Post-Pandemic Travel: What does it mean for the environment?

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Post-Pandemic Travel: What does it mean for the environment?

Guest post by: Jamie D’Souza, Happy Eco News’ Content Manager

I think it’s safe to say that it’s been a tough year and a bit for all of us. I know this confinement has everyone planning elaborate vacations that they’ll take the second the governments say it’s safe. I’m writing this post from Patioville (a.k.a. my backyard) in Montreal, and although it’s been fun exploring the city, I too, am itching for an adventure. 

For many countries in the world, tourism plays an important role for their economy. In 2019, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that over 10% of jobs and global GDP came from the tourism industry. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism industry has been hit hard due to global travel restrictions. In 2020, the number of international arrivals dropped by 72% with a significant drop in global economic activities as a result.  

Prior to the pandemic, the tourism industry was expanding rapidly due to an increase in the affordability and accessibility of travel. It was estimated that international tourism increased 65% from 2005 -2016. Although the economic impact from travel is great, tourism tends to have the opposite affect on the environment. 

The demand to travel has also increased the demand for energy-intensive modes of transportation – i.e. the plane. In 2018, it was estimated that emissions from tourism had risen to 8% (a 3% increase from estimates made in 2008) and that air travel accounted for the majority of these emissions. This is bigger than the construction industry! This number may look small compared to emissions from the coal industry for example, but it is something we need to keep an eye on, and here’s why. 

IMG 4857 scaled Post-Pandemic Travel: What does it mean for the environment?
Aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has quantified how our dependence on fossil fuel energy, unethical deforestation practices, and excessive carbon-emitting infrastructure projects contribute to the global effects of climate change. As a result, we’re experiencing warmer temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, more animal and plant species disappearing or appearing in different locations, and these are just a few examples. 

In response to climate change, the tourism industry is experiencing changes in tourism seasons and a shift in the availability of tourism products and attractions. Although tourism is vulnerable to these changes, its energy-intensive activities, accommodations, and modes of transportation are also influencing the changes we’re seeing on our planet. Emissions may be down now, but the travel and tourism industry and environmental impact that comes with it are expected to go back to pre-pandemic levels by 2023. 

To give you a better idea of what this means, I’ll take you on a (virtual) trip to Churchill, Manitoba – the polar bear capital of the world. This is where my colleagues and I studied this notable relationship between climate change and tourism. Churchill is a small subarctic town in Canada, whose local economy depends on tourism. One of their biggest tourism seasons is polar bear viewing. From October to November, tourists from all over the world come to Churchill to see a polar bear in its natural environment.

Over the past decade, another motivation to travel to Churchill has been explored. With rising temperatures in the Arctic, the sea ice is melting sooner and taking longer to refreeze. This is negatively influencing how a polar bear hunts for food which is impacting their health and population sizes. As a result, polar bears have become a global symbol of climate change and the media has influenced people to travel to Churchill to see these northern animals before they disappear. With an increase in demand to travel to the north comes with an increase in the demand for air travel. Do you see how we’ve come full circle to the issues I discussed above? 

IMG 2228 scaled Post-Pandemic Travel: What does it mean for the environment?
A tundra buggy spotting a polar bear in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area

During the 2018 polar bear-viewing season, I conducted surveys with polar bear-viewing tourists to get a sense of how energy-intensive polar bear viewing tourism is and what tourists knew about the impacts of climate change on tourism. What we found in this study is that greenhouse gas emissions for a polar bear-viewing tourist were 3-33 times higher (depending on where the tourist was traveling from) than an average tourist experience, primarily because of this dependence on air travel. I should note that compared to other Arctic regions, there are no roads to Churchill, cruise ship tourism is seasonal, and at the time of the study, the train that runs from Winnipeg was non-functional, therefore the only way to reach this subarctic down was by plane. It would be interesting to see how emissions may have changed now that the train is back up and running. 

