reflections of people inside Malpensa International Airport in Milan, Italy

Will the sustainable travel movement survive coronavirus?

Travel experts say the pandemic won’t stop environmentalists’ call for slower trips and fewer flights.

Travelers approach their gates at Milan’s Malpensa International Airport, Italy, in 2016.

Photograph by Camilla Ferrari

To moderate effect in 2019, a global environmental movement called “flight shaming” encouraged travelers to avoid air travel. Now a global pandemic is forcing them to.

Earth Day 2020—marking the environmental initiative’s 50th anniversary—comes at a time when both a climate crisis and a global health crisis are forcing the travel industry to reckon with its future.

Globally, the transportation sector is responsible for a quarter of carbon emissions. Aviation accounts for just over two percent of that, and before the beginning of this year, the number of people taking commercial flights was steadily increasing.

But concern about the irreparable harm of flights’ carbon emissions is causing a growing group of travelers to change its habits. Proponents of greener tourism are optimistic that the coronavirus outbreak won’t change that.

A growing awareness

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the nation responsible for the largest share of aviation-related carbon emissions is the U.S., followed by China. A 2017 ICCT survery found a small portion of the population produces the bulk of carbon emissions. To put this in perspective: That year, 12 percent of Americans accounted for 68 percent of global air travel; just over fifty percent of Americans said they hadn’t flown at all.

This disparity has fueled the flight-shaming movement.

“Last summer I went by train to Barcelona,” says U.K.-based Clare Farrell, co-founder of environmental action group Extinction Rebellion and a prominent proponent of limiting air travel. “I took my bike on the train and it was super cool. It’s a very pleasant way to travel, compared with airport rigamarole.”

In 2018, Farrell and several other activists went on hunger strike to protest expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight shaming movement gained greater visibility in the U.S. last September when youth climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to reach a U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City.

Has the flight shaming movement resulted in fewer flights? It depends on who you ask—and where they are living. A survey of 6,000 people in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and France, conducted by Swiss bank UBS at the end of last year, found that 21 percent chose to fly less. This runs contrary to statistics indicating that 2019 was a record year for air travel in the U.S. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows 926 million people flew in 2019, up four percent from the previous year and nine percent from the previous two years.

Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director of travel website The Points Guy, says that while its community of readers and travelers is conscious of its environmental footprint, that doesn’t determine whether someone would choose to take a trip. “There was definitely an interest from people [in reducing their carbon footprint],” he says. “No one wants to hurt the climate, [but] it was never at the center of most travelers’ agenda[s].”

“As much as I want to be green, cost is a bigger factor,” says Aalia Udalawa, a consultant at PKG HotelExperts and an avid traveler. She estimates she would spend as much as 20 percent more on more sustainable travel, but says many of the greener options she’s considered fall outside her budget.

These reports echo a National Geographic and Morning Consult poll. In a survey taken just before the COVID-19 pandemic we asked our readers if they would pay more to make sure that their vacations were environmentally friendly. A slim majority of 53 percent indicated they would not pay more (or had no opinion). This snapshot represents opinion before the coronavirus. What the future holds is up for debate.

The challenge of helping travelers make sustainable choices surfaced in another National Geographic report from 2019. According to the survey of 3,500 adults, while 42 percent of U.S. travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future, only 15 percent of these travelers were sufficiently familiar with what sustainable travel actually means. The future opportunity will be to help travelers focus on environmentally friendly practices, protect cultural and natural heritage, and support social and economic benefit for local communities, among other goals.

Weighing alternatives

As interest in cleaner travel options grows, so do the options. “We’ve seen a great many travelers weigh alternatives to flights,” says Shannon McMahon, editor at online travel magazine, a site owned by Trip Advisor. “Travelers seem to be taking a more holistic approach to how they contribute to carbon emissions than they did before just last year.”

Riding the rails is one option. Although it often takes longer and costs more to travel by train, the carbon footprint is lower. One passenger’s flight from Paris to Barcelona creates an estimated 238kg of carbon dioxide emissions, while the equivalent train journey emits just 11kg.

In Europe, where flight shaming took off, trains have been promoted as the most sustainable way to travel. Modernized rail infrastructure, including upgraded tracks and stations, helps support this option. Europe’s passenger trains are largely electrified, as opposed to U.S. trains, which use both electric and diesel power. Importantly, how a country generates electricity matters for calculating green travel options. An electric train that generates energy from renewable or nuclear energy (a majority of France’s output, for instance) produces fewer emissions than one with electricity generated from coal.

Carbon offsets are another option for green travelers. Feeling pressure from their customers, airlines including JetBlue have adopted offset programs to reduce their impact. But whether this is an effective climate strategy is a point for debate. Environmental activists say offsets simply help us fly guilt-free without meaningfully reducing our impact.

(Related: What does “sustainable tourism” actually mean?)

“It’s a flawed way to deal with climate change because the most emissions are coming from people with the most money—and those who’d do well to change systems and habits,” says Farrell. “It promotes the idea that you can pass off the problem to the next generation.”

Such complicated decisions might make the prospect of travel seem too daunting altogether, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it, advocates say.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Mayerowitz says. Travel causes carbon emissions, but it also enriches people and communities. He, for instance loves to hike, which means he sometimes flies or drives to get to trailheads. But due to those journeys, Mayerowitz advocates for national parks and relays his love of them to a wider audience.

Kelley Louise, the founder and executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable travel, says that rather than ceasing travel altogether, her organization advocates for innovating on it. One concept is based on slow travel, a philosophy and practice that emphasizes longer stays, alternative transportation (such as trains and bikes), cultural immersion, vacation rentals, and off-the-beaten-path destinations.

“Travel has the powerful ability to transform you into an advocate for nature and conservation,” she says. “So if tourism professionals sat on their soapboxes and said the only thing you could do was to stop traveling, we’d lose all of the really beautiful components that traveling brings us.”

Surviving pandemic

Few people or segments of the global economy have been unscathed by the coronavirus outbreak, and that’s particularly true of the travel industry.

“There had never been so much wealth and connectivity in the world,” says Mayerowitz of pre-coronavirus life. “The quick spread of this pandemic showed us just how connected we are. You had second-tier cities in the U.S. with non-stop flights to second-tier cities in China.”

But what happens when travel bans are lifted? Will sustainable travel fall to the wayside in a world with redistributed wealth and greater wariness of connectivity?

“Sustainable travel has been on the rise for years now. Not only is a global pandemic unlikely to change that—it could even make traveling sustainably seem more important than ever,” says McMahon.

While the events aren’t the same, McMahon notes that tourism declined after the September 11 terrorist attacks and during the 2008 Great Recession. But then travel regained footing, first in local or regional journeys and eventually in international trips.

“Travelers first tend to venture out closer to home—if past trend lines are consistent—and visit their local eateries, stay regionally for a weekend getaway, or travel domestically before a robust demand for international travel returns,” McMahon says.

Mayerowitz says he expects travelers to seek out vacations that connect them to others. “People are going to want to network [with] local tours, trips with extended family,” he says.

Louise, of Impact Travel Alliance, sees the sustainable travel movement keeping pace. While mass tourism is linked to climate change, overtourism, and conventional travel experiences, she says, sustainable tourism offers a healthier alternative for communities and for the planet.

“My hope for the industry is that, when the pandemic subsides, we’ll be able to explore the world with a renewed sense of mindfulness, curiosity, and appreciation,” she says.

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