Going places: Future of travel being reshaped by COVID, Climate Change: Less is more

Karen Rubin
Bike tours, with extra health protocols to meet today’s extraordinary challenge, check all the boxes for low-carbon, low-impact, uncrowded outdoors travel that brings you close to nature and local people while having low risk to infection. Wilderness Voyageurs' Badlands & Black Hills trip has me biking to my cabin in the historic Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota where a buffalo casually visits © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Responsible tourism means that travelers are sensitive to their impact –for good or bad – on the communities they visit. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, “responsible” tourism has taken on additional dimensions.

And if the pandemic shuts down tourism altogether? What then? With travel and tourism accounting for one-sixth of the global economy and one out of 10 jobs, not to mention the benefits of bringing people together for mutual understanding and exchange of ideas, to reunite families and friends, and forge business connections, it is impossible to contemplate a world without travel. So the framework for travel and tourism must adapt, sustainably and responsibly.

Because of the self-selection aspect of sustainable, responsible tourism, intrepid travelers who most appreciate experiencing new places and cultures and feel most deprived by isolation, will likely be in the vanguard to return as soon as borders are open, bans are lifted. These travelers value travel experiences for their personal growth as well as the importance of engaging in mutual understanding and respect. They appreciate a broadened, global perspective and the value they bring toward the preservation of heritage and conservation of environments.

Costs will necessarily be higher because of capacity limits and added costs of providing the health protocols, and because of the ways people will likely choose to travel to feel more comfortable and confident: in small, private, customized units, in private cars or rented RVs, in private lodges or villas, or small riverboats or yachts instead of cruiseships the size of floating cities. Even chartering small airplanes instead of flying commercial. Quality over quantity.
Moving into the post-pandemic world, there is also a sense, then, that “mass tourism” that has developed since the advent of the Jet Age of the 1960s – may be at least temporarily altered or halted.

Capacity limitations mean that people will have to do a lot more advance planning – getting advance purchase tickets, for example, to museums, exhibits, performances, attractions.

Fewer numbers will help the cause of sustainability and protecting fragile places from overtourism, while restoring vacation travel (once accompanied by the term, “once-in-a-lifetime”) as a special, cherished experience. Bucket lists will be longer and take longer to fulfill. People will “travel slowly” – staying put in places.

But sustainability means that destinations and must also innovate to address the new reality. For example, mountain and beach retreats are making a pitch to the emerging market of “digital nomads” – people who have the ability to leave their urban apartments and work or study virtually anywhere in the world. Lodges in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and Hamptons, for example, have positioned themselves to take advantage. Several Caribbean islands and Barbados are gearing up to accommodate these digital nomads, upgrading internet, especially as a new wave of coronavirus may make it less appealing to be locked down in Manhattan apartment than a beach resort.

There is more focus on luxury market – people who can afford the private lodges, chartered planes, private transfers, private guides and staff and venture into uncrowded or secluded spaces, and likely involve more forays into nature, the great outdoors, safe but wild places.

Trips will be fewer and farther between but longer, more intentional, more significant and more precious – family reunions, multigenerational safaris, or organized around important milestones, and be enriched with meaningful experiences.

So what can travelers look forward to?

Like the re-imagining of health care, infrastructure, and work places to accommodate this pandemic and whatever future ones lurk, so too can the travel and tourism infrastructure use this crisis to “build back” with climate change, sustainability and social responsibility in mind.

Destinations and hotels and resorts, attractions and sites are looking more to domestic, even drive-able markets, while at the same time, travelers are discovering how what is close at hand is as exotic and interesting as what is far and foreign. RV vacation packages, glamping, camping, national parks, biking and trips organized around small groups and outdoor and uncrowded places have been most popular.

Tour operators are already re-tooling to offer more private and customized itineraries, more off-the-beaten track destinations, more use of private lodges; they are guaranteeing safe protocols and giving incentives for booking 2021.

Airlines, meanwhile, are promoting the ventilation systems on par with hospitals, and lifting change and cancellation fees. Hotels and spas are using high-tech sanitizing systems.
Ski resorts are controlling capacity, giving priority to season pass holders (an incentive to buy); museums and attractions, also controlling capacity, are requiring advance-purchase timed-tickets, requiring travelers to be a lot more intentional in planning their itinerary.

“I am convinced this is new era for hospitality industry,” said, Ewald Biemans, Owner and Manager of Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba. “It fits right in to sustainability. People are more health conscious today – outdoors, exercising, eating healthfully. There is so much more demand for health and wellness. People are resting, working on fitness. The spa business is booming.”

Travelers, especially millennials who value travel but feel guilty over the adverse climate impacts of carbon emitted in the process, respond well to sustainability improvements.

“The fact that we certified LEED, and will be carbon neutral, and are able to tell our guests that when they stay with us, the only thing they leave behind is their footprint in the sand, that you are emitting less carbon than if you stayed home is an asset,” Biemans asserted. The customer feels redeemed by staying in environmentally sustainable resort, in a location that has sustainability at heart.

The mega-cruise ships are likely to be most adversely affected – but because of the billions of dollars in investment, are unlikely to be dry-docked but will likely have to adapt the most – finding a way to operate profitably while reducing occupancy, sailing to fewer ports but staying in ports longer, perhaps three days or so. They will be less likely to overwhelm fragile sites, like Petra in Jordan, where thousands of cruise passengers from multiple mega-ships would descend at once during their brief stopover. The cruise ships will sail less, have fewer carbon emissions; and ports could limit how many can dock at any one time. On the other hand, small river boats, private yachts and canalboats will do well, just as Recreational Vehicle rentals have taken off in popularity.

Car rentals can accommodate the desire of responsible travelers to reduce their carbon footprint by offering electric vehicles, with hotels facilitating that transition by providing charging stations to cars and for e-bikes (common in Europe, now). Hotels can also model climate-focused strategies, in architecture, facilities, and operations so people can appreciate what a green roof is, what ozone-cleaned sheets and purified pools are like, how geothermal can heat and cool buildings and low-flow toilets and showers function, and how single-use plastic can be eliminated from daily life.
Based in Washington, DC, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) is dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of tourism.

“In this era of climate change, responsible travel is no longer an option, it is an imperative. Given this reality, CREST remains committed to its original vision of transforming the way the world travels.”

CREST has produced a special edition of its annual report, The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2020, which offers lessons from COVID-19 for tourism in a changing climate. The full report is available at responsibletravel.org.
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