Editor’s Letter

Why The Independent is putting sustainability front and centre in our travel coverage

As The Independent’s new travel editor, Helen Coffey is conscious of how tourism can be a force for good – or for evil – when it comes to people and planet. Which is why we’re pledging to do things differently from now on

Thursday 02 September 2021 12:21 BST
<p>A rail adventure: travel doesn’t have to involve flying</p>

A rail adventure: travel doesn’t have to involve flying

Sustainable travel”: it’s a phrase that can feel like something of an oxymoron.

By its very nature, travel nearly always involves some sort of climate impact, unless it’s being conducted solely by bike or on foot. More often than not, if the travel is international, getting from A to B is facilitated by hopping on a kerosene-guzzling plane, which in turn spews out the equivalent emissions of some individuals’ carbon footprint for an entire year.

And yet, at its best, tourism has the potential for immense good – the power to redistribute wealth from some of the richest parts of the world to the poorest – on top of opening our eyes to new places, experiences, people, ways of life. In the wake of Brexit and in an increasingly divided world, with battle-lines scorched down the centre on almost any issue you’d care to mention, I feel more convicted than ever that expanding our horizons – and our minds in the process – is not just pleasurable, but fiercely necessary.

Stepping into the role of The Independent’s travel editor, I’m keenly conscious of the gap that needs bridging between these two seemingly conflicting stances – particularly following the latest IPCC report. It’s not a paradox that’s exclusive to travel; and yet it seems to be typified by the issue of holidays. After all, what could seem more frivolous while, simultaneously, representing one of the deepest joys of life: to wake up somewhere you’ve never been before and explore it afresh, with all the excitement and wide-eyed enchantment of a child?

We will be trying to carve a new path, one that’s baked into how we approach travel

It’s why I believe we have to start doing things differently if we’re to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem: to prioritise coverage of trips whose net positive effects outweigh the negative impacts; to champion companies that started taking steps to cut their carbon outputs and change the travel industry for the better long before “sustainability” became the latest trendy buzzword; to inspire and excite our readers to try something different when booking their next getaway, whether it’s adopting the slow travel ethos and taking their time, or intentionally frequenting local hotels and businesses to put their tourist pounds into the pockets of people who need it.

It’s not to say we won’t ever cover long-haul destinations, or that we’ll stop keeping up with the latest airline news, or even that we’ll never write about a hotel chain again – of course we will. But we will be trying to carve a new path, one that’s baked into how we approach travel. For a start, we’ll be including flight-free transport options in all our destination features and guides, from the straightforward to the absurd. Whether it’s a hop on the Eurostar to Marseille, a ferry to Bilbao, or an epic three-week voyage involving trains, buses and cargo ships, we’ll be giving you the option. You never know, it could lead to the journey of lifetime, or it could just make you aware of the accessibility of much of Europe by rail – especially with the new raft of sleeper trains being introduced over the next few years.

And before you sneer, “that’s easy for you to say Mrs Fancy Travel Lady Who Probably Jets Off Somewhere New Every Five Minutes,” I’ve put my money where my mouth is on this one – I pledged to go flight-free in 2020 and 2021, and I suspect I may just sign on for another year of staying grounded in 2022. As global travel restrictions continue easing (please Lord), I can’t wait to begin to share my overland adventures again and prove that the terrestrial travel life is actually a lot more exhilarating than the high life.

Elsewhere, we’ll be more intentional in the pieces we commission, upping the number of features focusing on climate-positive stories about destinations, hotels, companies and attractions that we think are doing things well. We’re also looking into adding links to emissions calculators for those who fancy working out and offsetting their travel carbon footprint, plus we’ll be introducing a new series of micro-guides covering the coolest neighbourhoods, encouraging travellers to slow down and take a deep-dive into local communities (rather than returning to the punishing whirlwind city breaks of old).

And we’d love your feedback too: what would you like to see more of? What should we be covering to help you plan a more meaningful trip? Leave your ideas in the comments below and we’ll be sure to consider them.

It isn’t going to be straightforward or easy to hold that tension between tourism as a potential force for good and something that has the capacity to cause untold damage (remember the godawful pre-pandemic days of rampant overtourism?). It will be a constant tightrope walk – one in which we attempt to balance championing travel in all its glory with recognising where the industry is letting both people and planet down (and where greenwashing takes the place of real change).

We won’t always get it right. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: it’s absolutely worth trying.

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