Articles - 7th April 2020

Is the future of travel content “green”?

Words by Tahmina Begum
Illustration by William Exley

Hands up if you didn’t know a destination existed until it came across your Instagram feed? Now hands and toes up if you’ve ever decided on where to go away because of a pretty picture you’ve saved on your social media? If we were honest about why we travel the way we do, many of us would say we’ve been guilty of bookmarking a faraway place based solely on its aesthetic (and because we want that Balinese breakfast).

As we know all too well, Instagram has been built for users to share the smooth parts of our photo albums, therefore, showing where we travel to is apt for the app. It’s no surprise that where your passport is heading to next is one of the most popular hashtags. But while we’re looking at Santorini landscapes and Morrocan tiles in a busy bazaar in Fez, there’s also a current conversation on how to travel sustainably and if travel is at all sustainable. Is there any point in using a reusable coffee cup if we’re catching flights more times than environmentally friendly feelings?

Here’s what seems to be the happy middle: the rise in sustainable travel content. You may have seen influencers share how they’re travelling in more eco steps, whether that’s booking retreats where all the food and water is sourced locally or hosting Instagram Live’s on tips on how to offset your carbon footprint. Does this mean the future of the travel content we see every day is going to start looking more green?

“New voices, more cultural nuance and global visions of destinations with a focus on sustainability,” answers travel and food writer Bre Graham when I ask her what the future of travel content will look like for the new decade. As someone who for both work and pleasure frequently flies around the globe and experiences both ‘press trips’ as well as explorations led by her own inner compass, Graham predicts the way we are heading “may mean longer trips, trains, or local writers being commissioned rather than journalists travelling to cover a destination.”

As a culture, we’re not ready to claim long gone are the days were like a herd we stopped following trending places to explore. According to a survey by Experia, 36% of Gen-Z are influenced by social media when booking a trip and 20% of Gen-Z choose a specific hotel and location due to a positive response they know they’ll receive from their following; there is a current shift in what travellers are seeking to experience, post and follow regarding travel content due to our relatively new and mainstream ecological wokeness.

For example, Expedia’s research for 2020 depicts that millennials are choosing their time away consciously for self-improvement. “These days people no longer just want to read and sunbathe on the beach. Travellers are looking for experiences with substance. They want to achieve something, to know they’re doing something good, ”says Nicole Gordon, the account director at Bird, a luxury travel PR agency.

Brands are also tapping into the ‘preventative’ sector of experiences, something that’s growing right in front of us. “Travellers are looking to get ahead of the curve when it comes to their own life stages. There’s interest in preventative wellness, retreats for women before they hit menopause or spaces that look specifically at burnout, mental health, wellness, anxiety and other consequences of modern life”.

But when it comes to leading a sustainable lifestyle, environmental worries shared by influencers and trickled down to viewers means tourists are embracing philanthropic work when out of office too — and it’s also what people want to see as the search ‘eco travel’ has risen by over 100% between summers 2017-2019.

Gordon highlights examples such as “Skill swap programmes where people take real-time to join local suppliers and impart knowledge about what they do, whether that’s with a pottery shop nearby or a farmer on the ways you work and vice versa are a part of the hike in transactionless community experiences.”

With sustainability being the core of Bird’s purpose, as the agency focuses on how to regenerate lands, give proceeds to forests, marine reserves and regenerating city ruins, it’s also key for Gordon that “we’ve got a big job in avoiding greenwashing.” Which is actually very easy for sustainable travel content to do. Throw in a recyclable plastic-free water bottle held by a Nordic model whose wearing non-branded but expensive green-grey tones signifying disposable income while traipsing across the desert in your social media campaign and you have what appears to be a conscious travel trip.

On the other hand unlike the fashion industry whose lack of transparency within advertising has been reprimanded with the FDA ruling more specific laws to social media influencers, the same hasn’t happened for the travel industry, making it more difficult to spot if that travel trip by your favourite social media account was sponsored. “Newspapers have a responsibility but some magazines don’t declare anything,” says Sophy Roberts, travel writer and former Editor-at-Large at Conde Nast Traveller. “Gifting hasn’t translated yet with the travel world which then, in turn, becomes promoting a location without thought.”

When hearing the words ‘over-tourism’ ten years ago, the initial thought was that some are maybe more protective of  their favoured ‘hidden gems’ across the globe. Yet with budget airlines becoming more popular and idols accessible at your whim, “over-tourism is a real danger of our time,” says Roberts. “It’s destroying the things we love and only a few places can survive the footfalls of millions [after being popularly shared across social media].”

“That’s why we’re noticing a big shift in tourist boards and a growth of consumer promoting and selecting ‘second cities’,” says Gordon, account executive at luxury travel PR agency, Bird. “For example, people are choosing Toulouse over Paris, as there’s an emphasis to head somewhere that’s not overcrowded”  which actually is also a plus for the budding photographer or writer trying to find a unique angle.

As much as we’re bombarded with photographs in a 35mm frame of holidays across the warmer months, “cliches, especially travel ones can only last so long,” says Roberts. This instant gratification can mean the overspill from social media aspirations into real life trips are more frequent, the cliches having a shorter shelf life. Hence why the measure of travelling abroad, for a picture or your new blog post now goes hand in hand when giving back to Mother Nature.

