All proceeds from this sponsored story will be donated to The Intrepid Foundation’s Red Cross Bushfire Emergency Appeal.
As a new decade dawns, the climate is still in crisis, and leisure travel shows no signs of slowing down. Here, award-winning sustainable travel writer Louise Southerden digs through the latest advice in a bid to help us all travel better through 2020 and beyond.
Forget flying cars, robot-run hotels and solar-powered aircraft: The future of travel is sustainable. It has to be, with more of us traveling than ever before. International arrivals reached 1.4 billion last year, two years ahead of schedule according to the UN World Tourism Organization, and the tourism industry is now responsible for eight per cent of global carbon emissions.
The good news? More of us care about doing the right thing than ever before. Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of travelers surveyed by Booking.com last year believe we need to make more sustainable travel choices to protect the planet.
And, as we head into a fresh decade, there are more ways than ever before to reduce our impact.
First, there was overtourism. Then under-tourism, with travel companies such as Intrepid Travel and Trafalgar promoting unsung hiking trails and ‘second cities’. Now, the new kid on the sustainable travel block is ‘untourism’, which is all about forgoing ‘Insta-worthy’ hotspots and bucketlists to wander, phone- and camera-free (if you dare) with serendipity your only guide—all the better to connect with the places you visit and share the benefits (and positive impacts) of tourism.
Inevitably, there are already ‘untours’ (free-range strolls with locals) and The Untourist Guide to Amsterdam was launched last year with a companion website, offering quirky activities such as ‘Marry an Amsterdammer for a day’ (you get to ‘honeymoon’ at untouristy spots) and ‘Weed dating’ (not what you think; it’s mingling with local gardeners while you help weed an organic orchard). Elena Simons, a ‘social inventor’ from Amsterdam and one of the guide’s authors, says the untourist movement, unlike mass tourism, is about “active contribution instead of passive consumption”.
In the vapor trail of flight-shame and the burgeoning no-fly movement, and with air travel accounting for about two per cent of global emissions, we’re becoming a lot more discerning about when we fly. And if we can’t catch trains to reach our destinations—Australian travelers, we’re looking at you—we’ll need to change how we fly too.
Flying wisely is all about choosing to fly direct whenever we can (because taking off and landing generate more emissions than cruising at altitude), flying on twin-engine aircraft such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350 (both more fuel-efficient than four-engine behemoths such as 747s and the soon-to-be discontinued A380); and packing light. “If every Finnair passenger takes one kilogram less of luggage, we can save 1-2 million kilograms of fuel in a year, enough to fuel 20 flights between Helsinki and Tokyo,” says Arnaud Michelin of Finnair.
And although offset flights aren’t climate-friendly flights (and only about 10 per cent of us bother to offset anyway, according to Qantas, which has the world’s largest airline offset program), airlines are stepping up to the plate. They’re inching closer to more affordable and sustainable aviation fuels—the only real solution to increasing aviation emissions—and also offsetting their own emissions. Under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which was adopted by the global aviation community in 2016, airlines will have to offset all international flights by 2021.
Slow travel is fast becoming a thing. In Australia alone, almost half of all travelers (45 per cent) plan to take slower modes of transport to reduce their environmental footprint, according to Booking.com, and 69 per cent prefer to take the long way to savor the journey. But it’s not just about how we get to where we’re going.
It’s about staying slow once we get there. That means spending more time seeing less, making time to do things we enjoy with people we care about, and with the people we meet along the way. It’s not about the speed, in other words. It’s an attitude.
“Slow travel is the antidote to budget flights, last-minute deals and rushing around trying to see everything,” says travel writer Penny Watson, author of Slow Travel, published in December 2019. “It’s about thoughtful immersion in a place by, say, paddling a canoe down the Katherine River, walking mindfully on the Camino de Santiago, or staying in a Tuscan village for a week making limoncello with the locals—this makes us more mindful of where we are, so that we can’t help but tread more lightly.”
There are now more ways than ever to avoid dying of dehydration when we travel—even in places where we can’t drink the tap water, the last bastion of bottled water. There are water purification tablets such as Aquatabs and hand-held UV-light filters (just stir water with a SteriPEN for 90 seconds before you drink). There’s LifeStraw, a compact ’straw’ that makes even the dirtiest puddle potable. And there are water-filtering bottles such as Grayl, which makes water safe in eight seconds using a built-in plunger.
Buying one single-use plastic bottle on day one in your destination and re-using it to reduce waste isn’t a great idea, by the way: Not only are you still contributing to plastic pollution, but a World Health Organization review in 2018 found microplastics in 90 per cent of bottled water tested from nine countries.
Instead, invest in a stainless steel or water-filtering bottle and join the reusable revolution, which is seeing more travelers also packing their own coffee cups, cloth shopping bags, and even chopsticks—Japan alone uses 24 billion single-use wooden chopsticks a year. Plastic-free alternatives are becoming the new normal. Air New Zealand recently began a trial of edible coffee cups, for instance—vanilla-flavored and made from paper and corn—to prevent 15 million coffee cups going to landfill every year.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth … far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” says Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford, lead researcher of a meta-study published in Science in 2018. And the world seems to be taking note. According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled in the last five years. By 2025, an estimated quarter of the population will be vegan or vegetarian, while half will be ’flexitarians’ who eat some meat.
