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How can travel be more sustainable post-pandemic?

Felix Schlagwein
March 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled global tourism, but there's been a growing demand for a sustainable reboot of the sector as a whole. How do tourism industry leaders and trendsetters see the future of travel?

People sunbathing by a lake in Germany
The global pandemic has forced people to consider taking holidays closer to homeImage: Ursula Düren/dpa/picture alliance

The problems brought about by the growth of global tourism in recent years were all too obvious: overcrowded cities, environmental degradation and high CO2 pollution from air travel. Calls for a more sustainable reboot of the travel industry after the coronavirus pandemic have been growing louder.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)   has now called for a "responsible recovery of the tourism sector" in order to "balance the needs of people, the planet and prosperity." That has inspired Berlin's annual International Tourism Fair (ITB), which will be held from March 9-12 under the motto "Rethink, Regenerate, Restart ― Tourism for a Better Normal." Due to the pandemic, the world's largest travel trade show will be held digitally for the first time in its history.

People standing in line for the ITB Fair in Berlin 2016, Germany
Usually the world's largest travel trade fair, the 2021 ITB will take place digitally for the first timeImage: Stefan Zeitz/imago images

A rethink for the travel industry?

"The coronavirus pandemic has been a global shock moment that has led to a rethink in the tourism industry, which is so accustomed to success," said Martin Balas of the Center for Sustainable Tourism (ZENAT) at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development.

Tourism researcher Martin Balas
Tourism researcher Martin Balas sees the pandmic as an opportunity for more sustainable tourismImage: HNE-Eberswalde

Issues such as climate protection and overtourism, which were already major challenges for tourism before COVID, have now come into even sharper focus, Balas told DW.

The German Travel Association (DRV) also sees the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for more sustainability in the industry.

"Sustainable travel is a trend that has been around for years, and the travel industry has already responded to it and will continue to do so in the future," said Ellen Madeker of DRV. Several large travel companies are preparing awareness campaigns designed to increase travelers' awareness of the impacts of travel.

Industry giant DER Touristik is also headlining its new offer of sustainable travel in Europe, Turkey and Egypt. As soon as long-distance travel is possible again, the range of sustainable trips will be further expanded overall, Ulrike Braun, head of sustainability at DER Touristik, told DW. "We have a responsibility as a travel industry. We depend heavily on the preservation of destinations, of the country and its people. That is the basis of our business," she said.

An electric boat crossing Lake Königsee in the Alps at Berchtesgaden, Germany
In an effort to be environmentally friendly, electric boats are used on Lake Königssee in the Berchtesgaden AlpsImage: Soeren Stache/dpa/picture alliance

However, the travel industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the coronavirus pandemic. According to UNWTO, the industry recorded a loss of $1.3 trillion (€1.09 trillion) in 2020 alone. Worldwide, between 100 and 120 million jobs are also at stake. In Germany, spending on vacation travel fell by almost 40%, according to a recent study by the Holidays and Travel Research Association (FUR).

This could make a reboot focusing on sustainable travel for the industry more difficult, said Madeker of DRV. Overall, she said, tour operators are seeing the increased need for more sustainable travel and are responding to it. "But in order to implement such concepts and invest in sustainable infrastructure, business first has to pick up again."

Sustainable travel - a future concept?

Low-carbon footprint: Travel trend of the future

Last summer showed what more sustainable tourism could look like: many people opted for vacations in their own country. According to FUR, Germans, for instance, took around 4 million more domestic trips than they did in 2019.

The number of air trips and cruises fell drastically in 2020, while demand for camper vans, motorhomes and bicycles rose. Faced with pandemic restrictions, many travelers also opted for more sustainable alternatives when choosing their accommodation: many preferred vacation apartments or campsites to hotels, for safety and hygienic reasons. In doing so, they improved the carbon footprint of their vacation ― whether intentionally or not ― and reduced water consumption and waste production.

A couple sitting on the banks of a river in front of their bicycles in Germany
Cycling trips were a popular sustainable travel alternativeImage: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/dpa/picture alliance

Due to ongoing travel restrictions and uncertainty regarding foreign travel, this year's summer holiday season is likely to be similar. But will this trend continue after the pandemic? Tourism researcher Martin Balas does not believe so. He believes the pandemic will not be able to change entire travel flows in the long run. "But it may be that we will prefer to travel domestically from time to time in the future," he said.

More sustainable options are needed

Above all, one dilemma concerning sustainable travel will probably not be solved by the coronavirus crisis for the time being: Many people want to travel more sustainably, but don't actually do it.

"The issue of sustainability has yet to generate any major booking impetus among customers," confirmed Ulrike Braun of DER Touristik. According to Balas, this is also due to the lack of offers. Only 2-5% of tourism offers in Germany are certified as sustainable.

A couple camping on a mountain meadow sitting in front of their tent
The startup MyCabin aims to connect nature-loving travelers with suitable hostsImage: MyCabin

The startup MyCabin wants to change that. The company based in the southern German city of Konstanz connects nature-loving travelers with suitable hosts. For example, a farmer can make his or her meadow available to hikers and campers. The pilot phase last summer was a resounding success despite the pandemic, Lene Haas of MyCabin told DW.

Starting in April, customers will be able to book regular overnight stays on the website. "We feel we have a responsibility to rethink sustainable tourism and tackle current issues," said Haas. The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, has created a greater awareness of sustainable travel. "People are practically forced to rediscover travel for themselves and realize how much added value there is in this type of travel."

But even with these initiatives, there is still a long way to go before sustainable tourism is the norm internationally. Vacationers need to book more sustainable trips and pay more attention to their environment during the trip itself so that the change toward better tourism can succeed in the future.

"The change in awareness must involve everyone," said Madeker. Balas sees it similarly, but said the industry must lead the way: "Now is the time to set the course." Otherwise, the unique opportunity to use the pandemic to make travel more sustainable and crisis-proof in the long term will be wasted.

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