United Nations Day: How the travel industry is building back more responsibly in the wake of coronavirus

Helen Coffey
·8-min read
On United Nations Day, we look at the companies building back more sustainably (Getty Images)
On United Nations Day, we look at the companies building back more sustainably (Getty Images)

Saturday 24 October marks 75 years since the United Nations officially came into being.

Perhaps it’s apt that this momentous anniversary falls in the midst of a global pandemic – a time when we’re in need of the UN’s tenets of solidarity and multilateralism more than ever.

In an increasingly interconnected world, containing the virus, as well as dealing with the social and economic impacts yet to come, is not something one country can do alone.

“Today, the urgency for all countries to come together, to fulfil the promise of the nations united, has rarely been greater,” says the organisation.

“This anniversary comes in a time of great disruption for the world, compounded by an unprecedented global health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with severe economic and social impacts. But it is also a reminder that times of struggle can become an opportunity for positive change and transformation.”

This last sentiment has proven to be true – at least when it comes to certain players in the travel industry. While the sector has been one of the hardest hit economically, losing an estimated $195bn worldwide since coronavirus started spreading rapidly across the globe, it hasn’t stopped some companies from seizing the chance to stop, think and change for the better. Businesses are building back more sustainably and responsibly – a feat that ties in neatly with the UN’s own goals.

In fact, the body has laid out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”, that address everything from climate change to poverty, inequality to peace and justice. The UN introduced these forward-thinking SDGs five years ago; it turns out the travel industry was listening.

Tackling climate change

One of the UN’s SDGs, Act Now to Stop Global Warming, is particularly challenging for much of the tourism industry. We all know flights are big carbon emitters; cruise ships are significant polluters; and even hotels are usually guilty of having a substantial carbon footprint.

Before Covid-19 shook the status quo, tourism was responsible for 8 per cent of emissions worldwide. But travellers want to see change – according to survey by Original Travel, 67 per cent of respondents said they were committed to travelling “better” in 2021 by making more conscious plans, using greener methods of transport, taking fewer trips for longer and opting for destinations most in need of tourist support.

Intrepid Travel is one of the travel companies meeting this challenge head on. It’s just become the first tour operator in the world with verified, science-based carbon emissions targets, approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). A collaboration between four organisations, including the United Nations Global Compact, the initiative is promoting best practices around corporate climate action and independently assessing and approving companies’ targets to ensure they’re in line with the Paris Agreement.

It’s not a step that can be taken lightly; Intrepid will have to make sacrifices to transform into a low carbon business, including replacing transport options on many itineraries with lower carbon alternatives, such as high speed rail, offering more domestic or short-haul destinations, reducing international business travel, procuring renewable electricity and transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy in its global offices by 2025.

Thankfully, there seem to be no regrets. “Setting science-based targets is widely considered the most effective way for companies to take significant climate action, and we’re proud to be building our business towards a 1.5°C future,” says James Thornton, CEO.

“Our hope is that we can use this as a rallying cry to the entire industry that climate action needs to be a critical priority in travel’s post-Covid recovery. We simply can’t rebuild at the expense of the planet.”

The company isn’t alone is setting itself ambitious goals. The Travel Corporation (TTC), an international group of 40 travel brands, has redoubled its commitment to sustainable and regenerative tourism by launching How We Tread Right, a new five-year sustainability strategy. Comprised of 11 goals, the plan is designed to address climate change, overtourism, animal welfare, sustainable food production, responsible consumption and diversity and inclusion.

A key part of TTC’s strategy also involves the UN; in an industry first, its Make Travel Matter Experiences have been selected using a tool that measures each experience against criteria informed by the United Nations’ SDGs. It means travel companies can focus on offering experiences that have a positive impact on destinations and directly advance the UN’s goals.

“Never before has our industry been faced with so many challenges, many of which are directly tied to the heavy environmental footprint on the planet,” says Brett Tollman, chief executive of TTC. “At TTC, we believe that sustainability is critical to the return of our business post-Covid-19.”

