Sustainable travel: How to be a better traveller after COVID-19

We are living through a moment in time like no other. From the enforced safety of fortress Australia, the pandemic has interrupted many things we take for granted, including what we see as a right: the ability to travel the globe more or less at will.

But the pause has also provided a unique opportunity. In the context of a real and accelerating climate emergency, with tourism responsible for eight per cent of the greenhouse gasses that contribute to it, many travellers have reflected on ways not just to resume their travels but to do things better, not merely for their own pleasure, but for nature, the planet, and other people.

"A lot of people are making conscious decisions when they travel that they don't want to be adding to the problem, they want to be helping to solve some of these problems," says Rod Hillman, chief executive of Ecotourism Australia, the body that certifies more than 500 Australian nature-based tourism products.

Travel done thoughtfully can be a force for good. It's an important transfer of wealth from rich to poorer nations. It's also a great privilege. (Only six per cent of the world's population has ever boarded a plane.)

To travel better we should think of travel not as a commodity, something we buy, but as an exchange, putting back as much as we take by leaving destinations and communities better for us being there than not. Think of it being regenerative rather than sustainable, a term which means meeting our needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

Those of us who travel for leisure seek wonderful holidays and memorable experiences. And, sometimes, we just want to flop on a beach. But if we know the locals actually want us on that beach because we bring something to that community, that the resort we're staying in has good environmental and social responsibility practices, and if we've lightened our carbon footprint by choosing wisely how to get there, the experience can be so much more profound.

The good news is there's an explosion in the number of travel companies, from large multinational hotel chains and cruise lines to small regional hotels and tour groups, that have reassessed their impact on the planet and devised ways to lighten their footprint. It's a win for travellers and destinations and also operators, who are rewarded with consumer loyalty.

"We're increasingly seeing that consumers and particularly younger consumers are looking for brands that actually stand for something," says James Thornton, chief executive of Intrepid, a world leader in ethical small-group tours. "The number one reason for repeat travel [with us] is our responsible travel philosophies."

As we begin to explore Australia more extensively than ever, while at the same time dreaming of journeys further afield, and do so with the best intentions, there are some key considerations that we need to unpack.

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READY FOR TAKEOFF (OR ARE WE?)

This photo provided by Boom Supersonic shows an artist’s rendition of United Airlines Boom Supersonic Overture jet.  United said Thursday, June 3, 2021 that it reached a deal with startup aircraft maker Boom Supersonic to buy 15 of Boom's Overture jets. The planes haven't been built yet, but Boom says they will fly at 1.7 times the speed of sound, or around 1,300 mph.  (Boom Supersonic via AP)

The Overture jet, by Boom Supersonic, has been ordered by United Airlines. Boom plans to use sustainable aviation fuel for the plane. Photo: AP

One of the biggest issues, if not the biggest, for today's traveller, and for airlines themselves, is the massive amount of CO2 emitted by aircraft. A person's individual carbon footprint from a round-trip long-haul flight Sydney to London via Singapore can amount to a whopping 5 tonnes of emissions, 10 tonnes if that trip is taken in business class.

For perspective, the average Australian has a carbon footprint of 15 tonnes per year, one of the highest in the developed world. We need to reduce that to an average of two tonnes a person per annum if we are to keep global warming under two degrees by 2050.

So crucial is the problem that the French government, in a nation blessed with an enviable high-speed train network, recently banned all short-haul domestic flights under two and a half hours where rail is an alternative.

For Australians, unfortunately, the lack of efficient, high-speed commuter rail systems means our preferred transport options are going to be limited to the big carbon emitters, planes, ships and non-electric vehicles, at least in the next vital decade.

In a rosy future, we may be travelling in supersonic aircraft that are net-zero carbon emitting using 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuel, derived from plants or animal waste. United Airlines has put in an order for up to 50 of the new Overture supersonic planes from a company called Boom, which travel at 1.7 times the speed of sound.