What we also found out in this study was that although people generally know more about climate change than they did a decade ago, they don’t necessarily make this connection to travel. Many respondents didn’t understand how air travel influenced climate change, and, in turn, how these changes impacted the polar bear populations. And why is that? Existing research suggests this is because we can’t actually see our impacts from travel. We can’t see the emissions from the plane, we can’t see how our one trip can impact a polar bear or lead to warming temperatures. 

Moreover, when people travel, they tend to suspend their environmental behaviour, or worse, ignore, underestimate, or deny the impacts from travel. I have to admit, I was a bit naïve about the environmental impact of tourism before I did this project. At home, I try to be as sustainable as possible – I recycle, compost, shop second-hand, walk and take public transportation but for some reason, when traveling or planning a trip, I never considered the impact from flying. Unfortunately, climate change does not takes a vacation, and although your one trip isn’t going to end the world, as more people choose energy-intensive modes of transportation, emissions will continue to rise and the impacts may be detrimental, especially to industries like Churchill who depend on nature. 


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Churchill, Manitoba’s breathtaking sunset

What can we do to make tourism more sustainable? In my study, I asked polar bear-viewing tourists what they thought the best ways to reduce the environmental impact from tourism are and here’s what they came up with: 

Education – We have to start talking about it! We’re not going to change our habits and behaviours if we don’t know that we’re doing something wrong. Everyone plays a role in sharing this information – individuals, tourism industries, tour operators, and even governments. Even if right now we’re not getting on a plane or traveling very far, we should be aware that collectively, our actions can still have an impact on our local environments. 

Transportation alternatives – Planes, although fast and convenient, are not the only ways to get around. In the example of Churchill, a lot of my respondents would have taken the train if it was available to them at the time of their trip. Unfortunately, due to the time constraints of a tourists’ vacation, they tend to opt for the one-hour plane ride compared to the two-day trip. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we can work from anywhere, so why not work on the train and start your vacation once you’ve arrived at your destination? This is something that can be factored in when planning a trip in order to make it more sustainable. 

Carbon pricing and taxing – This is a trend that is growing, especially as countries try to reach their sustainability goals. Canada has recently implemented their carbon pricing plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It will be interesting to see the impact this has on travel and the development of new energy-efficient modes of transportation. 

Greenhouse gas emission data: This is where airlines will put the amount of greenhouse gas emissions your flight will have – kind of like how they put the calories on menus to reduce obesity rates. It’s meant to discourage people from choosing energy-intensive modes of travel. I personally haven’t seen many examples of this. Of course, doing so would require education about what these emissions mean to make people rethink their travel choices.

Carbon offsets – These are monetary donations used to promote initiatives such as renewable energy generation projects and research directly linked to climate change. These offsets are intended to reduce initial carbon emissions from air transport. You can use online carbon calculators to calculate your emissions and often there is an option to make a donation to offset your flight. There is also a need to ask airlines if they are offsetting their emissions so that the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the tourist but on the industry as well. 

IMG 0935 Post-Pandemic Travel: What does it mean for the environment?
The train was up and running when I went back to Churchill in 2019! I took it there and back to Winnipeg, and it was awesome!

These are only a few examples of how you can make your trip more sustainable. Many websites (David Suzuki Foundation) and organizations offer additional ways to reduce your carbon footprint. The intention of the post is not to scare you into never traveling again! We all deserve a vacation once in a while and there are so many places to be explored. The purpose is to make you aware of your environmental impact and how travel is another one of our human activities influencing climate change. 

Together, we can be the change that our planet needs. Through sustainable travel and decisions, we can continue to support local economies and protect the resources many tourism industries depend on. So, when you’re planning your post-pandemic trip, make sure to add the environment onto your checklist. 

I think right now, I’ll take a trip to the kitchen and grab a beer (local of course). The sun here in Patioville feels like summer, and if I close my eyes, I can pretend I’m on a beach. If that’s not sustainable travel, then I don’t know what is! 


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One comment

  1. Very nicely put together taking into account various aspects of environment related issues . Definitely get you thinking!
    Keep up the good work .

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