The uncertain future of travel

Image Credit: Nurina Imam Nizam

Killian Conyngham discusses how attitudes towards travel have changed, considering whether the travel industry will ever fully revert to its pre-pandemic form, and whether it should.

Travel has changed. That much is self-evident. At the time of writing, the government advice is to not take non-essential trips overseas. And even though the so-called ‘green list’, which stands at 10 countries at present, is exempt from this advice, there seems to be a relatively country-wide sentiment that now is not the best time to be heading abroad. Even for those who do choose to travel, quiet airports, mandatory masks, government health and safety announcements, and a plethora of new rules and regulations for entering countries and returning home ensure that the extraordinary circumstances they are travelling under are never far from mind. As summer comes to an end, and these circumstances show no signs of letting up, it is worth considering just how impactful the pandemic has been on many people’s sentiment towards travel.

As a student, my experiences with travel over the past years have often involved packed hostels and jammed bars, and as a solo traveller, making friends and travel companions on a whim, just talking to anyone and everyone. To me, it goes without saying that this type of travel is currently not viable or advisable. And while a hostel I worked at last year may be insisting that their doors are back open and they are looking for staff, to me the world of facemasks and substantial meals is fairly fundamentally incongruous with the world of hostels and bar crawls. When the former will give way again to the latter is unclear, but it certainly won’t be soon. Increasingly, there are those who maintain that some of the things that have changed will not be going back to how they were. And with its pivotal central position as the industry that transported cases across the globe, travel seems likely to be in this category.

The change also seems unlikely to be limited to recreational travel and holidays. Across 

discussions with friends and family members from a variety of fields of work, a common theme has been that many meetings that have moved to Zoom and other video calling services may never move back. The practice of flying across the planet to shake hands and speak face to face, which was once considered excessive but necessary, has revealed itself to just be excessive, as the whole world was forced to try the far cheaper alternative of video calls and conferences. And while there will no doubt still be executives flying to stay in expensive hotels to ‘seal the deal’, a significant drop off in the number of such flights and meetings seems inevitable. 

And that isn’t even the end of it. Because these shifts in mindset towards travel are not happening in a vacuum, they are happening in a world in the throes of climate and ecological crises. Travel and the tourism industry have always had an interesting relationship with the environment. One of the express purposes of travel is to see and experience other cultures and marvels of nature. Despite this, travel stands as one of the most damaging luxury industries, contributing emissions, and pollution which threatens many of the very same cultures and nature which tourists set out to see. From the perspective of reducing travel emissions, reducing the number of flights taken is one of the most effective approaches. The recent trends of moving meetings to the internet and encouraging people to staycation have corresponded with an unprecedented drop in travel-based emissions, especially in the aviation sector.

Polluters rarely go down without a fight, however. It should come as no surprise that, amid the pandemic, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was changed to be based on 2019 as a baseline rather than 2020. This was done to reduce the ‘inappropriate economic burden’ on airlines forced to maintain the involuntary drop in emissions caused by the pandemic. What makes this decision especially interesting, in the context of the future of travel, is that industry observers noted that 2019 levels of emissions were unlikely to be reached again until 2024, implying that we are still a long way off 2019 levels of air traffic. Environmental groups have argued that the decision would mean airlines will essentially be able to pollute freely for years to come, reducing the pressure to curb emissions in the coming years.

Not only is it disappointing that the current drop in emissions will not be set as a baseline, but there is something slightly off that the prediction even mentions 2024 as a possible return point to 2019 airline emissions. Is the goal of the CORSIA programme, and other regional and national efforts, not to curb emissions? More fundamentally, does it really seem likely that if the 2024 travel industry looks much like it did in 2019, we would also be on track to preventing the worst of climate change? Realistically, any push to return travel to exactly the way it was in 2019 will have to run counter to any push to significantly reduce global emissions. 

It can nonetheless be tempting to imagine travel and tourism simply returning to the old status quo when the current pandemic ends. This is especially the case if you were someone whom that status quo mostly suited. And the more people who convince themselves that we will be reverting to where we were a year ago, and book flights, hotels, and tours accordingly, the more the future of travel will resemble its recent past. This makes even the idea that the world of travel will simply revert to how it was an unsettling one to imagine floating around. Not only because it is likely wrong, and not only because I fear I may slightly believe it myself, but because if it is true, its results would be disastrous. I surely don’t have to tell you terrifying climate change facts, or species extinction figures, or expound on the unequal impacts our pollution has. We know we cannot continue like this. We know things have to change. We know travel has to change. Now, all we have to do is change it.

So even when the recommendations disappear, even when the hotels reopen and the flights are going again, when there are no red lists and no green-lists either, and when our current pandemic is spoken about in the past tense, even then, I think it would be wise to assume, and to hope, and to prepare for the fact, that the phoenix of travel that rises from the ashes is unlikely to resemble exactly the one that caught fire in March. And that provides an opportunity. An opportunity to evaluate our travel habits, and which future of travel they are supporting, to take actionable steps towards making the pastime less destructive, and to fight for the future of travel we would like to see.