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

Apr 22, 2021

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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.

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 photo by ArtMarie/Getty Images.

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