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How Exactly Do You Travel Without Guilt Post-COVID-19?

Is it possible to travel better in the future?

The flight shame movement gained traction after activist Greta Thunberg chose to sail, instead of taking a flight, across the Atlantic. All eyes were on the aviation industry again, which contributes to 2.5% of carbon emissions. Actually, aviation could consume 12% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Fliers, too, were asked some tough questions about their quest for frequent miles that has resulted in environmental damage.

After the coronavirus hit, these carbon emissions went down drastically because planes were grounded. Air pollution decreased, crowds from popular tourist sites disappeared, and animals came out to celebrate this human-free holiday.

While travelers have been distressed about canceled trips, this pause has given all of us time to think about what we’re doing to the planet.

Travel Guilt Is Real

For Sydney-based Jigyasa Rathour, the reckoning came a few months before the pandemic hit, when Australia was burning due to bushfires. She started reading about climate change and realized the size of her carbon footprint. “I feel guilty about my trips. I used to travel to Brisbane and Melbourne for work a lot and I never stopped to think if it was needed and if I could do it on video. I would also take two holidays in a year and buy souvenirs that were made in China and shop for things that I didn’t need,” she says.

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She turned vegetarian in September last year after understanding the impacts of the meat industry on the environment, but in the past few months, she has reconsidered her lifestyle and made more changes, from reducing unnecessary travels to recycling and being conscious of the waste produced to curbing all unnecessary shopping. “It’s not just the governments who need to take action. As individuals, we can make a massive difference,” she adds.

“Travel is not bad for the planet if you do it right. It generates jobs for local communities who depend on natural resources and saves wilderness and protected areas.”

In 2016, travel and wildlife writer Malavika Bhattacharya went on a safari in a national park in Madhya Pradesh, India, and witnessed a shocking incident. “We spotted a tiger, a young adult male, on our safari and 10 other jeeps revved to the spot. They chased the tiger, people clicked pictures, shouting at each other to move out of their frame. It left a bad taste in my mouth,” she says. Since that incident, she has been careful about wildlife experiences and researches tour operators thoroughly. “Travel is not bad for the planet if you do it right. It generates jobs for local communities who depend on natural resources and saves wilderness and protected areas.”

Dr Krithi K Karanth, Chief Conservation Scientist, Centre for Wildlife Studies, agrees. “Since the lockdowns, people who depend on wildlife tourism for their livelihoods have been affected badly. Also, poaching has gone up because there are fewer eyes on the ground.” She explains that we need to balance it and the coronavirus pandemic has given us an opportunity to see how we can moderate it.

The Far-Reaching Impacts

Every decision a traveler makes, from where to go, to how to get there, to what to eat and what to do affects the economy, local communities, and the planet. And when you are unaware of this impact, you don’t make the best decisions.

Take overtourism, for example. A regular influx of tourists is hiking prices in residential areas (courtesy Airbnbs), congesting roads and causing traffic and diluting local cultures and traditions; when you have Starbucks and McDonald’s in remote corners of the world, people don’t eat local.

Coming to food, did you know that a quarter of all food in hotels is wasted? Blame hotel buffets and people who overestimate their appetite because of the sheer number of options. Overall, food waste costs the world US$1 trillion (with supermarkets and agricultural practices being other culprits). Once dumped in landfills, this food generates methane, a greenhouse gas, and contributes to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Every decision a traveler makes, from where to go, to how to get there, to what to eat and what to do affects the economy, local communities, and the planet. And when you are unaware of this impact, you don’t make the best decisions.

There’s a growing waste problem and even the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is littered with trash—plastic wrappers, tents, mountain gear, and human feces.

And let’s not even get started on receding coastlines, plastic in the oceans, sunscreen killing corals and inhumane treatment of animals in zoos and circuses.

Yet, stopping altogether is not even a possibility.

Tourism accounts for about 10% of the economy globally. In the last five years, every one in four jobs was generated by the tourism industry. It is the livelihood of not just hotel workers and tour operators, but also craftspeople and artists, drivers and tour guides, locals running B&B and homestays, and safari guides and rangers. Many non-profits use revenues generated from tourist activities for animal and environmental conservation. Besides, travel has tons of benefits for escapists.

Due to the pandemic, the industry is facing a loss of US$990 billion to US$1.5 trillion, according to the World Tourism Organization. This year, millions of jobs will be lost and tourism-dependent countries are expected to go into recession. For developing nations, tourism is a lifeline and we can’t pull the plug.

So, What Can You Do to Not Feel Guilty About It?

Travel responsibly. It means researching every single aspect of your trip and deciding for yourself how much is too much.

Buying carbon off-sets, although an idea worth exploring, does not absolve you if you’re petting a sedated tiger. Social development sector consultant Matilda Lobo believes that we have to make conscious decisions every day.

A former corporate executive, she sold her car five years ago and now she only takes the local train or covers the distance on foot. She doesn’t use any international brands or packaged food and composts her food waste at home. Her travels are different too. “I don’t do any short-term travel. I go for a month at a time and immerse myself in the local culture.” On her last trip, to the Everest Base Camp, she carried a 65-litre backpack and brought back all her trash, even tissues.

These decisions are personal, but to reach the sweet spot of equilibrium to not overtax our natural resources while giving back to communities, here are some actions you can take:

  • Don’t fly short distances. A majority of carbon emission happens at takeoff and landing. Fly light and give up business/first class seats for economy.
  • Use this calculator to calculate your flight’s carbon emissions, and decide if local transportation/driving would be a better idea.
  • Instead of “Made in China” souvenirs, buy from local artists and craftspeople.
  • Eat local. Stay in homestays. Invest in cultural experiences. Learn to cook a local dish or go on a walking tour.
  • Use ocean-friendly sunscreen if you’re diving/swimming in the ocean.
  • Bring your trash back and recycle at home, especially when you’re hiking/trekking or going to a plastic-free destination.
  • Find destinations that are off-the-beaten-path to avoid overtourism.
  • Check if your tour operator is following sustainable practices. Read about any experience that includes animals.
  • Volunteer when you travel. Join an anti-poaching squad, or clean up beaches. You can even adopt an animal and get regular updates virtually.
  • Consider virtual experiences: national parks, museums, and tour operators are now offering these to travel lovers.

Post-COVID-19, travelers and operators will be strict about sanitation and hygiene, and more domestic travel and road trips are expected in the coming months, especially if international borders remain closed. Travel is going to change and people who adapt quickly will be on the right side of history.