Photo by Cait Opperman
A game reserve on the western boundary of South Africa’s Kruger National Park
The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that tests our ability to collectively respond and adapt as responsible global citizens. But so often, from crisis comes opportunity.
These are unprecedented times for the tourism industry and for our world. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, 1 million tourism jobs are being lost every day due to the effects of COVID-19, and up to 75 million jobs are at immediate risk. The United Nations World Tourism Organization expects international tourist arrivals to drop by 20 to 30 percent in 2020, with 96 percent of global destinations currently imposing travel restrictions. On a personal level, the near cessation of travel also means that many of us are physically separated from loved ones and unable to experience large parts of the world around us.
As executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and a lifelong traveler myself, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about how travel can be a vital force for good. When developed responsibly, tourism has the power to provide rich cultural experiences and protect precious natural environments in places that could otherwise fall prey to damage or loss from extractive industries, clear-cut logging, and illegal trade and traffic. But this kind of tourism requires a deliberate commitment to sustainability.
At times, our societies’ past travel practices have done a great deal of damage. Travel and tourism account for about 8 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to a warming climate. Inadequate visitor management has led to overtourism in destinations around the world, and irresponsible travel practices have contributed to the degradation of irreplaceable natural and cultural sites, like Thailand’s Maya Bay and Peru’s Machu Picchu.
And while the coronavirus pandemic has brought so much challenge and uncertainty, it presents travelers with a chance to reflect on our past experiences and prepare ourselves to make positive differences through our future trips. Collectively and individually, we have the opportunity to undertake a smart, responsible recovery and commit to making tangible changes to the way we’ve been traveling.
At CREST, one of our focus areas is providing travelers with the tools they need to be good stewards of our planet. Many consumers want to make choices that help combat climate change and support biodiversity conservation, but they may not know how. In fact, a 2019 Booking.com report found that 70 percent of global travelers surveyed would be more likely to book an accommodation knowing it was eco-friendly, but 72 percent were not aware of the existence of eco-labels for vacation accommodations. Research shows that the demand for sustainable travel experiences is growing, but that demand needs to be paired with reliable information to inform travelers’ decision-making.
From CREST’s perspective, there’s lot that you can do to protect the environment on your next trip. When it comes to eco-labeling for accommodations, we recommend looking for certification programs that follow international best-practice standards. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) accredits and recognizes certification programs for both hotels and tour operators, and travelers can look up the lists of these programs through the GSTC website. A growing number of tourism businesses are also joining the community of Certified B Corporations. B Corp Certification measures how a company’s operations and business model affect workers, community, the environment, and customers.
In general, travelers should look for hotels that have been designed in harmony with the local surroundings, have programs that protect the natural environment and contribute to impactful community projects, use renewable energies and energy efficient technologies, minimize waste, collaborate with local artists, and source products and employment locally. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—hotels that are truly working to protect the environment and support the local community should be happy to share their practices.
The choices you make around transportation are also critically important. Before you book your travel, check to see what low-carbon or public transportation options are available to you. When deciding how to get to your destination, first consider public transportation, then driving, and lastly, flying. When flying, choose direct flights in economy class, and offset the carbon emissions from your flights to mitigate your carbon footprint.
We recommend using carbon offsetting websites run by nonprofits that provide advocacy and education around clean energy and climate change, while also passing as much of the donation as possible to the project of your choosing. The most important thing is ensuring that the project itself is Gold Standard Certified, which uses U.N. protocols and the Sustainable Development Goals to assess every project. Carbonfund.org is a great resource, and one that CREST used to offset our carbon output in 2019.
Once on your trip, be environmentally conscious and respectful of your host community. First and foremost, follow the ecotourism mantra of “leave no trace.” The Seven Leave No Trace principles, of which I’m a certified trainer, provide guidelines for minimizing your influence on the natural environment and apply to almost every recreational activity.
Travelers can also help reduce waste production by carrying their own reusable water bottles, bags, straws, utensils, and takeaway containers. And you can maximize the impact of the money you spend by supporting locally owned restaurants and businesses and hiring local guides.
These are just some of our recommendations for making a positive impact on your next trip. No matter what type of destination you’re visiting, CREST’s Responsible Travel Tips, the Travel Care Code, and the GSTC all provide helpful guidelines for being a more responsible traveler during all phases of a trip. While you’re at home, check out these resources to start making your plan of action for the future.
Right now, you can support sustainable tourism by preparing yourself. Do your research and make a list of the steps that you will take to protect the environment and support local communities on your next trip. Share your ideas with family and friends on your next Zoom video call to help them get excited about reconnecting through travel. When the time is right, the world will be waiting.
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