Covid and sustainable travel: Understanding the true impact

by | 7 Dec 2022

After the world went into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, we were able to witness what happens to the planet when we stay home. We saw images of Venice’s waterways clear up without the daily boatloads of tourists. We saw air pollution levels plummet around the world from China to the UK. In India, the smoggy skies in some of the most polluted cities became so clear, you could see mountain peaks in the distance.

Animals reclaimed their land, with cougars wandering into Santiago, dolphins swimming into the ports of Istanbul, and goats freely roaming the streets in Llandudno, Wales. Meanwhile, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland reintroduced a group of grazing cows. They help to clear bracken and bramble and encourage wildlife and wildflowers to return. The massive drop in flights and the ban on non-essential travel during the pandemic undoubtedly gave our atmosphere a chance to breathe. It also gave us an opportunity to reflect on the way we travel and what sustainable travel really means for our world.


The tourism industry accounts for around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the airline industry making up around 5% of this. There’s no denying that travel has a massive impact on our planet. It’s clear we need to change how we travel if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement’s target. And many travellers are rethinking the way they travel.

Read more: Are sustainable flights almost within our reach? Insight investigates

The American Express Travel 2022 Global Travel Trends Report found that 65% of respondents are trying to be more aware of sustainable travel brands. Meanwhile, 60% want to book airlines with a carbon neutral commitment and 55% have an interest in carbon negative travel.’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report found that 73% of US travellers think sustainable travel is vital and 46% say the coronavirus pandemic made them want to pursue sustainable travel.

So how do we do that? A global ban on travel is not the answer.


While there were positive environmental benefits of minimal human activity, many communities suffered greatly. The tourism industry is one of the world’s biggest employers, accounting for 10% of global GDP and supporting more than one in 10 jobs worldwide. When people stopped travelling, the whole tourism economy crashed, causing countless people to lose their jobs, businesses and livelihoods.

Lucie Dalila, Sustainability Manager at The Travel Corporation, says, “Some of the businesses we work with, particularly our Make Travel Matter® Experience (MTME) providers, have suffered extremely from the lack of business during Covid-19. Unfortunately we’ve also lost a number of valuable partners who didn’t survive the pandemic. Many of our experience providers have shared how relieved they’ve been to receive our groups this year and to have a regular and consistent stream of income.” We can support these people and communities as they rebuild by harnessing the power of sustainable travel.

A wealth of studies are showing that travellers in the future will likely focus on slow tourism, environmental stewardship, and more mindful travel, such as taking fewer but more appreciated trips. There will also be increased interest in taking trips closer to home and visiting emerging or ‘off-the-beaten path’ destinations. The American Express Travel report found that 77% of respondents want to be more conscious about supporting local businesses. Meanwhile, 59% want to make travel decisions to support a specific destination. More travellers want to support the communities devastated by the pandemic and forge meaningful connections when they travel.

Read more: Craving a more authentic, meaningful travel experience? Go guided


While sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, we acknowledge that as a global travel business, we have the power and the duty to do more. So we’re slowing down and taking a more thoughtful, meaningful approach to sustainable travel. We’re building authentic connections and getting to know the people and culture of our destinations. And instead of mass tourism, we’re focusing on quality tourism with smaller groups, longer stays, and real local experiences.

Read more: How you can experience the slow food movement while traveling with Insight


As part of our support for the local communities that have been economically devastated by the pandemic, we are including at least one Make Travel Matter Experience® on 50% of all itineraries. These experiences were specifically developed to provide regular income for people and communities and offer travel experiences that are mutually beneficial for both the host and the guest.

Lucie says, “Our Make Travel Matter Experiences give a voice and visibility to underrepresented populations who wouldn’t normally receive that much attention or international recognition and awareness for their work.”

“Tourism is an incredible force to revive a local economy that may have been dormant or slowing down. A great example of this is our new Make Travel Matter Experience® in Turkey. We visit an eco-farm in King’s Valley, a lesser known part of Capadoccia overshadowed by the main sights. For generations they’ve struggled to keep economy, population and traditions alive, but the eco-farm is now bringing visitors to this part of Cappadocia. It’s enabling the local villages to survive and share their traditions with visitors.”

