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How to build sustainable travel habits for a new type of tourism

The joint challenges of coronavirus and climate change have brought the need for more sustainable travel into sharp focus. The travel industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and is now facing up to a world where consumers are looking to make smart choices about where they travel and how they can do so in a more sustainable way.

Couple sitting in a cabin in Helsinki
Anne Larilahti

Research by the World Tourism Organization has shown that tourist numbers could slide by between 60 and 80 percent in 2020. This doesn’t just affect those unable to go on holiday. Entire economies, especially in developing regions, have been crippled by the lack of travelers, with jobs lost and development slowed to a halt. 

“If we don’t continue to travel, we lose this understanding of people in other places, losing the understanding that they are the same as us, even if they live in a different way,” says Anne Larilahti, Finnair’s head of sustainability.

So, how can we start to travel again, help out places hardest hit and ensure we do so in a way that doesn’t adversely affect the planet?

Make conscious choices about where and how to travel

“People will be thinking more carefully of the trips they take, and that’s a good thing,” says Anne Larilahti. “They will also be thinking of how they are going to take them and that’s also a good thing.” 

This tallies with a growing approach among ethically minded, responsible operators, who are encouraging tourists to make their trips count by taking fewer of them and going for longer. It’s something that UK–based Responsible Travel has put at the heart of its business, pushing its customers towards staying closer to home for shorter trips and prioritizing one longer vacation a year and traveling overland when there, rather than taking internal flights.

It’s not just about how you get there though. Where you go when you’re on the ground also makes a huge difference. Those who want to build more sustainable habits should keep an eye out for conservation and preservation schemes that put local communities first. 

Pick destinations carefully

The devastating impact of coronavirus on countries that are reliant on tourism is hard to overstate. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that as many as 197 million jobs could be lost in the sector worldwide, with up to $5.5 trillion lost. Research has shown that the bulk of these losses are being seen in the Asia Pacific region. When we can travel more freely again, it is countries in developing regions that have become dependent on tourists that will need the most help.

“Lack of tourism is going to hit destination countries very hard,” says Larilahti, explaining that simply not traveling to these places risks losing the important understanding between nations, especially at a time when human understanding has never been more important. “The added issue is that the tourism industry in many countries is extremely important for local women. Many of the jobs available for women  are in the service industry, which is fuelled by tourism.”

It’s not just about picking countries that have been hardest hit though. Within these places, it’s about making the effort to visit areas, hotels and conservation spaces that have the highest standards and that place local people at the heart of their business. Getting off the beaten path, .away from areas that have been previously affected by overtourism and spending money directly with locals, is a good way to practice sustainable tourism.

Make smart travel choices

While Finnair has ambitious targets to reduce net emissions by 50 percent by 2025 and be carbon neutral no later than 2045, as well as place sustainability at the core of its business by rewriting its articles of association, Larilahti says it’s down to everyone to play their part.

“People rightly expect companies to do a lot. But something we need to learn, all of us, is that we need to carry the responsibility for the emissions of the services we use. So it needs to be a combination of what the company does, how it’s explained to the consumers but also offering opportunities for consumers to participate in that emissions reduction.

“The consumer is definitely more environmentally conscious and will be going forward. They will put sustainability as one piece of their decision making process.” Just by considering what this means and how you can help before booking your big trip for 2021, you can begin to help build sustainable travel habits that will catch on.

Take responsibility to keep yourself and fellow travelers healthy

The ongoing coronavirus crisis means that the basics of how we travel have had to change. And by following best practices, travelers can ensure that a new, sustainable tourism can develop in the wake of the biggest challenge the travel and aviation industries have ever faced.

Firstly, that means wearing a mask at all times when at the airport, on the plane and whenever you find yourself in indoor public spaces. Doing so can cut down on transmission by as much as 85 percent according to research by British scientists. It’s recommended that you have at least two masks with you at all times, ideally reusable ones that can be washed regularly. Disposable masks are known to cause plastic pollution and there are lots of great, fashionable options for people who want face coverings that can be worn over and over.

Additionally, travelers should avoid crowded places in order to maintain social distancing, carry hand sanitizer at all times for easy hand washing and use credit or debit cards for payments wherever possible. And most importantly of all, be sure to isolate and get a test if you display any symptoms. It’s a good idea to download local coronavirus tracking apps when on the road, meaning you can see where hotspots are and report symptoms so that anyone you come into close contact with can also get tested. If you’re returning to Finland from a high risk country, it is vital you follow official guidance. By doing so, you can make tourism viable in the long term.


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