The objective is to launch the first commercial flight by 2029, all going well. Meanwhile, this doesn't solve aviation's big carbon headache.

"What the aviation industry is looking for is to be carbon neutral by 2050," says Dr Tay Koo, an academic at the School of Aviation at UNSW Sydney, "and by far the biggest lever they're going to pull, which they're going to rely on, is biofuel."

Many airlines mix biofuel with the heavier aviation fuels but it's not always transparent what the proportion of biofuel might be and the practice is far from standard around the world.

In assessing what airline might be "cleaner", consumers need to consider age, type and size of aircraft (Airbus A350s and Boeing 787-900s are the most efficient), and how much cargo and passengers that flight carries (atmosfair.de lists a mind-boggingly detailed collection of data about each airline's environmental performance).

In the real world, most travellers are going to choose airlines according to the best deal but good value fares do not exclude good environmental practices. (LATM and Thai rank highly, for instance.)

But in the long run, value may not just be monetary. The moral issue, after all, Koo says, is that "as Australians we travel a lot and probably disproportionately contribute to climate change. The Pacific Island nations are not travelling as much but are being disproportionately impacted".

One way to reduce that impact is to make informed choices, including travelling for longer but less frequently. But by far the most potent, experts agree, is to offset your personal carbon emissions if you must fly.

SWITCHING ON TO CARBON OFFSETS

Many airlines give passengers the option to pay extra to compensate for the personal carbon emissions taking that flight produces. These funds are directed by the airlines to clean energy projects, such as planting trees or installing solar panels, which reduce the CO2 in the environment by the same amount you have expended on the flight. Fees start from as little as the price of an espresso for a one-way domestic flight.

Many people, industry research indicates, baulk at voluntarily paying extra for something as intangible as "doing the right thing". It's estimated that the number of international travellers who carbon offset is only about one per cent. (Only half the airlines offer it anyway.)

By the same token, Australians are more responsible. Qantas reports a 10 per cent uptake of carbon offsets by its passengers, which is 10 times the international average. Qantas encourages this by rewarding passengers with frequent flyer points, which you can also use on offsets.

How do we know what the airlines do with the money collected on our behalf? For a start, carbon offset programs are all independently audited. In Australia, this is overseen by the federal government's National Carbon Offset Standard which certifies genuine voluntary offsets. Look up a participating airline's website for details. (Virgin Australia, for instance, supports Tasmanian Land Conservancy. )

But how effective are these programs? According to Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, in their new book The Future We Choose: "We could return the climate to how it was decades ago just by planting trees."

Ultimately, governments need to make airline participation in offset programs compulsory and that might be done by airlines building this component into their fares. We will have to pay for our carbon footprint one way or the other.

BERTH CONTROL: A VEXED ISSUE

The the 92,409-ton, 16-deck MSC Orchestra cruise ship exits the lagoon as it leaves Venice, Italy, Saturday, June 5, 2021. The first cruise ship leaving Venice since the pandemic is set to depart Saturday amid protests by activists demanding that the enormous ships be permanently rerouted out the fragile lagoon, especially Giudecca Canal through the city's historic center, due to environmental and safety risks. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

MSC Orchestra leaves Venice on June 5. Photo: AP

The poster child for unsustainable travel has long been the enormous cruise ships that enter the Venice lagoon and dwarf and damage the precious city's historic and fragile centre.

The arrival of the gigantic MSC Orchestra in Venice in recent weeks, after a long absence by cruise ships, generated waves of controversy around the world, particularly as Italian authorities had announced that such vessels would in future be moved to port facilities further away.

But, Venice aside, Joel Katz, managing director of Cruise Lines International Association, argues it's a matter of perception. Cruising makes up less than two per cent of global tourism and less than one per cent of global shipping, he points out.

"In some of the European cities when they talked about the huge impact of cruise ships, when they actually looked at the number of passengers that were coming in by ship versus by air, cruise was a very, very small percentage.'

