The COVID-19 pandemic might provide the travel industry with lessons and opportunities to move to a more sustainable way of operating, according to panelists on a webinar organized by CREST (Center for Responsible Tourism) on World Tourism Day (September 29}. Panelists explored methods of mitigating two existential threats, climate change and COVID-19, with one coordinated approach to make the world a safer, more equitable and resilient place for everybody.

Dr. Gregory Miller, executive director of CREST, said that the latest report from the organization shows that the pandemic has changed the way destinations and travelers will plan and manage tourism. “Tourism has been on a path to self-destruction,” he said, “seeking profits at the expense of people and the planet.” He said COVID has shown that simply stopping tourism is not enough to meet the challenges of the climate crisis while also highlighting the immense need for and value of tourism. The pandemic, said Miller, will drive a profound shift in tourism and travel “with effective risk management and decarbonization being fundamental to competitiveness and relevance.”

Dr. Daniel Scott, executive director, Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said there have been wide differences in how destinations have responded to the pandemic. At one end of the spectrum have been destinations looking short term by promoting longer stays for digital nomads and improving WiFi capacity while at the other end countries like New Zealand set up a task force to deal with the future of tourism. Scott said he would like to see more of the latter approaches.

Ewald Biemans, owner and CEO, Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba, said he is convinced the pandemic represents a new era for the hospitality industry as it fits right into sustainability with people being more health conscious and with some tourism negatives being diminished. He said the cruise industry and overtourism, which have had problems on the sustainability front, have come to a screeching halt, which may lead to permanent changes for that industry and that trend.

And the pandemic has made consumers more aware of sustainability according to Erin Francis-Cummings, CEO of Destination Analysts, who said that there has been a 10% increase since last fall in people saying travel has a major impact on the environment. While the total figure is still under 30%, she said that is “a huge leap.” Business travelers, said Francis-Cummings, are saying they will be more conscious about the trips they take and that people in general would be more aware of health and sanitation.

Transitioning toward sustainable tourism, said Scott, will be challenging, adding that there is not enough leadership on that front from international organizations. He said the pandemic is not permanent and when it ends climate change will still be there. He said the move to more domestic tourism might become permanent on some level as people travel closer to home and stay longer.

Denaye Hinds, owner and managing director of JustaTAAD, a sustainability consultancy who moderated the panel, said that “staycation” travel could prove to be a way to make tourism more equitable as far as who profits and that it keeps money in the community.

Travel Just for the Wealthy?

Some panelists thought that at least for the foreseeable future, travel would be limited to the wealthy because of lower volume for hotels and airlines and increased costs for safety and health. However, Francis-Cummings said she sees those traveling as the more risk-tolerant, rather than the wealthy.

Scott said that if government stimulus spending is geared to low-carbon and equitability it could have a major impact. He said climate has to be built into this spending “or we will lose momentum.“ Scott also said that the burden of the climate crisis should not be put on consumers but has to be resolved on the systemic level.

Biemans said he is able to tell guests that they emit less carbon traveling to and staying at his resort than if they stayed home. He said customers are very happy about that. His resort, said Biemans, is only 1.5 meters above sea level and if global warming continues, pretty soon the beach will be covered with water.

There is a disconnect among Gen Z and millennials, said Francis-Cummings. She explained that while those groups profess environmentalism when the pandemic ends they want to travel as much as possible before the next pandemic. She said that while business travelers may be more choosy about their trips, there is still an opportunity to promote bleisure – adding leisure elements to a business trip. She said that if someone decides to invest in a business trip they will be open to making the most of it.

Education is Key

Panelists agreed that educating travelers, associates, the industry and government is key. Biemans said the first thing people see when they get to their rooms is a video on their TV’s about the resort’s sustainable efforts. Her said that after realizing that 30% of food went back to the kitchen, portions and prices were reduced – resulting in less waste going to the landfill. “If you bring customers on board and get them to embrace the program,” said Biemans, “you will have a customer for life.”

In Europe, said Scott, there is carbon labeling for holidays, with information on how much carbon is used on a trip. He said that “if you make the consumer an ally, you are far more likely to succeed.” Unfortunately, he said, he still sees too many people at higher levels of the industry that don’t share these perspectives.

Cruise Competitiveness

A discussion of the future of cruising had Biemans saying that industry will be challenged by limited capacity, which will drive higher costs. Francis-Cummings said people who have previously cruised are ready to go back. The challenge, she said, will be getting new customers because previous cruisers do not see it as unsafe. She added that this could be an incentive for the industry to become “more green.”

“We are not in the tourism business, “said Biemans; “we are in the nature business. “ He explained that without nature there is no tourism and it is necessary to protect nature. In the case of Aruba, he said, “what would 100,000 people do if their one source of business, tourism, is destroyed.”

Scott said there are signs of progress. For example, a new Jamaican tourism strategy includes two out of five elements relating to climate change.

Looking Ahead

Scott said there are already “good plans out there” that could ease some of the worst impacts of climate change. He said there are plans for 52 new resorts in the Caribbean. It is a good time, he said, to ask: which should continue? Which should be reduced in capacity? There is an opportunity during the pandemic, he said, to “right-size” some of this development and that’s where development banks and governments have a role.

Dealing with overtourism, said Scott, has to be an inclusive process, which includes travel suppliers, the community and the government with the community’s interest primary. He said it’s hard to define overtourism numerically, that Barcelona had tried that but the government simply superseded the goal. “We need a common vision of what’s the right level of tourism,” said Scott.

Scott concluded that the tourism industry can’t solve climate change on its own, but that voting can give people the power to change the system. He said more people need to put pressure on government leaders to implement lower carbon emissions, develop long-haul aircraft that is powered differently and promote other goals that are in everybody’s interest.

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