Examining Travel on Earth Day during COVID-19

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It’s Earth Day today in New Zealand, and I’m reflecting on how my actions as a tour operator directly contribute to the imminent climate threat we’re all facing. I have time now, ‘thanks’ to COVID-19. It’s uncomfortable to sit with these thoughts, and to own my role in what is undeniably the greatest threat to humanity. So far I’ve no answers yet, only questions.

I’ve had this niggly voice in the back of my head for some time now, challenging me with the following question: Can travel really be sustainable? Or is sustainable travel an Oxymoron? Now, like most others in tourism (as well as almost everyone else except essential workers), my business has ground to a halt and I have time to ponder this unavoidable question.

Can travel be truly sustainable?

If so, what does that look like? Google ‘Sustainable Travel’ and most definitions will include travel that positively impacts local communities, culture and environment.

We at New Zealand Awaits have made conscious efforts to be sustainable in these areas.

We use locally owned and operated small businesses for our small group tours and our independent travellers, sustaining those businesses and keeping the money in the local community.

We partner with small businesses owned by indigenous people, (many of which are women-owned) supporting these communities whilst offering our guests an opportunity to gain some cultural appreciation as well as see local and global issues and questions through an indigenous lens.

We partner with businesses that share our values of environmental regeneration and restoration. Many of our guests have left New Zealand with a heightened awareness and motivation to contribute to conservation efforts in their home countries.

This is a great start, but it’s not enough. I know it’s not enough.

Lake Hawea clean clear water
What can we do to keep our waterways clean?

The Great Pause

On this Earth Day 2020, amid a global pandemic, I’m wondering who else around the world is brooding over some tough moral and ethical questions. COVID-19 is truly tragic and causing immense pain and suffering around the world. I recognise my privilege and good fortune that, like so many others, I’m able to sit amidst such tragedy, to pause, and to ponder questions that relate to my business, my life, and the world around me.  While time has slowed, I’ve been reading voraciously, and participating in webinars from thought leaders in tourism, business incubators, environmental groups, ‘Town Halls’… and I’ve heard even more questions that are resonating with me than just the sustainable travel question. Questions that challenge me to consider what I want my business, and my life, to look like ‘post-COVID’.

Questions for Our Time

What opportunities does this crisis offer? and What is it that people need right now? I’m thinking of the elderly in our communities who will continue to be isolated for possibly months to come. Can those of us who are not working right now reach out to those people who need us to sit, from a safe distance, and have a chat, or drop off some groceries? I have friends who are running food banks, and others who are organising grocery runs for their elderly neighbours. Once a week my sister-in-law walks down the street to her neighbour, a nurse, and applauds her courage and dedication. Can there ever be enough appreciation for all the healthcare workers around the world? From small actions to large scale projects, people are doing what is needed right now. We all can contribute in some way. Check out #COVIDKindness for inspiration and examples of humanity at our best.

How can we become more connected during and after this crisis?  On the personal side, we’ve moved our lesbian social group online and now run Zoom gatherings for our members. But despite the wonders of Zoom, and of course appreciation for this technology during this crisis, we’re still all feeling the deep loss of not being with others. So what is my role in creating a society and an economy that values our interconnectedness? It feels like a huge question, and I know there is no one simple answer. But for me right now, I’m going to start asking that question of myself more frequently throughout both my personal and professional life.

I’m also asking How I can provide a good or service that provides a positive impact for people and the planet?  How can I contribute to society? What is needed in a post-COVID world? These are challenging questions for a tour operator at the bottom of the world! Or perhaps for any travel advisor or tour operator anywhere. They are also questions for travellers themselves. These are the questions rattling around in my head today, this bright and sunny Earth Day, at the bottom of the world.

One of the best questions I’ve heard recently is How do we learn behaviours to move in the right direction: the direction of thinking local, buying local, and supporting local economies. Because ultimately, this is about each and every one of us changing our behaviours. If we really want to emerge from this crisis to a ‘new normal’, then we need to be willing to change what we did pre-COVID. How we did business. How we shopped. How we lived. How we included the most vulnerable in our society. And therein lies the challenge. Are we willing to change our behaviours?

So on this Earth Day, one that stands out because of the global COVID-19 crisis, if you’re healthy, fed, and fortunate enough to use this ‘great pause’ to ponder, then I invite you to reflect on these questions. I invite you to share your thoughts. Whether you’re a travel industry professional, a traveller, or anyone with an opinion to share, what is our individual and collective role moving forward?

And what other questions haven’t I asked?

For now, I’m off to forage for mushrooms in the sunshine (I’m living on a farm, so am still in my bubble).

mushroom basket found on earth day
The earth’s bounty

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