“It’s now important for both travel boards of growing cities as well as brands to go carbon neutral. This can mean planting trees depending on how long your stay is to the local carbon neutral operation, whose job is to work out your carbon footprint and charge a compulsory fee which goes back to maintaining natural reserves,” extends Gordon.`

The future of creating sustainable travel content and having a greener experience is also complicated as it means we still have to operate within a system that is still trying to work out how fatal climate change truly is.

“I’m all about progress instead of perfection,” says Rachel Nguyen, YouTuber and content creator. “When sustainability comes into the conversation, we have this idea that everything has to align and be perfect. We will always have holes in sustainability so instead, it’s so much better to share consciousness, better habits and welcome different ideas on how to travel more sustainably.”

Though the LA Glossier Rep admits her lifestyle habits (and what she shares on the internet) consists of environmentally friendly habits, from, Nguyen admitted she doesn’t know a whole lot about travelling sustainably but all she can do, like everything else, is to take on board what’s recommended to her. “I still want to visit Italy and a lot of other places.”

She gave the example of taking reusable cutlery with you when away or buying a 5 gallon jug for your Airbnb instead of small bottles, “something that may sound like patronising advice could actually be an example to others that actually our small habits are not that inconvenient, if anything they’re easy to adapt to”.

The conversation around travelling for work is still tense, especially when your work depends on discovering new places yet the answer if sustainable travel content itself is contradictory and can exist as a concept has been positive. “Good writing will always rise to the top. As a species, we are storytellers and have always made space for great stories,” articulates Sophy Roberts. “We have to be conduits for other people’s stories. There’s a difference in travel writing and tourism writing. One promotes culture, the other is promoting maybe a hotel or an experience. I think people have to work out their own personal ethics with travel and what we’re trying to convey”.

Bre Graham adds, “I think that there is a role for both in the travel industry, but writers and influencers are ultimately producing different content for a different audience and the more that they blur I think that the best of both could potentially be lost.” Working as a photographer, writer and editor, Graham understands the different headspaces to be in. “If I’m somewhere for work and I know I have to file a two thousand word feature on a destination I need to be there experiencing it and feeling it in a completely different way then if I was producing content.”

On the other hand, Nguyen argues, “The art of travel writing and creating sustainable travel content can coexist without travel writing becoming a lost art. For some countries, tourism is a huge part of what makes up their wealth. So let’s not demonise travelling or helping supplement a smaller economy as long as we’re travelling with intent and respect, instead of peacocking.”

On a recent vacation to Costa Rica, as a result of surfing every morning, Nguyen ended up meeting a local instructor instead of opting for a Google Ad on surfing lessons. “I think there’s something in not overly researching a place, taking time to understand the culture — how people get around and what’s best to optimise their lifestyle so you’re not being inconvenient with your own methods,” a small act that isn’t usually thought about when being more sustainable. “It may be uncomfortable or not glamorous to ask a small group of strangers about what to do, but in the end you’re not commemorating your money to a conglomerate but benefitting different local parties involved”.

Another theme everyone interviewed was concerned with was the increased footmark of the white saviour mentality being pressed upon especially poorer countries in the world who are recently becoming cooler to book a stay in, usually for the intention of getting a photograph that is unique to Instagram’s explore page.

Gordon noticed how after the Sri Lankan terrorist attacks, guest packages to work with the locals skyrocketed. Whereas for Roberts, it’s key for journalists to not fall into the trap of speaking for people who live there, “Writing about travel is interwoven with its history of elitism and colonial Britain. The only people who could take great adventures were part of the establishment, so we have to be careful to not project our own biases”.

It’s also crucial we don’t push our mindset of what is ‘sustainable’ to poorer countries when travelling i.e. punishing bars that don’t serve paper straws (you do see it happening) especially as those nations have traditionally been greener as they have had to do more with less.

“Sometimes travelling sustainably (especially sharing sustainable travel) can be tough when a country itself is not built to be more green,” says Nguyen. “For example, when I was in Japan, it was so hard because everything is packaged in plastic. It’s complicated. But we have to hold space for each other to navigate the world in order to do better as there’s nothing more rude than imposing our own set of rules of living to the country you’re a guest in.”

The answer is complicated. Is the future looking more green? On a social level and even across what we’re sharing in the West, I’d say so, but the conversation is complicated because being environmentally friendly is political. Taking care of the Earth is complicated, especially if we’re trying to share content around preserving cultures while also trying to keep those landscapes picturesque.

There’s power that comes from putting your hands up and saying you don’t actually know how to travel perfectly sustainably. For a large part, a key component of tackling warmer climates and flooding is in the hands of a few. There’s also something in saying  that when trying to write a piece on somewhere that’s been forgotten or accepting a sponsored trip to inspire others or simply because it’s a good opportunity can show either or both murky and good intent.

Is sustainable travel content going to slow down? Just like our curiosity in trying new places (and our obsession with reusable coffee cups), it probably won’t, but neither will our attempts to create solutions to travel in a way that doesn’t hurt our planet.

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