Innovation That Matters

A sampling of scenes across New Zealand | Photo source

What Does It Mean to Be a Sustainable Traveller Post-Coronavirus?

The Great Reset

Stranded in New Zealand, the coronavirus pandemic actually heightened the travel experience of one Springwise writer.

Katrina Lane is a travelling writer and a frequent contributor to Springwise.

As a digital nomad journalist, and someone who cares deeply about our planet, the idea of travelling the globe presents a persistent moral dilemma – especially when it comes to air travel. Globally, the transportation sector is responsible for 25 per cent of carbon emissions. And two per cent of those emissions are accounted for by aviation.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of people taking commercial flights in 2019 reached a record high. But a flight-shaming movement had already started to encourage some people to reduce their air mileage, even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Airlines were also responding to pressure over their sustainability with a number of innovations. As spotted by Springwise, the Israeli startup Eviation sold its first batch of electric, short-haul passenger planes to US regional airline Cape Air. We also saw the development of the first aeroplane concept that uses friction as a source of power, offering a viable solution for long-haul flights.

Likewise, the focus on carbon offsetting increased, with a surge of sustainable innovations across the travel industry. For example, Springwise spotted the Goodwings booking platform, which offsets 100 per cent of carbon emissions from hostel stays. The company doesn’t spend on advertising and instead uses the money to buy carbon credits that support the Envira Amazonian Project in Brazil.

Fairbnb also launched a platform for short-term rentals aimed at helping local communities. Unlike Airbnb, the cooperative says that it is focused on sustainable tourism rather than profit. The service charges a commission to the guest (15 per cent of the rental price) and 50 per cent of it goes to fund local social projects (7.5 per cent of the overall booking cost).

Today, as the world re-opens, we have the opportunity to reinvent how we approach travel.

While technological innovation still has a major role to play, we might also consider a slower, more thoughtful approach to travel. The implications of this aren’t limited to lowering our carbon footprint by flying and driving less. There is also a deeper connection that comes with a place when making fewer, longer trips.

I was travelling through a small surf town in New Zealand when the COVID-19 alert moved to Level 4 and a lockdown took place. During the next seven weeks, I had the opportunity to get to know my surroundings and deepen my connection with the micro-culture and natural environment. Immersing myself like this would have been impossible if I had been following my original hop-to-hop itinerary.

Unlike usual travel, during which the experience of a place is mostly recreational, there was context. I wasn’t just on the receiving end of a tourist-transaction, but rather, I peeked at the echoes of local life. This reminded me of an amazing nature tracking app spotted by Springwise. The Seek app provides immediate identification and encourages users to take photos to earn badges and unlock additional features. Not only does this stimulate curiosity by gamifying learning, but it also allows users to contribute to a worldwide biodiversity database.

Similarly, I wasn’t just learning about the cultural heritage of a place, I was experiencing it on a daily basis. For example, I spent time in the community garden and learnt about the Māori connection to the land. The experience of buying pumpkins in the local supermarket was enmeshed with acknowledgement of the neighbours who had grown them. Scraps from the very same pumpkin then went to feed the local hens that supplied eggs for my breakfast. This called to mind the Tookki app, which in addition to allowing users in France to find environmentally-friendly establishments, offers ‘green’ experiences, such as zero waste workshops and 100 per cent organic meals.

Later, when it moved down to Level 2, I started to get to know the locals. Among them were artists and musicians, whose creativity I was able to understand better because I had experienced the context that sourced some of their inspiration. For example, due to the strong surfing and skateboarding culture present in the community, discarded surfboards and surf fins are painted and then used to decorate the local bars and restaurants.

A similar project was spotted by Springwise in Brussels. The Skateroom, a not-for-profit B Corp, is based on a collaboration between acclaimed artists and art foundations, and skateboards, which drive the ‘Art for Social Impact’ premise. Artists display their work on skateboards around the exhibition area, an idea based on the company’s statement that a skateboard is ‘affordable, mobile, and useable’ – ‘a symbol for freedom’ with ‘the power to break social barriers’. 

Likewise, paintings for sale in the gift shop now had more meaning — and when I listened to songs from the local bands, I could picture the people involved in the creation and the places that had influenced them. 

Moreover, I looked forward to becoming involved in community-led conservation projects. Not only because it was the right thing to do or because I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, but because I had witnessed the dance of the local fantail birds. It wasn’t just that I knew about the flora and the fauna, I cared about it.

Simultaneously, during the pandemic, we have been able to witness what happens to the Earth when we are largely absent for the first time. On a global scale, satellite images show nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fading away. Waterways also appear cleaner because of a drastic reduction in tourist boat traffic. In our local estuary, the decrease of motorised water vehicles resulted in orcas being spotted almost daily.

As strange as it may seem on the surface, the coronavirus pandemic actually heightened my travel experience. It enabled me to gain an authentic connection with a place through understanding its culture and natural environment, and it allowed me to observe how nature evolves when the human impact is reduced.

The possibility exists that this pandemic will lead to a renewed sense of mindfulness when approaching travel, with the addition of a new wave of innovations inspired by greater awareness of how interconnected people, systems and organisations in our world are.

Five post-pandemic travel innovations

Since this article was originally published, Springwise has spotted several other green travel innovations. Route-planning website Green Tickets allows users to rank transport options to their destination by travel time, price, and CO2 emissions. To compile its data, the startup uses a variety of sources, including Google Maps for driving routes, open-source projects for European trains, and the back office of Skyscanner for flight information. Meanwhile, social enterprise Murmuration combines satellite and statistical data to provide users with information on environmental, social, and economic indicators for popular destinations.

Mainstream airlines too have been innovating to improve sustainability. There have been several milestones in the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), including the world’s first commercial flight powered entirely by sustainable fuel, and the first sustainable-fuel-powered test flight of an Airbus A380.

SAF comes from a variety of sources such as plant feedstocks and used cooking oil. Not everyone is entirely convinced of the sustainability of the plant-based variety, while others point to broader concerns about our ability to scale up production of SAF. In response, innovators are developing new methods of SAF production. For example, Johnson Matthey has developed an integrated process for producing jet fuel from carbon dioxide and green hydrogen. The company claims the process can be cost-effectively deployed across a wide range of project sizes.

This article was first published in June 2020 and updated by the Springwise editorial team on 03/08/2022