The idea of sustainability is not new to the travel industry. Since the early seventies, there have been ideas and ideals run as lodges, as tour companies and stellar individual initiatives that promoted conservation, community benefits, and light footedness as central to tourism. What that means is that the companies that propagated this ideal focussed their business on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.
Even to this day these early organisations are spoken of as pioneering thought leaders that inspired a generation of followers who continue to spread sustainable values in various fields. Still, the complete spectrum of what sustainability means and how it can reflect in the business choices made by an industry that has expanded itself without regulation is yet to be seen. Not to be missed are the half-hearted and even less understood references by companies that believe sustainability as a buzzword can tick a box for their business progress. The good news is that in the last four to five years the understanding and inclination towards responsible tourism and sustainable operations have been growing and several travel organisations have made serious business shifts to ensure that some key elements for responsible tourism have been included in their products and operations.
Are companies doing enough for sustainability?
But is there a company in the travel business that promotes programs that are etched on the premise of sustainability which includes every aspect of sustainability? Is there a company that not only provides a superb traveller experience from design to execution but is also conscious of the traveler’s impact on the destination, host community and the environment?
There are not many that come to my mind immediately. There are lodges, retreats and hotels that have been stringent in developing authentic concepts as great examples of sustainably run operations, but their use by tour operators who tout themselves as responsible tour operators are not optimum. Hence we come to this imbalance of understanding and practise of sustainability. The lack of promoters and crusaders for the very idea of sustainable travel.
COVID-19 is leading to the generation of a huge amount of waste
It does not come as a surprise to me to be told repeatedly on zoom panels, read up safety and hygiene protocols, and articles by senior members of the industry that in the COVID 19 world, sustainability will have to be set aside. Notice I do not talk about a post-Covid 19 world, the persistent spread of the virus assures us that we better learn to live with this threat till such a time that a viable and tested vaccine is out. This means use-and-throw masks, gloves, PPE suits, and noxious chemicals are the new normal and recommendations for an industry that is trying to stay relevant even while medical institutions, state and central governments try to battle confounding strategies to contain the spread and fear of the virus.
Again it is no surprise when you see all that extra packaging and ‘flout’ worthy one-time-use-only protocols across industry and individuals, the effects of which lie as a mocking mosaic of pale blue and dirty white around street corners and under park benches. The irony of this dawns on you when you think about the numerous social media posts about reset and nature revival, some continue to write eloquently about the birds, blue skies and the blooming flowers. Meanwhile, masks and gloves continue to create heaps of to-be-dealt-with-later garbage clogging drains, littering streets and spilling over landfills.
Are we serious about sustainability?
So were we ever serious about sustainability? Did it matter that we proudly boasted of hundreds of bottles that we saved from the landfill, when at the first sign of trouble our first instinct is to create more garbage! Generous donations of food supplies in plastic bags, neatly packaged pouches of medicines, grand boxes of COVID 19 kits and enormous numbers of masks for migrant workers who can go back to their villages and create ‘urban’ mess. How come there are so few voices that are talking about alternatives to the use and throw sentiment. It makes great sound bytes to talk about innovation and sustainability as a business choice, it takes grit and will to stand our ground and use this opportunity to show that we are aware and we care.
It is not long ago that Greta Thunberg thundered at the UN Climate Action Summit; “How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough.” This easy switch to our old ways will be more about ‘not doing enough.’ Don’t listen to anyone who says that sustainability has to be set aside. Instead, look out, these are opportunities to rethink how we can continue to power the planet with thought and action. The internet offers as many options for earth-friendly solutions as there are use-and-throw options. COVID 19 cannot be yet another excuse to shift sustainability to a later day, if you are aware you cannot but choose right.