Will Covid mark the start of a new kind of tourism?

All hail the generation of the conscious, bamboo straw-toting traveller

This week, aeroplanes began to land at Corfu airport, in Greece. After months of not a single plane in the sky flying above the turquoise waters of the Ionian, where I have been based, spotting a plane now is cause for comment. “Oh, a plane!” we exclaim.

No-one thought global travel could ever come to a standstill in such a dramatic way but once it had, we got used to our plane-less skies.

On the island, residents didn’t migrate to the beaches to prepare for a summer season in concrete blocks of all-inclusive hotels. Instead, they took to nature. They hiked into olive groves. They breathed in the fresh air of the mountains. Even now, anticipating a quiet summer season, they tend to their vegetable plots, preparing for an economically tough winter by growing their own sustenance.

Similarly, those in other parts of the world, the Brits, the Germans, the Americans, the visitors Greece might usually see, have forcefully learned to appreciate what’s on their own turf and just beyond their windows.

Even if we do travel this year, we have to be conscious of where we choose to go, how we travel and even our own behaviour once we get there. In Corfu this week, I have seen more campervans than I have in a lifetime of summers here. The indication is that people are really thinking about how they’re going to explore the world this summer (if at all).

Whether we like it or not, travel is becoming more conscious, catalysing the slow travel movement that was beginning to ferment and brew amongst the environmentally and socially ‘woke’.

Perhaps thanks in no small part to the likes of teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg, Sir David Attenborough and Hollywood celebrities including Jane Fonda and Leonardo DiCaprio drawing attention to an impending climate emergency even before Covid struck, it appears that consumers were already beginning to make increasingly conscious choices when heading out on vacation. These consumers are likely to be the younger ones amongst us.

A study in Nature has found that tourism activity as a whole has been found to make up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Finally catching on to the consequences of catching the ‘travel bug’, 85% of Millennial and Gen Z travellers want to make a far-flung trip really worth the carbon footprint. They’re more willing to spend time on activities that offset the environmental impact of their stay in their chosen holiday destination, according to a recent survey by holiday booking platform, Booking.com.

“It’s often the children of the families choosing our vacations who are driving the environmental agenda, and their parents’ purchasing decision,” says Dave Waddell at Journeys By Design and Wild Philanthropy, specialists in responsible frontier and classic African safaris.

It isn’t just the environment that young travellers are becoming increasingly aware of when they’re on the road. Booking.com also found that 49% of these feel that social issues at their destination of choice are of real importance, with 58% choosing not to even go to a destination if they feel it negatively impacts the people who live there. Group travel company Intrepid Travel’s findings conducted by One Poll also found that 18–29 year olds consider social responsibility just as important as affordability when booking a trip.

Once demand changes, so does supply. Tour companies are transforming the ways in which they deliver trips to consumers. Focusing on the social, economic and environmental impact of tourism in Africa, Journeys By Design and Wild philanthropy work to preserve some of the world’s last great wildernesses, in the face of exponential growth, the effects of climate change and the pressure of fast-growing nation state economies.

“Africa is the second fastest growing tourist market,” says Waddell, “where the long-term negative impact — environmentally, socially, and economically — of tourism on destinations and their local communities far outweighs any short-term benefits.”

In a bid to tackle the issue, this tour operator offers no more than 300 trips per year, with low-volume, ‘positive-impact’ travel being a priority. In order to achieve this, they work closely with on-the-ground destination management companies to ensure that they benefit the local communities for whom the destinations are home. In this way, travel serves as both catalyst and support for wider sustainable development schemes. This in turn, wins over local communities and encourages more responsible tourism practices.

“Without the support of the local community, any sustainable development of a given wilderness will fail,” says Waddell. That support is guaranteed by the demonstration through commerce that the animals and their wild habitat hold more value than other forms of land use.

When the local community understand the economic value that preservation holds, they are more inclined to conserve the wilderness and contribute to positive tourism initiatives. “The argument for the conservation of the wilderness is as much an economic one as it is anything else, and one in which sustainable travel has an important part to play,” underlines Waddell.

This has been made painfully clear to me this year in Corfu, a Greek island known for its lush green, mountainous landscape. Previously untouched and pristine spots on the island have been transformed into ugly hotel developments. As I type this, the final biodiverse gem on the island, untouched by “developers” is being defended by climate and environmental activists as plans to build a “holiday village” complete with marina on the 500 acres of forest and white pebble beach of Erimitis are pursued by the Greek government, desperate for quick cash to repay its debts.

What use is a concrete block of all-inclusive apartments if the 2000 guests that usually fill them does not come? Surely preserving nature is more valuable both to those living on the island and to those wanting to visit?

These pristine spots have become so rare, it’s logical that travellers will seek them out — especially now we’re all so aware of the distance needing to be maintained between human bodies. Who really wants to stay in an all-inclusive hotel, anyway? It just isn’t cool anymore.

Activist travel company Responsible Travel also nod to the importance of conservation and preservation, with tours that aim to counter the loss of biodiversity. “More and more responsible tourism businesses are beginning to use incomes to protect land and habitats for some of the world’s most endangered species, realising that the future of tourism depends on it,” says Krissy Roe, head of Values at Responsible Travel. The company offers diving holidays designed to tackle over fishing, dynamite fishing, shark finning and coral destruction and luxury safaris that have contributed to preserving 50,000 acres of land for biodiversity.

‘Re-wilding’ initiatives are also being worked into tourist activity, offering travellers a chance to get out into the wild to discover wild lynx in Spain or track wolves in Sweden, whilst tour guides measure important data on each outing that contributes to restoring landscapes and reintroducing wild animals back into nature again.

Higher up in the chain, forward-thinking governments are beginning to increase tourist taxes in a bid to tackle over tourism. Amsterdam, which already implements a seven percent tax, recently implemented a three euro charge per night to tourists staying in the city. In the UK, the Scottish highlands plan to introduce a tourist tax on campers while in New Zealand, anyone not a resident is required to pay a $35(NZD) entry fee to the nation. Considerably higher is the tax on tourists to Bhutan, who pay $200 per day between December and February then $250 per day for the other months in the year. The money is invested in preserving the Bhutanese environment.

“We expect to see more and more destinations bringing in taxes as part of their arsenal for fighting back against overtourism,” predicts Roe, also highlighting a trend for off-season travel. “Both destinations and tourists will look for ways to experience places without the prohibitive crowding associated with peak season,” says Roe, indicating that tour companies are increasingly planning trips ‘out of season’. One example might be an olive harvest holiday in Greece, run by Responsible Travel between the months of October and December.

Perhaps less obvious but now a mounting concern post-Covid is the impact of our food choices when travelling. Roe at Responsible Travel underlines a need for tourists to choose wisely at meal times. “It’s better to buy locally produced food and drink wherever possible to reduce CO2 impact from transporting your food,” she says. Responsible Travel has predicted that in the year ahead, customers will demand — and more hotels will begin to offer — a lower meat, lower food mile, lower waste, increasingly ethical and fair trade menu.

As tourists begin to trickle into Corfu, I feel less of a pull than I usually would to escape to a quieter, lesser-known part of Greece. Instead, I am exploring new hiking paths. I’m moving around by bike. I am choosing not to fly beyond the already beautiful spot I’ve been bound to since lockdowns were imposed. I am appreciating blue skies without the tell-tale white stripes of a plane.

The hope once we can all travel again, is that everyone else will, too.

Freelance journalist writing about travel, the environment, food and life for The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times and The Telegraph.

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