A few weeks ago, I traveled to a town 2 hours away from my office for a work trip. I had to take the freeway to get there, but after my appointment took less time than anticipated, I decided to take the scenic route on my way home. Being fully aware of the dangers excessive tourism poses, especially to environmentally sensitive areas, I couldn’t help but wonder how else the current global situation is affecting our environment. And while Coronavirus has undoubtedly been a real test of our time and wreaked havoc on businesses and individual lives worldwide, there are some undeniable upsides of the new way of life this pandemic has thrust upon us.
The typical traffic situation on the Great Ocean Road on a busy weekend
The first positive environmental aspect, which I experienced first-hand on my drive home from my work trip, is a (temporary) decrease in tourism. International tourism has especially come to a grinding halt in 2020, leading to an economic shock of historic proportions for many industries that are even remotely reliant on tourism. Considering the number of international tourists has increased from 25 million per year in 1950 to 1.3 billion in 2017, the notion of “overtourism” carries the potential to threaten many environments as we know them. When Rafati Ali from Skift coined the term “Overtourism” in 2016, he explains it as:
“A new construct to look at potential hazards to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflict unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well. In some countries, this can lead to a decline in tourism as a sustainable framework is never put into place for coping with the economic, environmental, and sociocultural effects of tourism. The impact on local residents cannot be understated either.
As the world moves towards two billion travelers worldwide in the next few years, are countries and their infrastructure ready for the deluge? Are the people and their cultures resilient enough to withstand the flood of “overtourism”?”
The phenomenon has already forced some local authorities to take drastic measures, from limiting arrivals and maximum length-of-stay on The Galapagos Islands to capping the number of overall visitors at any given time on Lord Howe Island. For other locations, measures have come into effect too late, such as the world-famous beach of Maya Bay, where up to 5,000 tourists per day caused potentially irreversible damage to 80% of the coral in the area, leading to a likely indefinite closure of the beach to the public.
With cities like Barcelona and Venice considering imposing limits on tourists allowed, the notion of overtourism and the associated need to take measures to protect the very thing people are here to see is prevalent. Millions of livelihoods depend on these ever-growing numbers of tourists. Therefore, local authorities in these affected areas often struggle to pass adequate laws to protect the locations in danger. It seems as though the harsh and irrefutable halt in tourism the current pandemic has brought with it just might be the necessary push to take long-term measures that benefit both treasured locations and visitors.
Where centrally imposed laws of restriction might have annoyed or even enraged tourists in the past, the current notion of limited travel and social distancing might make for a significant natural limitation. Until a few months ago, the mass-herding of tourists into single locations seemed to be the only feasible way of creating a strong economy for locals. The fact that we might not be able to gather in large crowds for the unforeseeable future will hopefully spark creative initiatives to distribute the masses better as we aim to move to smaller and more sustainable ways of experiencing the countless locations of our planet’s natural beauty.
The second positive aspect is a forced re-thinking of air traffic. As much as many people (including myself) love the freedom affordable air travel brings, there is no denying that traveling by plane is environmentally irresponsible and should only be done when necessary.
That’s not news for many of us. We’re all aware that flying is bad for the environment, but the more affordable and convenient it’s become, the harder it is to resist.
But when the Coronavirus pandemic broke out in 2020, worldwide air travel slowed down to a crawl. And while experts anticipate the numbers to recover in the near to medium term, there are indicators that 2020 will be a year that permanently changes the entire airline industry.
According to IATA’s CEO, air travel might not return to pre-crisis levels until 2023. And even if and when we reach that level again, the landscape might look a bit different. Airlines are reshuffling their flight capacity and getting rid of larger, outdated planes, such as the entire fleet of Boeing 747 for QANTAS. Airlines are accelerating the transition from older, fuel-hogging aircraft to the latest generation of more economical long-haul planes, which seem better suited to a post-COVID environment.
But even beyond a more fuel-economic and less pollution-heavy way to travel by air, the hope persists that the interruption of convenient travel for even a few months is enough to create a mind shift in the way we look at traveling. While international tourism as we know it might even be gone for good, domestic tourism is expected to recover much quicker, and hopefully in a more sustainable way. While yet to be seen, the need for local exploration might accelerate mainstream acceptance of more environmentally friendly means of travel, such as trains and electric cars, making the temporary inconvenience of not flying a price well worth paying.
That brings us to the third positive effect on the environment: A change of mind for short-term travel. Since the beginning of the calendar year, there have been over 44 million cars produced. Many countries have well over 700 vehicles for every 1,000 people, the US leading the pack of larger countries on the list. Considering the average emission per car is about 4,6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, it’s clear how environmentally damaging this primary method of transportation is.
Cars are slowly getting more environmentally friendly, but it’s unlikely to be replaced as the world’s primary method of travel. The current push to work from home and the resulting decrease in commuters will hopefully make many of us rethink our car ownership and use. During “normal” times, the average car is parked 95% of the time driving to and from work five days a week, and therefore only fulfills its real purpose 5% of the time. What will that number look like when millions of employees potentially permanently move to a 50/50 model, working from home half the time?
Long-term strategies of many car and technology companies include ambitious plans for entire fleets of self-driving cars, ready to serve any patron at the click of a button in an app. Probably the most exciting vision so far comes from one of the most eccentric CEOs in the space – Elon Musk. His long-term vision for Tesla is to create vehicles that are no longer financial liabilities, but instead, become assets. Any Tesla owner could become part of the ever-growing fleet of fully autonomous cars, ready to “serve” whoever needs transportation, hypothetically eliminating most of the 95% parking time of today’s cars.
Until that dream comes true, we’ll continue to live in a world with too many “dirty” cars. But with the unprecedented spike in bicycle sales, the pandemic has shown us that there are cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable ways of transportation than jumping in a car. If preventive measures, immunity, or vaccines help us overcome the current fear of public transit, we might just have found a way to go from 1.67 to two, three, and hopefully, four people per car owned.
Let’s keep on our toes and make some of these short-term positives work in the long term. And from an environmental perspective, let’s find a way to come out of Coronavirus better than we went into it.
Markus Scharnowski is an entrepreneur, problem-solver, husband to an amazing wife and father to two beautiful daughters. Currently living in a small coastal town near Melbourne, Australia, he likes to experiment and constantly ask “what if”. He loves anything outdoors, considers himself a minimalist and is currently doing a plant-based experiment you can follow at plantbasedexperiment.com.