Still, the unedifying sight of a dozen mega ships lined up in Alaskan ports or unloading thousands of passengers at a time in Sicilian villages is more than bad optics. Critics have long questioned the actual value of cruising to the economies of places where it disrupts everyday life.

They point out that the all-inclusive nature of many cruises means that passengers come back to the ship for lunch, often after doing a hosted tour, and spend little in the community, while adversely affecting the quality of life for those residents who don't own souvenir shops. This is aside from questions of pollution and waste.

"Some will talk about how they're running environmentally sustainable cruises when fundamentally all they will have done is remove plastic water bottles," says Damian Perry, managing director in Australia of the Norwegian Hurtigruten small ship expedition fleet, responsible for world first battery-hybrid-electricity vessels. "They haven't actually innovated anything. They're running on old hardware…large ships mostly use only heavy fuel oil."

Supplied PR image for Traveller. 

Hurtigruten's Roald Amundsen, the world's first hybrid cruise ship.

Katz counters such criticism by saying the cruise industry is listening and acting responsibly, with a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.

Recycling and waste management is already critical to how ships work and the newer ships recycle 100 per cent of waste produced onboard, he says. Most importantly there is significant investment in new technologies such as cleaner fuels.

Cruise lines are also working productively with destinations, such as Dubrovnik, to lessen the impact of cruise passengers on the community by introducing measures such as staggering the arrival of tourists. "We'd like the community to be better off for the ships having visited them than if they hadn't arrived," Katz says.

While the ship of sustainability is definitely sailing on, many of the clean fuel technologies are still in development.

Last week the Federal Government extended its ban on international cruise ships for another three months to September 17 so those who wish to cruise responsibly might take this time to consider the benefits of smaller ships, river cruises and expedition operators with long histories of environmental responsibility.

Realistically, however, big ships are an inclusive way of travelling for families, the elderly, disabled, and budget travellers.

Look at how many ports the cruise stops at and whether the tours are small group-based and engage local companies and guides. Book your own local tour or explore a destination in a small cohort, spending money in cafes and shops, but importantly, take time to get a feeling for and appreciation of the community.

To reduce your carbon footprint, board and disembark in your hometown. If you can, donate to a certified carbon offset scheme or social enterprise project that works in one of the destinations you are visiting.

BAMBOO STRAWS ARE NOT ENOUGH

Kingsley, a Crystalbrook Collection, Newcastle
NB RENDER traxxcovernewcastle

The new Kingsley hotel, part of the Crystalbrook Collection, in Newcastle.

Hospitality is responsible for more than half of the 400 million tonnes of plastic produced annually around the world. There is a genuine effort to radically reduce this total. (Hotel giant Accor is eliminating all single-use plastics by the end of 2022.)

However, if a hotel boasts about its green initiatives but these only amount to a card placed on the pillowcase requesting sheets be changed every second day while they are still using small plastic amenity bottles or setting the AC at arctic levels, you're probably encountering an example of "greenwashing".

Many hotels talk a good game on sustainability but not all are doing enough of it. Sustainability has several pillars, and only one of them is elimination of single-use plastics.

"My personal belief is that hotels should not just exist where they are, they've got to have a connection with the local community, they've got to engage with the local community, they need to become part of it, and give back to that local community," says Geoff York, chief executive of Australian hotel group Crystalbrook, which launched in 2017.

The group now has seven hotels, three in Cairns as well as the just-opened Kingsley in Newcastle, NSW's second biggest city. Crystalbrook is a local example of a brand that is pushing the (green) envelope in new and innovative ways.

Beyond eliminating plastic and paper waste, using recycled products, and locally sourcing produce, the hotels in the group are each encouraged to come up with novel ideas that make a difference. For instance, in Cairns, the resort hotels partnered with a clothing boutique so guests could hire their holiday outfits rather than buy new ones.