Read more: It all comes back to the plate: Food’s role in understanding culture


We’re also on track to achieve a 20% increase in itineraries visiting developing regions by 2025. This supports a better distribution of tourism within a destination, while also offering unique travel experiences. We define a developing region as those with limited or no signs of overtourism, those that will support a better spread of tourism such as secondary cities, and those we haven’t visited in 2019.

We encourage our guests to consider choosing a region or destination in need of tourism such as India, Nepal, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans. If you do want to travel to the most popular destinations like Venice and Paris, we encourage guests to plan trips for the off-season to offer more consistent business.

Read more: The sustainable benefits of traveling in the off-season


The pandemic also lead to an increased awareness of the role of travel in environmental conservation. While we did witness the healing of some natural environments during the lockdowns, other areas suffered greatly, including natural, cultural, architectural, and gastronomic hertiage.

As ecotourism and conservation programs were forced to stop, economic and food insecurity increased, which lead to surges in poaching, illegal fishing, deforestation, and loss of natural habitats and biodiversity. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is essential that we expand conservation efforts and support these programs, sites and habitats when we travel.

Read more: Meet the Sami, the last Indigenous people of Europe


Our parent company, The Travel Corporation, is committed to sustainable travel through our five-year How We Tread Right Sustainability Strategy. But sustainability has always been rooted in the ethos of TTC, and has been part of the business long before Covid. As a family owned businesses, TTC and The Tollman Family has always believed in preserving and caring for the destinations and communities for the future generations to come. Covid has certainly accelerated that growth and given us an opportunity to implement solutions quicker.


This year, Insight Vacations and The Travel Corporation family of brands announced our commitment to net zero. Now, we’re sharing TTC’s science-based targets, which have been validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The most effective means to address climate change is to get our emissions down to zero, which is our primary focus. To achieve this, here’s what we’re doing:

– We’ve reset our Climate Action Plan to incorporate these targets, committing us to Measure, Reduce, Restore, and Evolve.

– We’ve established a Carbon Fund that will be dedicated solely to initiatives that contribute to our net zero journey.

– Our TreadRight Foundation will prioritise and invest in nature-based solutions developed to restore our planet by addressing climate change as well as the rapid loss of biodiversity.

You can see our science-based targets and learn more about our net zero journey here.

Read more: Measure, reduce, restore and evolve: our journey to hitting net zero by 2050


We help preserve precious natural and cultural sites by visiting these places on all of our tours. When you travel with Insight, you can support the likes of Yellowstone in the United States, Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, and Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Brazil. We also ensure that all wildlife experiences on our tours adhere to our Animal Welfare Policy. Through these experiences, we raise awareness among our guests on the connection between planet, people and wildlife. We provide tips on how to make better decisions to respect the destinations they visit before, during and after their trip.


Lucie says we are also “helping the industry with cross collaboration. As a Glasgow Declaration signatory, Insight and other brands of The Travel Corporation are setting up and sharing best practices with other businesses in the industry. As a leader in the industry we have a responsibility to collaborate, share knowledge and learnings with the industry and help smaller businesses.”

“We have also been collaborating with destinations like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland and Scotland. We help implement tools and solutions to support destinations transitioning towards more sustainable solutions. As part of this work we strongly encourage and guide our experience, food and accommodation providers to make better decisions and improve sustainability in their production chain.”

Read more: Thinking Swisstainable: in conversation with destination expert, Pascal Prinz


The COVID-19 pandemic did more than just bring travel to a grinding halt. As Lucie says, “Covid-19 has revealed more gaps and inequalities that had previously been ignored and had a profound effect on the travel industry.” It provoked thought and reflection about the way we travel. And it made it clear that the way we travel needs to change.

While borders are reopening, we’re sure that travel will never be quite the same again. As a global travel business, we’re committed to evolving and upholding our responsibility to be part of the sustainable change. We have the opportunity to be a catalyst for long-term, sustainable change. And we’re embracing the remarkable power of sustainable travel to positively impact both people and planet for the decades to come.

Alex is the Editor of Insightful, and has over 10 years' experience as a writer and editor within the travel industry. In his professional travels, he has been all over the world – from road-tripping in Australia and New Zealand, to eating his way around the Canadian Maritimes and criss-crossing Italy from Sardinia to Emilia-Romagna.