Will “Safe Travel” Be the New “Sustainable Tourism”?

For months now, the travel industry has appeared to be sinking in quicksand, with its’ metaphorical arms losing the strength they once had following the still fresh puncture wounds of lost bookings and cancellations in room nights, major events, flights and package travel. But COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the tourism sector to pull itself back on its feet and rethink its approach in a collaborative manner.  The virus has shown us a mirror of our own vulnerability, and our utter dependency on natural resources.

During the heights of lockdown, economic losses on behalf of tourism businesses have been grandiose, but some areas of tourism have been suffering threats beyond financial losses: as is the case of the widespread contagion of cruise ships or the sudden police intervention in the French Alps. Partly, the most horrifying stories were due to customer negligence and ignorance to the seriousness of the matter: If social distancing and quarantine measures are imposed, however strict they may be, they should be followed, and more importantly, anticipated. These stories teach us that quick, but selfless and coordinated thinking is the best way to approach a virus outbreak and an economic downfall. Nevertheless, lack of customer support, withholding refunds and being overall selfish is no way to act during a global crisis.

Fear not, the tourism industry is not a sinking ship and it certainly isn’t dying. It’s in a process of rejuvenation and we all need to adapt the best we can. This outbreak has taught us a very valuable lesson.

Sustainability has been in the game for about half a century already. Like a domino effect, tourism branching out into alternative forms such as ‘nature-based’, ‘responsible’, ‘eco- ‘, or ‘green’ tourism, has started tumbling down previous profit-driven mindsets, to be replaced with holistic values involving the conservation of natural resources and human and animal rights.

But the issue pre-virus was that many industry giants didn’t work in tandem to adopt these values as their own. Precisely because they followed the lucrative and exploitative path of the 1950s, but instead of charging astronomical rates for a trip, they provided low-cost travel while using their wide customer-base as a stepping stone towards more financial wealth. Some multinationals even stoop so low as to “greenwash” their products and services to disguise themselves as progressive while still polluting and accelerating inequality in all aspects. The use of Eco-Labels, certificates and carbon taxes are becoming prominent and are slightly mitigating our effect on the environment, however, from a demand standpoint, the public is vastly unaware of the consequences of their individual travel choices.

Some things are undeniably true: The quantity and frequency of people travelling, the length of their stay and the means of which they travel greatly influence the strain we place on destinations, their inhabitants, and lest we forget that we’re all living on the same planet, the global ecosystems and atmosphere. At the zenith of global quarantine, we all noticed that the world outside continues, and even thrives, without our intervention: nature takes over what is undeniably hers. but it is not the fact that we travel that puts pressure on nature, it is HOW and WITH WHOM we travel. Until now we have navigated with a blindfold on because of the lack of education on sustainable forms of tourism and the effects of global warming, but no more.

Safe travel” will be a new concept that will define the sustainability movement. It should place boundaries where it previously let the reins free and should incite people to buy from responsible holiday providers while travelling within close proximity, rather than taking long-haul flights and cruise ships. As a redeeming quality, it should discourage “Drunk tourism” and careless tourist behaviour, as everyone should be more cautious with what they touch, what they consume, where they go, how they move and where they stay. This is how awareness of personal safety will be translated into the education of sustainable tourism.

Both as suppliers and as consumers, we have the time and power to rearrange the way we travel and avoid irresponsible forms of tourism. As destinations are starting to open their borders to domestic and international tourism, our quarantine experience has given us a second chance to correct the wrongs we’ve been blind to see until now. We are approaching a new era in sustainable travel, perhaps seemingly tempestuous and turbulent, but we have to ride the waves with our sails wide open and the winds of change as our ultimate propeller.

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