It may have taken COVID-19 to put a hard and fast stop on flight travel; but during the pandemic pause, a more mindful approach to tourism has taken shape — as seen in a growing wave of flight-free offerings, specifically intended to keep people out of the sky.
The environmental impact of aviation is not new news. Aviation emissions have doubled since the mid-1980s, growing hand-in-hand with the tourism industry. But it wasn’t until teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg popularized the flygskam (flight shaming) movement in 2019 that public sentiment in staying grounded went mainstream.
According to a survey conducted by Swiss bank UBS in late 2019 of 6,000 people in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, 21 percent of people had reduced how often they were flying. But interest only goes so far within the tourism industry, which has long been driven by the ability to easily and affordably hop on a plane to just about anywhere on the planet.
“For many people it was just a curiosity rather than a practical alternative; but when the pandemic hit and flights were grounded, it felt like the perfect opportunity to bring people back to travel in a new direction,” said Catherine Livesley, founder and director of No Fly Travel Club.
It may have taken COVID-19 to put a hard and fast stop on flight travel, but during the pandemic pause, a more mindful approach to the tourism industry began to take shape. The perfect storm of the climate crisis, travel trends focused on slower-paced and locally oriented experiences, and pandemic-related restrictions has resulted in a wave of flight-free offerings specifically intended to keep people out of the sky.
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“We were certainly seeing signs of shifting consumer expectations pre-pandemic; but COVID does seem to have accelerated these trends, alongside a heightened awareness and desire to support local experiences, products, and businesses,” said Jeremy Sampson, CEO at The Travel Foundation and chair of the Future of Tourism Coalition. “Of course, it remains to be seen if sentiment will translate to action and all-important purchase decisions as recovery takes hold; but companies are doubling down on these trends in anticipation.”
Asian destination management company Khiri Travel is currently rolling out its new product line, Rediscovering The Art of Slow Travel, in response to increased traveler interest in cultural immersion while supporting its commitment to operate as a carbon-neutral company. Its seven itineraries — one for each of the seven destinations in which it works — include no regional or domestic flights, rely on public transportation when possible, are at least 15 days long, and emphasize less-developed destinations and sustainable accommodation options. “The new itineraries are intentionally designed to provide clients with the opportunity to lower their carbon footprint when traveling,” said Nia Klatte, the company’s regional sustainability coordinator.
Similarly, Exodus Travels recently announced it was including rail travel from the UK as part of 18 of its escorted tours aligned with its science-based climate target to halve its carbon footprint per passenger by 2030. As part of its decarbonization strategy, Intrepid Travel is also removing all flights under 90 minutes from its top 50 trips, where possible, by the end of 2022. Additionally, Intrepid released 25 new walking tours and 15 new cycling tours around the world over the past year, which suit the needs of travelers seeking active, outdoor adventures after months of indoor quarantining, as well.
While many well-established travel companies relying on international travelers were forced to close their doors over the past 18 months, those embracing grounded experiences fared well. Livesley established No Fly Travel Club — which curates experience-focused European rail trips — in January 2021 and said response has been overwhelmingly positive: “It really feels like change is in the air, and we are simply providing the options that people have wanted for some time.”
Cat Jones, who founded flight-free agency Byway in March 2020, said her company has also been overwhelmed with interest.
“The response has been exceptionally amazing. Better than we could have ever expected, to be honest,” she said. Byway is not actively marketing its offerings but UK-based travelers, in particular, have been clamoring for outdoor adventures and crowd-free destinations: “The biggest challenge for us is scaling really, really quickly in response to the demand.”
Just as flight-free trips have held up in the face of travel restrictions, establishing these offerings now may also buffer tour companies from fees levied on the aviation industry in the future. While airlines have started to focus more heavily on decarbonization efforts, it is far from reaching a carbon-neutral future. According to a recent article published by Skift, the European Union’s executive Commission is discussing whether to strip European airlines of a tax break on jet fuel. Additionally, it might phase out free CO2 permits by 2026. Both of these could force airlines to pass additional costs onto consumers.
“Of course, there are situations where people have to fly. However, I do believe that those of us who can make a choice have a duty to make a responsible one. That could be traveling less often and staying longer, or it could be choosing alternative transportation options,” Livesley said. “It is a mindset change as much as it is a practical one: This is not giving up travel; this is changing our expectations of travel.”