Where Are We with Sustainable Travel In 2020? Key travel writers and thinkers give their honest thoughts

Where Are We with Sustainable Travel In 2020?
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South Pole says that, if it was a country, travel and tourism would be the 5th largest emitter of carbon in the world. Sustainable travel has become necessary for the future of the travel industry, but as we move into 2020 and face our climate emergency, has the industry made any real progress?

More hotels are stepping up to try to become sustainable, but it’s still only a few that are rigorous, accountable and transparent, while many are still greenwashing, preferring to do things that are easy and cheap, or to do nothing at all. Sustainability certifications also remain confusing – there are still only two sustainability certification programmes for hotels that have reached GSTC Accredited level with independent audits – EarthCheck and Eco-Tourism Australia (read more here).

Some enlightened travel companies are totally stepping up, and travellers are becoming massively more aware of their choices and how to make the right ones, but will this drive change soon enough? NOW asked key UK travel writers and thinkers for their thoughts as we all face our uncertain future.

Jane Dunford

Jane Dunford

Jane Dunford is travel editor of The Guardian and a freelance writer with an interest in ecotourism and sustainable travel. She is also deputy director of new reforestation charitable initiative Forests Without Frontiers.

How do you feel about the health and wellbeing of people and the planet right now?
It’s a difficult time we are living through, there’s a lot of uncertainty and negativity in the world, the climate emergency poses ever more real threats and I think all of this is impacting on people’s wellbeing. At the same time, though, there’s a rise in interest in practises that boost wellbeing – yoga and meditation, returning to nature – so people are exploring the more simple ways of bringing themselves back to balance.

Have you discovered any new gems of places to stay that genuinely “walk their talk” on sustainability and carbon mitigation and don’t greenwash?
I was impressed by Bankside, a new hotel in London, which seems to have a genuinely sustainable ethos, from low-VOC paints, sustainably-soured wood furniture and zero-landfill-waste targets to solar panels and bee hives on the roof. I haven’t visited, but SALT of Palmar in Mauritius looks interesting too, with a commitment to sustainability, from limiting emissions to having its own farm for produce.

Do you feel we have made any progress at all in 2019 when it comes to a more sustainable travel industry?
We’re making progress, but there is still such a long way to go. Given the climate emergency, it’s becoming more of a priority for more people within the industry, from big hotel chains to some airlines. I think there has been progress made with more people working in the industry looking at their businesses and how they can make them more carbon neutral. More tour operators are looking to offset carbon emissions on behalf of holidaymakers too. It’s interesting that International Airlines Group (which owns BA) recently promised to remove or offset all carbon emissions from its fleet by 2050 – still a long way off, but a step in the right direction.

Do you believe in carbon offsetting, and do you offset your own carbon?
Carbon offsetting isn’t an exact science – and it shouldn’t be used by people to alleviate their guilt around flying. But there are some great schemes which do work to absorb C02 from the atmosphere or help reduce emissions – from tree-planting to providing less polluting stoves in developing countries – which are worth investing in. I think people should look at their own carbon footprints, reduce as much as possible, fly as little as possible, and contribute to carbon offsetting ventures. I offset my own flights with Forests Without Frontiers, a new tree-planting charitable initiative that I’ve been helping set up. I really believe in the work it’s doing and the importance of planting trees in the area the first project is in.

What should people do more of when they travel?
Take the train when they can instead of flying, choose hotels that have good sustainable credentials and support local communities and environmental initiatives, or stay at homestays – owner-owned establishments where your money goes directly to local people.

Justin Francis

Justin Francis

Justin Francis is the co-founder and managing director of online travel company and responsible tourism pioneer Responsible Travel, a member of the Council for Sustainable Business and a Director at Basecamp Explorer in Kenya.

How do you feel about the health and wellbeing of people and the planet right now?
Anxious and concerned but hopeful. We need to fly less in order to ensure we can keep global heating below 2 degrees.

Do you feel we have made any progress at all in 2019 when it comes to a more sustainable travel industry?
The travel and tourism industry are making some progress, and there are some people doing brilliant things. Progress in aviation in particular has been too slow, this is why we are calling for a tax to help kick start the decarbonisation of air travel. We would like to see the introduction of a Green Flying Duty, with the proceeds of this ring fenced for research and developments into cleaner alternatives(find out more here).

Have you discovered any new gems of places to stay that genuinely “walk their talk” on sustainability and carbon mitigation and don’t greenwash?
We work with some amazing companies and have recently seen a real increase in the amount that is being done, from booking trains for customers to helping them avoid flights, or doing all they can to reduce carbon in destinations. Undiscovered Destinations, a tour operator we work with, have recently started booking trips by train, such as this one.

Do you believe in carbon offsetting, and do you offset your own carbon?
We believe carbon offsets sum up all that is wrong with our approach to tourism and the climate crisis. They perpetuate the idea this crisis does not prevent unlimited growth with old and highly polluting technology.

