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How to travel more sustainably when the Coronavirus lockdown eases

Richard Hammond started his travel media career in 1998 and has always focussed on sustainability. Following a masters degree in publishing in 1994, he became Editor in Chief of TravelMole and eco travel correspondent for the Guardian.

He then set up Green Traveller in 2006, working both independently and with protected landscapes, tour operators and destination tourism organisations to help sustainably-minded travellers find inspiring places to eat and sleep as well as low impact activities to do while there.

Green Traveller has since evolved and, as well as offering green travel guides for consumers, it now also operates as a specialist film production company promoting sustainable travel.

His “ecotourism” lightbulb moment came in 1993 on a Raleigh International expedition to Mauritius and Rodrigues. While there he witnessed how sustainably-managed tourism could have a genuinely positive impact, both environmentally and socially.

In lockdown, he’s been getting into hyper-local travel around the Mendip Hills in Somerset, where he lives with his family. In particular, they’ve been enjoying walks, swims and bike rides on and around the Mendip Way, which he thinks is one of the most underrated walks in England.

Before lockdown started, Richard had just finished filming local characters in the tourism industry for the Great West Way® and so has spent much of the last few months editing the footage and overseeing the updating of the Green Traveller website to cater for the new generation of sustainable travellers he's seen emerging over the last year or two.

When we’re allowed to travel again, do you think there’s going to be a rush back to “same old, same old” in terms of travel or do you think people will travel more meaningfully?

“I think there’s lots of goodwill around, but it remains to be seen if that translates into change. Just before lockdown dozens of travel companies signed up to ‘Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency’ and this month The Future of Tourism Coalition was launched.

The latter is a group of high-profile organisations like the World Wildlife Fund, the Travel Foundation and other international groups connected to sustainable travel, including the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

They have all got together as a coalition to try and convince the tourism industry to adapt in the future and learn lessons from the past, addressing things like overtourism, equity, inclusion, and non-discrimination.

So yes, I think there’s the will to change, but we’ve already seen that people are starting to rush back to the same travelling habits. In China, once lockdown was eased people started going out to eat, then they started travelling domestically.

I think that’s what we’re going to see here before overseas travel starts up again. It’s no wonder Kuoni has started to sell UK holidays for the first time in its 100-year history, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any less appetite for holidays; we’ve had a 55 per cent increase in web traffic over the past four weeks and Canopy & Stars reported a 230 per cent uplift in traffic to their website a few days ago, just after the government announced that accommodation providers in England can re-open on 4 July.

Having said that, before the Coronavirus crisis a lot of people were choosing to travel more consciously, and I think those people are likely to do so with even more commitment in future.

Hopefully, that philosophy will rub off on others as well. I do have some optimism that change is coming because there are now some really expert people rising to the top of influential organisations and hopefully their voices will be heard more widely: academics like Susanne Becken (Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Queensland), Xavier Font and Graham Miller at the University of Surrey; advocates such as Brad Nahill at See Turtles and John Scanlon at the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime; and industry pioneers such as Paras Loomba of Global Himalayan Expedition and Alex Narracott and Sam Bruce of Much Better Adventures.

What are the best “baby steps” towards travelling greener for those who’ve thought about it but haven’t really put anything into action up to now?

I think it’s about the carrot, not the stick. The last thing you should do is wag your finger. When you speak to behavioural psychologists about how to make mass behavioural change occur, they’ll tell you it’s not through saying don’t do things, it’s by showing what the alternatives are and how things can be done better.

There are lots of small things you can do. In the UK, for instance, one very easy place to start is in choosing a greener hotel; look at what they’re doing to reduce their draw on energy, minimise the amount of waste they send to landfill, how they’re conserving water, where they source their food.

It's worth remembering that even though a hotel may not look superficially like it is green, it may be behind the scenes. But if you spot something that looks particularly amiss, it is worth pointing out what you have seen in the feedback form as it’s an important signal to the hotel that visitors are now interested in how green they really are.

But, perhaps, the best place to start is for many to stop treating flying so casually. While travel is still a luxury for lots of people, for others it’s too cheap… it’s too possible to fly to New York for the weekend, and Helsinki the next. If we took fewer flights each year but stayed in a destination for longer, that would make a major difference.

