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The pandemic put sustainability on hold: Why the travel industry needs to reprioritize now

April 22, 2021
4 min read
The pandemic put sustainability on hold: Why the travel industry needs to reprioritize now
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When I traveled for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was struck by how much had changed. And it wasn't just the mask mandates and physical distancing requirements that made the travel landscape seem strange and unfamiliar.

Hotels were handing out disposable masks in the lobby, and bulk soap, shampoo and conditioner dispensers had been replaced with single-use toiletries that were supposed to have gone extinct. Television remotes were wrapped in plastic, as were the pens — every time I signed a receipt at one property's restaurant or spa, the bill came with an individually packaged pen.

Related: What your hotel stay will look like in a world after coronavirus

Everything, it seemed, had been wrapped in cellophane and plexiglass. Since we couldn't all travel around in hermetically sealed containers, we had turned the entire world into a giant, plastic bubble.

I was at once impressed with how seriously the travel industry was taking COVID-19 precautions, and also disturbed by how quickly pre-pandemic sustainability initiatives had fallen to the wayside.

Travelers have encountered all sorts of environmental sins during the pandemic as travel providers struggle to strike a balance between health and conservation. We've seen condiments come prepackaged in plastic cups, and airplane amenities distributed in plastic bags. Soft products ranging from hotel bathrobes to pillows, slippers and towels are plastic-wrapped, too. And in cities everywhere, the sidewalks are littered with vinyl gloves and polypropylene masks.

It's a disturbing backslide that comes at a time when the global climate situation is more dire than ever.

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For years, the travel industry has been under pressure to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. About 50% of travelers say it's important to choose a company with a strong sustainability plan when making travel arrangements, according to a new survey released this month from the global travel agency network Virtuoso.

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Of course, that's not to say hotels and airlines aren't still working to combat climate change and reduce pollution. Airlines are continuing to switch to more fuel-efficient aircraft and using biofuel to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Plastic straws, which have largely been rejected by the travel industry, have not made an unseemly comeback.

And even during the height of the pandemic, some of the changes hotels and airlines made to keep people safe also reduced waste.

Housekeeping services became available by request only, and most in-room paper products were removed. Airlines cut back on food and beverage service, albeit temporarily. Many restaurants shifted to QR codes — an important reminder that embracing digital technologies can lead to meaningful changes across the industry. So goodbye and good riddance, plastic menus and room key cards.

Related: How the pandemic has altered — or eliminated — hotel amenities we once took for granted

And, of course, when cruising came to a halt and travelers stopped flying, there was a significant drop in emissions. New data shows that carbon emissions fell 7% below 2019 levels — and suggests we'll need a pandemic-level response to make meaningful changes for the climate.

With airlift already increasing, demand for cars on the rise and cruise vessels returning to oceans and rivers around the world, it's more important than ever that we, as travelers, and the industry at large, take stock of our priorities.

In addition to preserving the changes that benefitted the planet, we need to pivot quickly away from single-use plastics. (Not a fan of using communal pens? Fine. Keep the same one you received on arrival and refuse the others.)

We can choose travel companies that have made deliberate steps toward reducing their carbon footprint and protecting the planet and communities they serve. (A recent American Express Travel trends report, for example, indicated that 60% of respondents agreed they want to book airlines that have a carbon-neutral commitment.)

We can donate to foundations and organizations focused on conservation and sustainability initiatives, and purchase carbon offsets.

We can take a more holistic approach to travel whenever possible: Hiking, walking and cycling around the destinations we visit.

Above all, we can hold each other, and ourselves, accountable. Consider switching to a reusable mask, or one from an environmentally conscious manufacturer. Use refillable, nontoxic disinfectants — or, at least, the next time you go to toss a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer, make sure to recycle. And when you're done with your disposable masks and gloves maybe, just maybe, don't throw them on the ground.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees