Travelling sustainably isn’t enough: Here’s why it’s time to give back to the places we visit

Travelling sustainably isn’t enough: Here’s why it’s time to give back to the places we visit

Sustainable travel is finally going mainstream - and with a new call to action: regenerative tourism.

Floods, heatwaves, forest fires and droughts have put the environment at the forefront in 2022. At the same time, travellers are eager to reconnect with nature coming out of the pandemic. So how can we do this without becoming part of the problem?

In Booking.com’s 2022 Sustainable Travel Report, which polled 30,000 global travellers across 32 countries, 42 per cent said that recent news about climate change had influenced them to make more sustainable travel choices. More than half (57 per cent) said they wanted to travel more sustainably in the next 12 months.

This growing desire to make more sustainable travel choices screams opportunity, and travel companies are starting to take note. However, simply cutting down on energy usage and ditching single-use plastics isn’t enough.

In 2023, the tourism industry needs to find ways to preserve, protect and proactively regenerate the destinations it serves. Here’s how regenerative travel works.

What is regenerative travel?

Whereas sustainable tourism might aim for carbon-neutral practices, regenerative travel shoots for carbon negative. This means investing in solutions that remove or offset more carbon than they emit.

A sustainable hotel might limit its carbon output by using solar-power or encouraging EV travel. But a regenerative one will proactively benefit the environment, for example by removing additional carbon from the atmosphere.

Regenerative tourism also involves investing in projects that will improve the environment, rather than just restoring it to how it was found.

The move towards biodiversity regeneration - tree planting, habitat restoration and other investments in nature - is gaining momentum. More than 100 countries have now signed up to the ‘30x30’ pact to protect at least 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030.

Both travel companies and destinations are realising they can help in this mission. New Zealand, for example, is a pioneer of regenerative travel. During the pandemic, the country announced plans to decarbonise tourism by restoring landscapes damaged by footfall and incentivising electric vehicle usage.

Exodus Travels
Exodus Travels' rewilding project in Italy could remove around 1,500 tonnes of carbon every year. - Exodus Travels

Adventure tour operator Exodus Travels is leading the way in the commercial sphere with its pledge to become ‘nature net positive’ by 2024. The jewel in its crown is a huge rewilding project in the Apennines of Italy, partially funded by trip bookings, which has the potential to remove approximately 1,500 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year.

So, how do you plan an environmentally responsible trip?

Eco travel agents and carbon offsetting pave the way for regenerative travel

“Regenerative tourism is an element of sustainability,” says Nelly O Gedeon, founder and CEO of eco-travel app Wayaj. Through the app, travellers can explore and book sustainable and socially responsible experiences and hotels throughout the world.

Hotels are given a ‘sustainability rating’ based on seven factors: materials, community support, management, water and energy consumption, waste management and indoor environment.

“What we need is for more participants - travellers and travel providers - to become more aware, understand, and appreciate the importance of this sector so they can play a greater role in embracing sustainable [and] regenerative tourism.”

Wayaj doesn’t just gather responsible operators in one place. It allows you to calculate the carbon footprint of your trip and purchase carbon offsets to neutralise your environmental impact.

Your additional contribution is invested into environmental projects such as reforestation in India, clean energy generation in Thailand, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Malawi.

“What we would like to see is more people embracing the power of calculating the carbon footprint of their travels and offsetting as one way to help fight climate change.”

Some flight operators, too, offer carbon offsetting at the point of purchase. However, this doesn't negate the need to reduce emissions, and you should still look to low-carbon alternatives to flying such as train travel and EVs.

Which hotels will embrace regenerative tourism in 2023?

Hotels around the globe have already begun making sustainable changes, from simple acts like requesting guests to reuse towels to more elaborate practices like installing onsite solar farms. In 2023, carbon negative builds and circular economy creation will top the agenda.

Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers, for example, is already turning waste products into new resources - creating local production jobs in the process. Its floors are made of recycled rubber and concrete, its acoustic ceiling panels from PET bottles, and its ventilation shafts are covered in discarded sails.

The USA’s first carbon negative hotel, Populus, is due to open in Denver, Colorado, in late 2023. Over 2,000 hectares of forest will be planted to offset the hotel’s carbon footprint and remove additional CO2 from the atmosphere.

Hype is growing for the opening of Six Senses Svart in 2024, which plans to harvest all of its own solar energy in a wild area of Arctic Norway.

In December 2022, the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) - the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade - is set to be held in Montreal, Canada. This should only serve to inspire the tourism sector further.

The next iteration of eco-tourism will expand upon the ‘take only photos, leave only memories’ perspective. Expect travellers to insist upon carbon negative and nature protective travel in 2023.

After a year in which the climate emergency has become headline news, it will no longer be enough for travel businesses to simply aim to minimise their impact on the environment. Tour operators, destination bodies and hotels will be tasked with the job of actively repairing, restoring and investing in nature.

The regenerative travel trend is explored in more detail in Expedia and Euronews Travel's 2023 Trend Report.