Perhaps the biggest impact in the short term will be seen in international business travel. After working from home for months, surely many businesses have seen that they need to send people flying off on corporate junkets much less frequently than they used to.

People talk about 'the tourism industry' but it’s not just about the big corporate giants such as the airlines, cruise lines and online booking companies. The travel industry is also about the knowledgeable kayaking guide who can take you to that quiet cove just at the right time of day to witness some amazing natural spectacle, the grandmother of a family-owned hotel who comes up to you in the evening with a basket of mulberries she’s picked from a tree in the hotel gardens, or the local foodie who leads you to the tiny markets, bars and bistros you would never have found yourself.

Look for people and places who offer those sorts of experiences: some of my favourites are Hôtel Les Orangeries, Wildsea, Wilderness Scotland, Basecamp Oulanka, Village Ways, Thakadu River Camp…I could go on and on as there are so many people that offer these kinds of heartfelt experiences if you do a bit of research before you book your holiday.

It strikes me as wrong that you can fly to Berlin for, say, £25 but it costs £150 to get there on the train…do you think the costs of green travel are prohibitive and any suggestions for people how you can bring those down?

I think we need to switch our viewpoint on this. Rather than believing the cost of overland travel to be too high, we ought to recognise, as consumers, that low plane fares don’t reflect their true costs, certainly not the impact they have on climate change.

We’re in a climate emergency that is only going to get worse, so one way to address this would be to add taxes on aviation fuel, and perhaps the money from that could be used for research into non-fossil fuel alternatives.

In line with this, another way would be for the current airline bailouts to have environmental conditions attached to them. The French government has not only done that with Air France, requiring it to reduce its CO2 emissions by 50 per cent (albeit from 2005) to 2030 as part of its €7 billion state aid package but has gone one step further saying that the airline shouldn’t compete with domestic journeys that could be made by high-speed rail where the journey by rail is less than 2.5 hours.

But I would also say that there are cheaper ways to travel by train, especially if you book in advance and use split ticketing. In France, there’s Ouigo, which offers low-cost train travel on major routes on a no-frills airline model. Flixtrain, in Germany, is similar. has plenty of tips on how to save money on booking rail tickets.

Before the pandemic, there were signs of a renaissance in rail across Europe, night train services were returning and there was talk of many more routes opening up to high-speed networks.

Across much of Europe, the rail networks are being deregulated. This is providing an opportunity for competition, which could also bring about change. In France, for example, there is Railcoop, a cooperative of people who are trying to re-open some of the old lines across the country.

At the moment it’s quicker to get from Bordeaux to Lyon via Paris rather than go on what looks like a more direct straight-across line. Of course, some people are happier to go more slowly and enjoy the journey but for others, shorter journey times could make rail much more feasible as an alternative to flying, especially for train journey times of less than 6 hours.

Some people say air travel is a genie that can’t really be put back in the bottle. Do you think there are ways to “fly greener” if you have to, or that’s simply not possible?

Some bigger planes burn a gallon of fossil fuel a second so it’s hard to see how they can be considered green. But there is quite a large disparity between airlines, with some far more carbon-efficient than others.

I wouldn’t frame it as “green” but if you choose to fly, picking a more efficient airline is something consumers can do. Likewise, more fuel is burnt on take-off and landing, so avoiding lots of polluting short-haul flights is also a good strategy. Look at Atmosfair Index, which ranks the carbon efficiency of the world’s 200 largest airlines.

Playing devil’s advocate, do you think aviation is such a monster compared to say Chinese or Polish coal-fired power stations, which still seem to be mushrooming?

I often hear the line that aviation is only two or three per cent of total global carbon emissions but if you think of it in terms of your own carbon emissions that’s when it really hits home.

You can be green-minded most of the time at home, but then you take one long-haul flight or round-trip ocean cruise and you’ve probably blown your whole carbon quota for the year.

I honestly believe that, while governments need to be implementing substantial changes to industry, and doing that quickly, change will only come if we also take responsibility on a personal level.

I think a lot of people know they shouldn’t fly as much, but till now haven’t been quite at the point of doing anything about it…what would you say to those who are pondering a greener holiday but need a bit of a push?