In terms of social responsibility the group is a founding member of Citizens of the Barrier Reef, supports Beyond Blue and distributes leftover food to the needy via OzHarvest. For the new hotel in Newcastle, a scholarship in environmental studies has been created with Newcastle University. 'We're trying to start conversations and get our guests to think about doing things differently," says York.

"One of the really big things that travellers can do [about greenwashing] is call it out," says Dr Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Queensland's Griffith Institute for Tourism. "Ask questions at reception [such as], 'what are you doing with your food waste, where is the next bus stop, do you rent bicycles?' If that happens often enough, businesses will change."

Ultimately, Carolyn Childs, futurist and chief executive of MyTravelResearch.com says travellers should ask themselves one important ethical question: "Why do I have the right to lead a fantastic life, to have a disproportionate share intergenerationally of wealth and to have enjoyed all the good things of the planet, going on safari in Africa, hiking up mountains in South America, when the generation behind me will have to pay for it in debt in a degraded environment and when some of the things I saw may not be around for them to look at?"

FIVE EASY WAYS TO BE A BETTER TRAVELLER

OFFSET YOUR TRAVEL

Whether you use the carbon offset scheme offered by the airline or you donate to a certified organisation such as TreeSisters.org, a female-led reforestation charity, experts agree that offsetting your carbon emissions is the one essential step to travelling with a lighter footprint. Think about offsetting cruises, too.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH

It takes only a small investment in time to check out a company's sustainability credentials when doing an online search for hotels, cruises and tours. Search for independent certification such as Ecotourism Australia or B-Corp and learn about how your chosen airline stacks up on atmosfair.de

CHOOSE COMPANIES THAT GIVE BACK

Look for organisations that promote positive social change by working with local communities and charities and on gender and diversity projects. Think about travel that benefits First Nations people. Read: Marcia Langton, Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia.

HOLIDAY IN THE LOW SEASON

Everyone wins when travellers choose to go off season. Your holiday will be better priced and less crowds mean more opportunities for genuine experiences. Ski fields in summer and the lush tropics in the wet have their joys. Check out lowseasontraveller.com for inspiration and information.

SUPPORT FIRST NATIONS

Travellers can help improve the socio-economic wellbeing of Indigenous people and preserve their rich and varied cultures by giving to communities via sensitive tourism. There's much to be learned in a true exchange of cultures and values.

LEADING THE WAY: SIX ECO-MINDED AUSTRALIAN TRAVEL BRANDS

INTREPID

Specialising in ethical, small group tours since it was founded in Melbourne in 1989, Intrepid now operates in seven continents with a core value of conservation and investing in local communities. See intrepidtravel.com

WORLD EXPEDITIONS

Since its inception in 1975, World Expeditions has been a leader in thoughtful travel, following Leave No Trace principles, ensuring child and animal welfare, and supporting positive impact projects, with all trips carbon neutral since 2018. See worldexpeditions.com

AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE JOURNEYS

A group of like-minded, independent small businesses offering authentic Australian wildlife encounters in natural environments, giving travellers the opportunity to actively contribute to the regeneration of habitats. See australianwildlifejourneys.com

WILD BUSH LUXURY

Aiming to reconnect guests to the bush, Wild Bush Luxury works with Australian Wildlife Conservancy and operates Arkaba homestead, the Arkaba Walk and Bamurru Plains, three of Australia's most iconic nature-based experiences. See wildbushluxury.com

EMIRATES ONE&ONLY WOLGAN VALLEY

Putting aside its airline association, this NSW property is one of the world's first carbon neutral luxury resorts. Wolgan Valley's core philosophy is preserving and regenerating the biodiversity of its spectacular Blue Mountains setting. See oneandonlyresorts.com

BAILLIE LODGES

This collection of sustainable lodges in wilderness destinations is proactive in environmental management and actively inclusive of local communities, artisans and providores in guest experiences. See baillielodges.com.au

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