This is before we consider the fact that even the very best schemes do not work. A 2017 study of offsets, commissioned by the European Commission, found that 85 percent of offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had failed to reduce emissions. Even for the schemes that do work we would like to see airlines and travel companies move away from the idea of offsetting, as this incorrectly offers a ‘guilt free’ excuse to fly. We believe the industry needs to move to a carbon reduction strategy.

What should people do more of when they travel?
Fly less. This is the first thing. When you do fly try to make it count and minimise carbon in destination. Food miles are something to be conscious of, try to eat in local restaurants serving fresh, local food. I spend a lot of time at Responsible Travel campaigning and on media work that’s wider than the company, and more time outside of Responsible Travel being an advocate for issues I believe in. I work with the UK Government and business leaders, as a member of the Council for Sustainable Business, on the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan. I’m a Director at Basecamp Explorer in Kenya, working on a Maasai-owned Conservancy that serves to create local economic benefit, protect the Savannah for wildlife and for carbon sequestration, and for reforestation. I judged various Award schemes for responsible and sustainable tourism. This year I’ve started some lecturing, as a guest at Harvard Extension with Megan Epler Wood, and in the near future at The University of East London. More recently I’m becoming more engaged in community and sustainability issues in Brighton, where our offices are based. My personal travel reflects our company advice to fly less and stay longer, however I believe that only system change (rather than relying on individual actions from the willing) – hence our campaigning for The Green Flying Duty.

Juliet Kinsman

Juliet Kinsman

Juliet Kinsman is a luxury travel expert and journalist and founder of sustainability consultancy and content creation agency, BOUTECO which helps hotels to walk their talk and talk their walk when it comes to their social/environmental/economic sustainability practices.

How do you feel about the health and wellbeing of people and the planet right now?
For me, sustainability, health and wellbeing are all interlinked – and at the moment, as we move further away from nature, our wellbeing as people and planet as a whole is certainly under threat. But there’s also lots that’s wonderful and inspiring that’s happening and worth celebrating. We’re waking up to the value of good mental health and the need for us to return to a way of thinking and working that is holistic rather than individualistic. It’s important to share more stories of positivity to counter the negative news headlines that bombard us constantly. All too often messages about serious matters – especially sustainability – are done with a wagging finger or highlighting all that’s wrong with the world – but shame or guilt is the wrong emotion to always aim to evoke: when it comes to trying to change human behaviour, instead, it’s good to inspire and lead by example instead.

Have you discovered any new gems of places to stay that genuinely “walk their talk” on sustainability and carbon mitigation and don’t greenwash?
Any hotels that find a way to get truly back to nature warm my heart such as Borgo Santo Pietro in Italy, a beautiful boutique hotel that has wooed me with its new botanical skincare range, Seed to Skin, where 90% of their ingredients are sourced from their organic farm – it’s an incredible commitment to sustainability without any cost to luxury or indulgence for sybarites. You’d be hard pushed to find a hotel business with a stronger commitment to transparency around emissions than Soneva, while Steppes Travel, in response to the increased concern and curiosity around carbon calculations, has launched a grassroots “Trees & Science” campaign with the Woodland Trust. I’ve also just had an amazing week with a Slow Cyclist holiday to Transylvania in Romania, where peddling through Carpathian Mountain scenery and past orchards of fruit-laden trees at a slow pace was like meditation on two wheels. Pausing for lunch in sweet farmhouse kitchens, eating from boldly painted ceramics delicious home-cooked meals made from ingredients plucked or reared right on their doorsteps is sustainability at its simplest.

Do you feel we have made any progress at all in 2019 when it comes to a more sustainable travel industry?
I think the first challenge was raising awareness – and in many ways we are winning with this, with more people understanding the connection between anthropogenic carbon emissions and global warming and climate change. The next challenge is to get each part of the trio to start implementing change. We need three things – stricter legislation from the government to support innovation and improvements in policy which limits waste and a reliance on fossil fuels; responsibility taken by suppliers and the service industry to strive for the triple bottom line (when a business is good for people, place, and planet); and consumers to take greater responsibility for their own actions and behaviour and think a bit more deeply rather than prioritising instant gratification and convenience.

Do you believe in carbon offsetting, and do you offset your own carbon?
Absolutely I support carbon offsetting – anything to mitigate the overall expulsion of carbon and greenhouse gases – the only danger is that people mostly do it to assuage their own guilt and by offsetting to “reduce” their own emissions their actions can remain as they were, when really we need to look at the overall reduction of our own personal footprints and not just counter all the indulgences we’re having. Also not all offsetting is equal, obviously, and people need to do their homework and research exactly what they’re paying for in terms of carbon credits, and be assured that the projects that are being supported with their money are ethical and long term. It’s the taking off and landing part of our flights that’s worst, so it’s good to scrutinise individual airline policies and see whether you are giving your money to a business that considers its impact in every way it can and strives to be a good business in all respects.

What should people do more of when they travel?
Sustainability is about having a positive impact socially, environmentally and also economically, so I would urge everyone to consider the supply chain of their holidays and travels in the same way that they might look at the provenance of ingredients used in what they eat – especially with package holidays and international luxury chain hotels. I recommend reading Bruce Poon Tip’s book Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business. His travel company G Adventures has created more than 50 social enterprises around the world bringing underserved communities, from Peru to Vietnam, into the sustainable-tourism chain, resulting in improved education as well as jobs.

