As the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, tourism has been perhaps the worst affected of all major economic sectors. After all, it was travelling in the first place that allowed for the accelerated spread of the deadly virus from the epicentre of China’s Wuhan to practically all around the world.
As countries went into lockdown, haunting photos and videos showed how the coronavirus turned once crowded and bustling tourist attractions into abandoned ghost towns. Severely hit by the pandemic, Europe also took unprecedented measures banning external and restricting internal border crossings, which impeded international travelling.
After a few tough months, Europe started its recovery from the pandemic with countries trying to go back to normal as they slowly reopen their borders ahead of the summer holiday season. As Europe struggles to find the middle ground between protecting public health from a virus and reviving their tourism industry there is one thing that is certain about travelling this year: it’s going to be different.
COVID demonstrates the weight of the tourism industry in Europe
Tourism occupies an important place in the economy of Europe with an annual gross value added estimated around 787 billion euros according to Eurostat data. Directly and indirectly, it contributes close to 10 per cent to EU GDP and has made the EU the world’s leading tourism destination, with 563 million international arrivals.
For many Member States tourism is a key contributor to the economic and social fabric and provides much-needed jobs and income, often concentrated in regions with no alternative sources of employment and involving low-skilled workers.
The is especially true in the case of Central Eastern Europe that experienced a major boom in its tourism industry as it became more accessible to international visitors, confirmed by the steadily growing number of travellers each year. According to the forecasts of the EU, seven touristic destinations from Central Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) are expected to grow faster, at 3.7 per cent a year on average through 2025, than the advanced economy destinations (1.9 per cent a year).
For instance, international tourists’ expenditure in Croatia amounts roughly to 20 per cent of the country’s GDP – which is by far the largest share in the whole EU – and over 35 per cent of its export revenues, confirming the economy’s high reliance on the tourism sector. Moreover, international tourism accounted for roughly 7 per cent of the employed population. There is no wonder that Croatia was one of the Member Stated pushing for a rapid reopening, as without tourism the country would face economic collapse.
At this point, there is no question that international tourism will slump this year. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) the decline could be as high as 60-80 per cent. However, tourism has proved to be resilient, recovering fairly rapidly in the years following the shocks of 9/11, the SARS virus in the early 2000s and the great recession of 2009. The emphasis is more on how. As the crisis might even present an opportunity to rebuild the industry in a new, more sustainable way.
Bringing sustainable tourism into the mainstream
Tourism is an economic powerhouse and it has the potential to contribute, directly or indirectly to the sustainable transformation of our economies and society. The UN took note of this and included tourism as a major contributor of its Sustainable Development Goals’ (8, 12 and 14) on inclusive and sustainable economic growth, sustainable consumption and production and the sustainable use of oceans and marine resources, respectively.
The European Commission also named sustainability a crucial factor in rebuilding the European tourism sector and intends to launch a new call for an interregional partnership on tourism to share, test, and implement new smart solutions for recovery, creating a new value chain of innovative, responsible, and sustainable tourism.
The buzzword of sustainability seems to lead the future of travelling. According to a survey conducted by Booking.com, one of the world’s leading digital travel platforms, almost three quarters (72 per cent) of travellers believe that people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to save the planet for future generations.
Despite the best intentions, the report also exposes the common barriers travellers face, as 37 per cent of the surveyed people admitted that they have no clue when it comes to how to make their travel more sustainable. So the question remains: as a conscious tourist how can you make a meaningful impact and contribute to change the patterns?
Instead of taking a flight, hop on a train
It’s fair to say that without travel there is no tourism, so the concept of sustainable tourism is tightly linked to a concept of sustainable mobility. The transport sector contributes to 27 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. International aviation represents a very significant share of these emissions. Furthermore, it experienced the largest percentage growth in the past decade, which is expected to further increase according to all estimates. But what does it mean in practice? How can you measure the carbon footprint of your flight and compare it with alternative modes of transport?
The EcoPassenger calculator – initiated by the International Railways Union in cooperation with the European Environment Agency – is a useful tool to travellers who wish to become more aware of the impact of their journey by comparing the emissions of taking a flight, a train or a car trip to the given destination.
For instance, a trip from Budapest to Krakow by train would emit 38.5 kg of carbon dioxide per passenger. However, the same journey with a plane would emit 224.7 kg of CO2. Train basically always performs better than flights in terms of emissions, although the margin varies, depending on several factors, including the type of train.
In case of electric trains, the source of electricity is also considered when computing carbon emissions, which can lead to significant differences between a country like Poland, where the share of coal and lignite in electricity generation amounts to almost 80 per cent, as compared to Austria where 73 per cent of the electricity consumed is generated from renewable sources.
Rail transport is the most electrified transport sector – in Europe, the share of electrified railway systems stood at 54 per cent in 2017 – which means that is very well positioned to take advantage of the rise of renewables in the electricity mix.
The European Commission also realised the potential contribution of rail travel to its ambitious climate targets and proposed designating 2021 as the European Year of Rail.
“There’s no doubt that railway transport means huge benefits in most areas: sustainability, safety, even speed, once it is organised and engineered according to 21st-century principles,” said Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean.
Obviously building best practices don’t stop at choosing the right means of transport, but it is crucial to stress the part could play in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
Travellers can contribute in many other ways to make their holidays more sustainable, starting from respecting and protecting the natural environment to supporting natural and cultural heritage, buying products locally.