Whenever I travel, I usually use online search engines like Google Flights or Skyscanner to see what flight prices are like, before honing in on something. Unlike travel websites, which offer options sorted by price, airline or departure times, these search engines offer one the chance of looking for not just the cheapest but the fastest flight, or the one with the least number of hops and so on. A search engine called Hipmunk (now alas deceased) even sorted flights by the “pain” factor — using an algorithm which combined not just the price, but the duration and timing to work out the options which offered the least discomfort at the best price.

Skyscanner does something different. For any search, it marks some flights out as “greener” choices, emitting less greenhouse gases. Skyscanner does this by looking at the aircraft type, seating capacity, engine option and number of take-offs and landings to calculate fights which are — at least comparatively — less damaging to the environment and leave the traveller with a potentially smaller carbon footprint.

Does this make a difference? According to Skyscanner, it does. The website claims that till date, more than 68 million users have made a positive choice for the environment by opting for greener flight options — even if they were not the cheapest.

The woke traveller

Welcome to the new world of the woke traveller, where factors like environmental impact, sustainability, and support to local communities are as important as price, comfort and amenities.

And if you think this is a niche phenomenon, think again. Travel website Expedia did a global survey of more than 11,000 respondents covering major economies in every continent — India, Japan and China were picked in Asia to look at the sustainable travel phenomenon. And the findings should be a wake-up call for policymakers.

A whopping 90 per cent of consumers look for sustainable options, the study found. And what do travellers think sustainable travel means? Sixty-nine per cent picked travel having less environmental impact as fitting the “sustainable” bill, while two out of three respondents also picked tourism which supports local communities and tourism which works with/supports local cultures as sustainable.

When asked whether, in their travel within the past two years, they had consciously opted for more environmentally friendly transportation or stay options, three out of five consumers said they had (Skyscanner’s greener choice option starts to make sense now!)

What’s more, consumers are willing to make a financial sacrifice in order to be more sustainable. While a surprising 34 per cent said they had paid extra for carbon offsets, half the consumers said they are willing to pay more for more sustainable options for transportation, stay, etc.

Conscious of budgets

Of course, most tourists, other than the uber rich, are conscious of budgets. While almost three out of four respondents said that travelling sustainably “cost too much”, the survey found that on an average, consumers were willing to pay up to 38 per cent more for an an assuredly more sustainable option. What’s more, 74 per cent said they would choose a destination, travel or lodging option that was committed to work with local communities and cultures, 70 per cent said they are willing to make sacrifices in comfort and convenience in order to be more sustainable.

The findings may not be conclusive but are a strong indicator of changing winds in the global tourism industry. And as the pall of fear cast by Covid finally starts to lift and travel and tourism starts returning to normalcy, this would be the ideal time to make a strong move to attract the sustainable traveller with authentic sustainable options.

India’s hospitality and travel industry — the largest service sector in India, contributing $194 billion to the economy and generating 40 million jobs (about 8 per cent of total employment) in 2019 — has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Government statistics show just two lakh tourist arrivals in January, the last month for which figures are available. This is just a fifth of the pre-pandemic average.

Which is why I thought India’s new National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism, released on April 29 this year, was so perfectly timed and was surprised by how little public or even industry attention this appeared to have got. But a closer look at the strategy document released by the Ministry of Tourism shows why — it is largely about intent and aspirations, with little by way of concrete plans or schemes to achieve the golden grail of attracting the growing tribe of sustainable travellers.

India has been talking about sustainable travel for a long while now. The term first found its way into the national tourism policy as far back as in 2002. A decade later, at the start of the 12th Plan period, the government of the day came up with a document — Sustainable Tourism For India – Criteria and Indicators — which was supposed to have laid the framework for developing sustainable travel in India.

The document listed 18 action steps, ranging from bringing in the tourism industry as principal stakeholder at the planning stage to ensure sustainability to making funds conditional on defined outcomes being achieved on various sustainability indicators.

A decade later, the national strategy talks about much the same things, only using contemporary jargon like “carbon neutral tourism” and “resource efficient” travel and tourism industry. Considering that sustainable travel was adopted as the principal goal for the sector at the Rio Summit way back in 1992, that’s three decades of talk and grand plans for precious little action on the ground.

In fact, an audit of sustainable tourism in India by researchers from the Central University of Kerala concluded: “Lack of environmental initiatives, failure of protecting social and cultural assets, crimes and other security measures, unskilled manpower and lack of community participation are major reasons for unsustainability and poor performance of sustainable tourism in India. Over the period, though policies are framed but lack strong executive mechanisms for implementation, stakeholders and host community participation.”

With just a 1.3 per cent share of world tourist arrivals pre-pandemic, India had already missed the tourism bus. Now, it looks like it is missing the sustainable tourism bus as well.

The writer is a senior journalist