I also urge everyone to simply keep making some noise about what matters. Personally I challenge anyone and everyone whenever relevant about what we could all do to reduce impact – whether it’s declining goodie bags spilling over with lovely things in single-use packaging to feeding back to hotels when I think it’s utterly ridiculous they serve imported Fiji mineral water when filtered local water is absolutely fine.

Sophy Roberts
Sophy Roberts
Credit: Michael Turek

Roberts is a journalist who frequently writes for the Financial Times among others. Her first book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia, a work of non-fiction which charts the human story of Siberia through a modern-day piano hunt, is published in February 2020 by Doubleday lostpianosofsiberia.com.

How do you feel about the health and wellbeing of people and the planet right now?
Frankly it’s depressing. We worry so much about self-care, about the anxiety-inducing, stressful impact of the modern age on our populations – travel, frenetic activity, ceaseless technology. But these same pressures are destroying the planet too. We all need to slow down. It’s not just about self-care; it’s about saving the planet first. There are voices out there – of remarkable conservationists and campaigners – which are beginning to find a bigger platform. That’s an exciting shift in power, that these voices are now being heard. 

Do you feel we have made any progress at all in 2019 when it comes to a more sustainable travel industry?
In terms of appreciable, actual action? No. But what we are seeing are conversations. People are beginning to wake up, to talk about the future and to seriously consider more sustainable alternatives for the first time. Reduction of plastic bags and bottles are just the start. There’s now serious, considered, high-level discussion about the ethics and alternatives of flying. There’s a very long way to go, but self-awareness is a start.

Have you discovered any new gems of places to stay that genuinely “walk their talk” on sustainability and carbon mitigation and don’t greenwash?
I’ve just got back from Trasierra in Spain, where I was on assignment covering George Scott’s Riding Safaris. It was just remarkable – slow days spent on horseback, with candlelit evenings and not a single car seen in three days. I also think all the Nomad properties in Tanzania are good on sustainability: market leaders.

Do you believe in carbon offsetting, and do you offset your own carbon?
Yes and no. I offset my own carbon with a ‘Guilt Wood’ that I’ve planted at my home in Dorset – every time I fly, I plant a tree. But I also know that a tree planted in the heart of some of the UK’s healthiest land, which will take a generation to mature, is not going to compensate in real terms for another wash of carbon into the atmosphere from my next flight. Although I travel for a living, I’m trying to make sure that when I do fly, it is to report on a cause I believe in. Everyone has their set of scales, to justify why they should or shouldn’t get on a plane. I’m also trying to stay in a single place longer, to get more out of it, rather than just fly around the world on jobs with a willy-nilly disrespect for the impact of my actions.

What should people do more of when they travel?
In our quest for the ‘exotic’, we often overlook our own backyard. I spent a magical weekend at a yoga retreat on the north Devon coast a few weeks ago. The water was Mediterranean-blue, the skies the size of Africa’s. I booked this, and paid for it, rather than went for the journalist ‘freebie’ in Bali. In 2020 – and beyond – we all need to start looking for alternatives on our doorstep. We need to stop seeing travel as a right: it’s a privilege and it’s one we’ve glutted ourselves on. So that’s my 2020 travel resolution – to try to replace far-flung trips with experiences closer to home.

Francisca Kellett

Francisca Kellet

Francisca Kellett is a leading travel writer and editor, and the co-founder of Mundi & Co, a creative content agency for luxury travel brands.

How do you feel about the health and wellbeing of people and the planet right now?
We are at a crisis point – politically, environmentally, socially – but I’m feeling surprisingly chirpy about everything, mostly thanks to the incredibly positive youth-led movements currently striving to change things. My daughters have turned into a little environmental activists and it gives me hope for much-needed positive change.

Do you feel we have made any progress at all in 2019 when it comes to a more sustainable travel industry?
Absolutely. Sustainable travel used to be niche, but it’s now very much in the mainstream, especially in the luxury market. Travellers are highly educated and know that their travel can have a positive – or negative – impact. Their changing demands are forcing the industry to change.

Have you discovered any new gems of places to stay that genuinely “walk their talk” on sustainability and carbon mitigation and don’t greenwash?
Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat. They are hugely environmentally savvy, 100% sustainably built and have completely saved and transformed their marine environment, creating a 1,220sqm marine conservancy that was once a shark-fishing area.

Do you believe in carbon offsetting, and do you offset your own carbon?
I do carbon offset and see the benefits when we have to fly, but I also think it’s by no means a solution – and there’s the danger of legitimising too much flying. It’s a thorny issue and there should be more of a discussion around it, and less blind faith.

What should people do more of when they travel?
Fly less! I’m trying to travel by train as much as possible, and try to only fly when it really matters. Equally important is to take longer trips and only stay in places that are having a positive impact on local communities and environments. That should be a given for travellers, and is, hopefully, becoming the norm.

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