That means a whole lot more plant-based travel, from more in-flight vegetarian meal options (Air New Zealand was the first airline to serve meat-free Impossible Burgers on selected flights last year) to more vegan and vegetarian-friendly food adventures. Want to log more veggie-friendly air miles? Simply update your meal preferences before you fly (frequent flyers need only update their preferences once for all future flights).
And whether you opt for plant-based fast food at Bali’s Plant Cartel or sustainable fine dining at Humus & Hortense in Brussels (named world’s best vegan restaurant in 2019), you can ramp up your impact by eating SLOW—Seasonal, Locally sourced, Organic Wholefoods—to match wherever you are.
Sustainable stays are on the rise—73 per cent of global travelers intend to stay at least once in an eco-friendly hotel this year, according to Booking.com—and going way beyond greenwash requests. That means more than simply re-using your towels and not having your bed linen changed daily.
Big hotel groups, including Marriott, the world’s largest, are falling over themselves to replace tiny toiletries with bulk dispensers to reduce waste—which is a big deal when you consider that 5.5 billion hotel toiletry bottles and caps are thrown away every year. InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) alone will remove small shampoo bottles from 843,000 guest rooms across 5600 hotels worldwide by 2021.
Low-impact ’tiny house’ stays by the likes of Unyoked, In2theWild and CABN have been sprouting like mushrooms after rain outside Sydney, Melbourne and other cities around Australia. Minimalist architect-designed rooms are big right now, such as ONE@Tokyo, designed by Japanese star-chitect Kengo Kuma, and ‘landscape hotels‘ such as Juvet in Norway and the Cabanas No Rios in Portugal are showcasing their natural surroundings. The UK’s first vegan hotel, Saorsa 1875, opened in Scotland last year while FairBnB, a social enterprise that donates half its income to sustainable community projects, launched in September in Venice and four other European cities.
Only five dollars of every USD$100 we spend in developing countries stays in that destination’s economy, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization. And that has trickle-down effects in terms of environmental management. The best way to ensure the money you spend doesn’t drift into the coffers of multinationals is to choose local guides, and stay, eat and shop at locally owned hotels, restaurants and shops.
Booking accommodation direct helps too, ensuring hoteliers get to keep more of your room rate. And if you do use booking sites such as Agoda, Expedia, TripAdvisor or Booking.com, click through from German startup B’n’Tree (short for ’bed and tree’), which plants a tree in Kenya, Nepal or Madagascar for every travel booking.
It also makes sustainable sense to support brands doing their bit, particularly in terms of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Buy gear from Patagonia, one of the world’s leading B Corps putting purpose before profit. Travel with Sydney-based ethical adventure operator World Expeditions, which has its own Thoughtful Travel e-guide; or with Intrepid Travel, which has been carbon-neutral since 2010 and will be ’climate-positive’ next year, thanks to its work with The Climate Foundation and the University of Tasmania on Australia’s first seaweed farm in Tasmania.
And don’t stop at travel brands. ‘Clean money‘ is an integral part of traveling more sustainably; Market Forces can do a free background check on your bank and/or travel insurance provider to make sure they’re not investing your travel funds in fossil fuels and other nasties. Because if you’re doing all you can to minimize the impact of your travels, it makes sense for your bank or financial institution to be on the same environmental page.
When Darrell Wade, co-founder of Intrepid Travel, was asked at a travel conference in August 2019 about the future of sustainable travel, he said it’s bright—in terms of travelers wanting to minimize their impact and travel companies becoming more sustainable—and it’s bleak, because of “travel’s inconvenient truth”, namely the carbon emissions generated by flying and the fact that sustainable aviation fuels “may never be economically viable”.
What to do? Wade predicted the rise of ’low-carbon’ travel products, such as trips designed to minimize flying by keeping to a smaller geographical area close to home and incorporating local transport options such as trains and boats instead of domestic flights. Already there are carbon-neutral tours (World Expeditions recently started offsetting all its tours), low-carbon modes of transport (hello, high-speed train travel) and zero-carbon countries. Bhutan is actually the first country in the world to be carbon-negative, exporting to India more hydroelectric power from its fast-flowing rivers than it needs.
The near future of sustainable travel turns out to be a many-splendored thing: A low-carbon, plant-based, plastic-free destination we can reach only by train, or by flying, wisely. We’re already being more discerning about the trips we take, the travel companies we use, the places we see, for we’ve passed a tipping point of no return. Ahead lies nothing less than our future on this big blue planet and each one of us can make a difference. As Canadian futurist Marshall McLuhan once said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
This article is sponsored by Bank Australia, Australia’s responsible banking alternative. All proceeds from this sponsored story will be donated to The Intrepid Foundation’s Red Cross Bushfire Emergency Appeal.
Louise Southerden is an award-winning Australian travel writer and author with a passion for simple, sustainable living—at home and away.