“Guilt” is a word we increasingly associate with our lifestyle choices as we hunker down into the 2020s. From single-use plastic to the carbon footprint of producing almond milk, every single thing we consume comes with some kind of climate-cost; an unseen penalty that lurks just out of view.
And travel is no different. After a year of largely staying put – a year that has brought the global tourism industry to its knees – many people are reassessing their holiday habits. In light of previous frequent headlines about overtourism, Greta Thunberg’s famous shunning of flights and the uncomfortable disconnect between many rich Westerners and the reality of life in whatever “exotic” destination they’ve just touched down in, it can be difficult to see how travel can ever be truly sustainable.
But guilt rarely leads to constructive change. It prompts us to get defensive, double down, deny culpability or simply declare we don’t care. Rather than denouncing travel, we need to carve out new, positive stories, ones which help us feel empowered to practice more discernment when planning our next dream trip. After all, travel has been a huge force for good in countless destinations around the world, bringing much-needed wealth, new energy, fresh perspectives.
Even Prince Harry agrees. In this year’s foreword to the annual report of Travalyst, the initiative he launched in 2019 with the objective of making the travel industry more sustainable, the Duke of Sussex said: “We know that to not travel again is not an option. Right before us, there is an opportunity to do things differently, to do things better. Travel and tourism are no exception. As the industry re-emerges from crisis, there is an urgent need to reset and reimagine.”
The answer isn’t to never travel again, then, but to travel more thoughtfully, more creatively, more intentionally – once we’re allowed to, of course.
Clearly, the closer to home you stay, the smaller your carbon footprint is likely to be. It’s not to say you should never go abroad again; more that a good place to start is by embracing previously overlooked domestic destinations before you go rushing off to Fiji. And, in fact, the pandemic may have already skewed our preference for domestic bliss: according to Oliver’s Travels, which specialises in luxury villas, 64 per cent of all 2021 bookings have been for the UK.
“Having previously accounted for 16 per cent of overall business last year, UK staycations are now contributing to over a third of our overall business (34 per cent),” said co-founder Ravi Sabharwal. “Britons are keener than ever for easy to reach holiday destinations.”
Even pre-pandemic, this trend was on the rise; the share of people taking holidays exclusively within the UK in 2019 was 8 per cent higher than those who took holidays exclusively abroad, according to a 2020 report by Schofields Insurance.
There are plenty of other advantages to a UK break too; as tourism board Visit England puts it: “We have an incredible tourism offer right here on our doorstep. There is just so much to do and see here in Britain: from contemporary culture in our vibrant cities to our stunning coastlines and seaside destinations, from our heritage, countryside and adventure tourism to our outstanding B&Bs and self-catering accommodation, consistently rated as some of the best in the world.”
Companies that care
Picking the right business to book with can be instrumental in having a positive impact when you travel. Luckily, there’s an ever-growing market of companies committed to offering sustainable trips – ones that put the concepts of bolstering local communities and adding value back into destinations at the very heart of their products.
Much Better Adventures, for example, gives 5 per cent of revenues to help support conservation projects and the families of local guides who have been badly affected by the pandemic; this year, the brand became the first international travel company to add carbon footprint labels to all its trips, enabling customers to compare when choosing their holiday.
Responsible Travel, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has pledged to move from being “sustainable” to “nature positive”. The brand has committed to delivering a biodiversity net gain this decade and will double the number of nature-based trips it offers within three years. It’s also announced an ambitious target of a 55 per cent carbon reduction per customer by 2030 – without relying on offsetting.
Meanwhile, Intrepid Travel became the world’s largest travel business to be certified B-Corp in 2018. Already offsetting 125 per cent of emissions, it has announced plans to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy for its offices by 2025 and for its trips by 2030. Intrepid also works with local NGOs to develop new tourism experiences which provide a sustainable livelihood for remote communities.
And new businesses are cropping up all the time; Preferred Hotel Group recently launched Beyond Green, a global portfolio of 24 hotels, resorts, and lodges that “exemplify sustainable tourism leadership”.
Travel less, for longer
Slow travel has been a buzz word for a while, but it seems to have surged in popularity over the last couple of years. The idea is simple – instead of taking lots of micro-breaks, jetting off to European cities for the weekend multiple times a year, you take fewer but longer holidays instead. You take your time getting to the destination – perhaps going by boat or train instead of plane – and immerse yourself once there, benefiting from experiencing a deeper connection with your destination. The idea is that you contribute more to the local economy, make less of a negative impact by travelling more sustainably, and – just as important – get the chance to slow down yourself.
It is not just about a gentler pace of travel, but rather immersing ourselves in the rhythm of the communities and places that we journey through
Slow travel specialist holiday company Inntravel has been offering these kind of trips since before they hit the zeitgeist. Director of marketing Simon Wrench says: “Covid and its lockdowns have forced us all to see things – people and landscapes – from a new perspective. On our daily walks or bike rides we explored our local areas in a far more intimate way, and we think that in 2021 customers will want to carry this enjoyment of a reflective and revitalising discovery onto their holidays, and be taken away from the everyday.
“That is what slow travel means to us. It is not just about a gentler pace of travel, but rather immersing ourselves in the rhythm of the communities and places that we journey through. By this, we gain a fuller understanding of the destination rather than a whistle-stop tour that doesn’t scratch beneath the surface.”
Realistically, we’re not all going to give up flying – but cutting down on air travel is one of the swiftest ways to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. According to one Guardian report, taking a single long-haul return flight produces more carbon emissions than the average citizen in more than 50 countries will account for in an entire year.
If you’re looking for flight-free inspiration for your next trip, new travel company Byway has been launched to exclusively offer no-fly holidays; the Flight Free UK campaign’s website has a great section called “Be inspired” that’s full of ideas; or check out seat61.com, the unparalleled website that gives you all the information you need to plan and book train journeys to a huge number of international destinations.
And if you are flying, consider offsetting. Yes, it’s a contentious issue within the climate debate. But if you’re going to travel by plane, buying carbon credits from a reputable emissions reductions or removals project is evidently better than doing nothing at all. Don’t be tempted by the cheapest ones though – a proper offset should set you back at least £20 a tonne. Atmosfair, Gold Standard and Climeworks have all been recommended to me by experts as offering quality credits that are audited, monitored and sold using robust processes.
Once you’re there
If the where you go, the who you book with and the how you get there are important questions, so is the what you do when you get there. If you want to put something back into local communities, prioritise spending your money in local businesses: book a local guide; opt to stay at an independent hotel rather than a faceless international brand; prioritise eating out at locally owned restaurants instead of global chains; swap high-street chain store shopping for boutiques. Not only is your money more likely to go into the pockets of the people who live there, but you’ll benefit from the elusive thing that we travellers are always striving for: a more “authentic” experience.