new hope for the country’s US$1.5 billion tourism sector, which centers on its exotic wildlife and landscapes.

The model has also improved economic outcomes for marginalized communities, created new opportunities for women-led initiatives and turned ecotourism from a niche into a norm. That means, when you travel to Kenya your tourism dollars are more likely to benefit the people who need them.


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