New starters

It might seem a perverse time to launch a new product in the travel industry – particularly one that’s guided more by people and planet than by profit. But fortune favours the bold; at least, that’s what Travelling Whale’s founders, Hattie Seal and Annabel Upson, are hoping. The new female-led online travel agency is aimed squarely at travellers who want to enjoy sustainable adventures around the world.

“We only use suppliers that have the same vision and values of sustainability as us, have a responsible travel policy in place and invest in their local communities in a variety of ways,” say Hattie and Annabel.

Offering bespoke on-demand travel services and small group tours both in the UK and internationally, all with a sustainable slant, Travelling Whale sees the pandemic as hailing a new dawn for global tourism – one in which businesses act responsibly.

Existing travel brands have also been prompted to think up new ideas amid the shifting sands of the industry. Case in point is The Conscious Travel Foundation: five travel companies that have come together to launch a social enterprise supporting grassroots projects in destinations across the world. Spurred on by the gap in funding caused by the coronavirus travel ban, the founders hope to raise much-needed funds alongside championing the positive impact of the travel industry on local communities.

“As soon as we began to hear about the coronavirus-related issues that many of our colleagues and friends on the ground were facing, taking action became imperative,” says founder Georgina Coke of By Georgie.

“The purpose of the foundation is to enable smaller travel companies like ours to contribute meaningfully to projects which have tangible benefits to local communities and habitats, as well as to direct holidaymakers towards ethical companies which are making a difference in the destinations they visit.”

Fundraising for the foundation will begin in November, with an online auction consisting of worldwide travel experiences donated by local partners.

Carbon-free flights

The aviation industry is one of the most contentious elements when it comes to making travel and tourism more eco-friendly. Future tech could just help move things in the right direction though; and a new competition is hoping to kickstart innovation.

Carbon Footprint Ltd has launched the world’s first Freedom Flight Prize, a multimillion-pound prize open to manufacturers, research and academic groups and inventors. The goal? To design and fly a 100+ seater passenger aircraft powered by 100 per cent renewable energy on a round-trip between London and New York. The winner is the first team to complete this historic flight within a set timeframe.

John Buckley, MD of Carbon Footprint Ltd and aerospace engineer, said: “This is the revolution that I have been waiting my whole career for – the Freedom Flight Prize puts 100 per cent renewable flights right in the spotlight in order to address the climate emergency we face.”

Hotels with a conscience

It’s also possible to sleep easy, with hotels getting in on the action when it comes to refocusing efforts on sustainability initiatives.

Take Joali Maldives, a luxury resort that nevertheless takes its eco-credentials seriously. It has its own compactor to compact tins and papers; a new wood chipper that helps create its own natural fertilizer; a rocket composter for all wet rubbish generated; a desalinating water system to produce fresh water (bottled in glass, rather than plastic); a rain harvesting process for landscaping; and menus that are all Fairtrade stamped.

“But there is always more to do,” bemoans the resort. “We recently launched our EarthCheck benchmarking process, which will help us make further improvements in waste management and energy conservation.”

Guests can also get stuck in on the sustainability front, and are encouraged to take part in Joali’s Reef Restoration Programme by helping its resident marine biologist to plant coral underwater, or head out on a coconut tree planting excursion calculated to offset the carbon emissions produced per guest.

Peninsula Hotels, meanwhile, has unveiled its Sustainable Luxury Vision 2020, which sees more than 20 per cent of its staff engaging in local community projects, a 26 per cent reduction in in water usage across its hotels, and HK$12 million (£1.2m) in donations to 463 community programmes around the world. The brand has also launched one-for-one meal donations, partnering with local charities to provide food for communities in need.

It’s easy to think that the future of the travel industry looks bleak right now. But with businesses pivoting to forge a new, more sustainable path forward, there’s truly reason for hope amid the gloom.

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