People need their own lightbulb moment and that’s not necessarily thinking about that gallon of fuel per second fact that I mentioned before. I think it needs to be at more on an emotional level, when they think either ‘This isn’t right, things have got to change’ or they have some magical green holiday experience.

For example like eating delicious locally caught fresh crab along the coast of Northumberland, or a wonderful slow-cooked meal prepared by the owner of a small, family-owned hotel in the Peloponnese, Greece using courgettes from the garden, olive oil from a local mill and gorgeous homemade chestnut cakes, sticky with honey – and realise that holidaying that way is so much more enjoyable than being herded from buffet to buffet in international hotels where the food has been flown in.

Of course, it is often quicker to fly but if you take the train, the journey becomes part of the holiday and can be a great adventure; think: less carbon, more fun!

I’ve travelled overland from the UK to Morocco several times and loved it because as you travel down through southern Spain you see it becoming more Moorish; by the time you get to northern Africa, you’ve assimilated to the hustle and bustle of Tangiers. But if you fly it takes a day or two for your head to catch up once you’re there.

What’s your favourite place to holiday in the UK and any places to stay and to eat at once you’re there?

Over the last three years, I’ve filmed all the way around the coast of England’s and there are so many wonderful places. I like some of our wilder areas such as Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Northumberland coast.

People know a lot about our national parks but they’re not so familiar with our 40 or so Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Forest of Bowland and Arnside and Silverdale in the north-west and Dedham Vale and Suffolk Coast in the south, where there some beautiful places to go.

When I was growing up we used to go to Pembrokeshire every summer and now I’m a dad I take my two boys camping there every year to a place that has hardly changed.

On the way, there’s a brilliant Scandi-style cafe in the Brecon Beacons called The International Welsh Rarebit Centre. It’s set in a former schoolhouse in Defynnog and you can buy bread baked in-house, Welsh honey, local jams, and Coaltown coffee to take away; it’s got a lovely community spirit, and the best rarebits our boys could imagine, made with lovely local cheeses and produce from a nearby farm.

And what about some of your favourite places to travel in continental Europe?

I once sailed on a yacht from New Zealand to Tonga and it took three weeks because we had to haul up in the Minerva Reefs for a few days during a storm, but when we got there it left me with this amazing sense of arrival by sea, so I love the anticipation of adventure you get at harbours and ports.

The coast of the UK, Greece, Croatia and Turkey are great places for sailing. We took our boys to Azur Hotel, a lovely family-owned hotel in Cirali in southern Turkey and one of the highlights was the boat trips, sailing into secluded coves and spotting Loggerhead turtles from the deck.

I also love combining rail and sail to the Med, going by train to the south of France or Spain then taking a ferry to the Balearics, or to Corsica. Years ago, I wrote a piece for the Guardian on doing that - to Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily – and they cleverly headlined it 'Mediterranean Islands three, flights nil.'

If I had to pick one hotel it would be the Hotel Monte d’Oro in Corsica. I first discovered it with some friends while walking on a detour of the GR20 and have since travelled up to it in the mountains on a rickety old train that the locals called the TGV (train à grandes vibrations).

It’s an unfussy fin de siècle hotel with a wonderful restaurant serving Corsican food and wine, and there are some waterfalls and pools near it to swim in... I’ve been there in my head a few times during lockdown."

Will Hide (c) 2020

Photo credits, from top to bottom: (1) Richard Hammond; (2) Mendip Way by Rhiannon Batten; (3) Cornwall by Red Zeppelin* (4) Village Ways by Richard Hammond; (5) Greek Food - Richard Hammond (6) Hotel les Orangeries by Richard Hammond; (7) Air France by Miguel-Angel Sanz*; (8) Flixtrain by Jonas Junk*; (9) Bordeaux by Guillaume Flandre*; (10) Swiss train by Johannes Hofmann*; (11) Peloponnese by George Girnas*; (12) Tangiers by Kamal Bilal*; (13) Forest of Bowland by Abe S*; (14) Welsh Rarebit by Richard Hammond; (15) Turkish gulet by Richard Hammond; Corsica by Kevin & Laurianne Langlais*.

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