Surveys indicate a silver lining to the pandemic is a heightened commitment to "sustainable" travel by consumers. But as vaccinations lift travel prospects, hopes for a "green" recovery may have been overblown.
Sustainable travel has grown in popularity in recent years as people have tried to mitigate the negative effects of tourism, either by avoiding damaging practices or offsetting them.
The pandemic appeared to accelerate that trend.
According to a recent study by travel company Virtuoso, four in five people (82%) said the pandemic has made them want to travel more responsibly in the future. Almost three-quarters (72%) said travel should support local communities and economies, preserve destinations' cultural heritage and protect the planet.
But a further probe tells a different story.
In a separate study by travel site The Vacationer, a similar majority (83%) said sustainable travel was somewhat or very important to them. Yet, almost half (48%) of respondents said they would opt for such trips only if it did not inconvenience them.
And convenience isn't the only limitation.
Good intentions aside, cost remains the primary consideration for most travelers (62%) when planning a holiday, the study from The Vacationer found. Sustainability and carbon footprint, on the other hand, pales at 4%.
Seven in 10 (71%) said they would pay more to lower their carbon footprint, but the extent to which they're willing — or able — to do so varies greatly.
Just over a quarter (27%) of respondents said they would pay less than $50 to counter their emissions, while one-third (33%) said they would contribute $50 to $250. Only 3% said they would be willing to pay over $500, and 29% would pay nothing.
Therein lies the problem for the travel industry. It would cost $69 for an individual traveling from New York to Rome to offset the carbon emissions for the flight alone.
Such costs make mass adoption on the consumer side unlikely, said Dr. Srikanth Beldona, a professor at the University of Delaware.
"Sustainable travel will have to cost more if it must reduce its carbon footprint, and there are signs that a niche market for this can emerge," he said, calling instead for a "universal solution" that combines the efforts of businesses and regulators.
Already, the pandemic has spurred some governments and companies to tout sustainability as part of their modus operandi — or at least their future modus operandi.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, for instance, are among the major travel companies to have committed to carbon neutrality targets. Meanwhile, new businesses are emerging to meet consumer appetite for environmentally friendly vacations.
"Rather than overshadow the issue, the Covid-19 pandemic has roughly doubled the rate at which businesses and local governments commit to reach net-zero," said Nora Lovell-Marchant, vice president of global sustainability at American Express global business travel.
But with sustainability metrics and accountability still in their infancy, greater collaboration is needed to ensure targets are met.
In the airline industry, for instance, offsetting carbon is just the first step. Developments in sustainable aviation fuel and aircraft are necessary in order to create long-term change, said Emily Weiss, global travel industry lead at Accenture, who has been advising airlines on getting back to normalcy.
"The pandemic's carbon emissions data has highlighted that even severely reducing air travel is not the single answer to neutralizing the climate threat," she said. "It will take cross-industry collaboration coupled with a more environmentally conscious consumer mindset to achieve a more sustainable future."
Still, with international travel showing signs of reopening, waiting for a wave of sustainable tourism is not an option — especially for the hundreds of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the industry.
"Ceasing travel altogether isn't feasible," said James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Group, a travel company specializing in sustainable tourism. "In fact, tourism provides countless benefits to communities around the world and the traveler themselves."
Instead, travelers can opt for more environmentally friendly travel options that suit their price range and schedule, said Thornton, whose company employs 21 forms of public transport. Train travel, for instance, can be a novel way to experience a new place with far lower emissions than air travel.
"Traveling responsibly is not about making sacrifices or staying home," he said. "It's about planning trips carefully so that you're able to enjoy the experience you seek, while leaving a positive footprint in the destination you're visiting."