When industry forecasters wrote their 2020 trend reports, they couldn’t have predicted this. The grounded planes, the quarantine measures, the slamming of collective brakes on the whole world’s holiday plans. ‘To travel or not to travel’ looks likely to remain a dilemma for some time, with the answer continually in flux. But accepting the uncertainty, we’re also posing the question: what could the future look like for luxury eco-tourism?
In predicting possible outcomes for the travel industry as a whole, Phocuswire’s Mario Gavira points to four “game-changing” trends: a tightening up of health and hygiene standards, the need to social distance while travelling, the consumer shift towards online shopping and experiences, and virtual becoming “business as usual”. On all of these points, brands at the intersection of luxury and sustainable tourism seem better equipped than most.
While the economic downturn is going to be an inevitable hurdle, travelling less often could mean people will be prepared to spend more on quality experiences when they do. They’re likely to seek resorts with an abundance of space, and prioritise companies that they trust to meet high standards of hygiene – all of which could see responsible luxury brands given a well-deserved boost.
“In the short to mid term, the experience in a luxury hotel will not be diminished at all,” says Brian Gore, VP of Brand, Marketing & Digital for the Butterfly Mark Certified The Set Hotels. “In fact I think the opposite will happen. A stay will become more personalised and attentive than ever.”
Then there’s the more philosophical shift. Living through an event that has thrown global and local inequalities into such sharp relief, many of us are striving to become more conscious consumers. In April, an Accenture survey of more than 3,000 people across 15 different countries found that the pandemic was already inspiring a change, with 68% reducing food waste and 54% shopping more sustainably. Travel habits could follow a similar course.
“Our guests have always been keen to ensure that the footprint they leave behind when travelling is as small as possible, with sustainability an important part of the decision-making process when choosing a hotel,” says Gore. “I don’t believe this will change. If anything I think travellers will put more emphasis on [sustainability], as the fragility of the world around us is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.”
Some of the frills of premium hospitality may be gone indefinitely. Lavish breakfast buffets are being replaced with a la carte service; personal welcomes swapped for contactless check-ins; free coffee and snacks in lobbies are a no-no; extra cushions and pillows are potential transmission hazards. Even daily room cleans and turn-down services are on pause in some hotels. As the New York Times notes, where luxury travel companies have been keen in recent years to increase guest interactions, introducing coworking lounges and extra social spaces, they’ll now need to refocus their efforts on helping us all stay distant instead. The age of hyper-solo travel has begun.
For eco-focused resorts, maintaining sustainable practices could pose an extra challenge. Initiatives like large pump-bottles of beauty products may be ditched in favour of mini disposables for each guest. Reducing single-use plastic and harsh chemical cleaners could become harder, as sanitation takes priority.
Still, many of those same resorts could benefit from a newfound craving for green space and seclusion. While excursions to crowded tourist hotspots are off the menu, we’re embracing the chance to go off-grid instead. And though campsite bookings across Europe and the US are reportedly up by 500% for 2021, not everyone will be prepared to spend their summer under canvas.
Butterfly Mark Certified Balance Holidays is anticipating an upsurge in demand for its tucked-away, wellbeing retreats, which focus on mindfulness, self-care and clean living. “We have been noticing a strong response to our programme offerings, with customers expressing a strong preference for authentic, nature-immersive short-breaks that tread lightly on the earth, in place of a classic far-flung getaway,” says Livia Manca Di Villahermosa, Founder and Director. “We expect to see exponential demand for escapes that favour vast, open spaces held in quiet, tucked-away corners surrounded by nature.”
Unsurprisingly, tech looks set to play a vital role in tourism’s future. Companies like 360 Stories offer digital tourism in the form of virtual live tours that would-be travellers can enjoy from their sofas, and augmented reality tours which circumvent the need for tour groups at real-life destinations. Airlines and luxury hoteliers might see it as unwelcome competition, but used creatively, virtual travel could also serve to enhance real-life experiences and entice future guests.
Although working from home homeworking may have become the new normal, there could be room for travel companies to capitalise on that newfound flexibility and broaden our definition of ‘home’. “This crisis has highlighted the fact that people can work and live anywhere in the world whilst, for the most, remaining productive in their professional responsibilities,” points out Julian Hagger, Executive Vice President of The Lux Collective, which owns the Butterfly Mark Certified SALT of Palmar resort in Mauritius. “This will open up new opportunities for professionals to work from anywhere in the world. In my view, staycations are here to stay, which will benefit our industry greatly if we adapt our business model to the opportunity.” Perhaps coworking lounges will have a place in a post-pandemic future after all.
At the Butterfly Mark Certified Lagom, there has been an increase in longer-term rentals, where guests can stay for months or even a year in its luxury Swiss Alpine chalets. “With schools and offices closed, in some cases until at least next year, this could rise further as people consider their family’s needs,” says co-founder Natasha Robinson. “Being able to live indoors and outdoors, take exercise and play, is now more important than ever. Perhaps we will embrace the countryside and the mountains more than the city as a place to live and work remotely from in the future.”
Butterfly Mark Certified Rusticae owns more than 300 small boutique hotels across Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Latin America. As the company’s CEO Sara Sabina Sánchez Remacha points out, location will be a big factor in the industry’s recovery. “I think all resorts will lose out on certain foreign markets, but in wealthier regions of the world there will be an uplift in local staycationers,” she says. Not every destination has the same advantages. “My guess is those resorts in developing countries may have a harder time.”
Once international travel picks up again in earnest, will we see eco-tourism leading the way? “It will be a great challenge, as many people will be struggling with the terrible emotional and economical consequences of this crisis,” Sánchez Remacha warns. “But now, more than ever, the transition to a sustainable and fair planet must be a priority in the tourism sector agenda.”
Beyond official rules and guidance, the decision to travel is a deeply personal one. But it’s not unreasonable to hope that when we’re ready to take that life-enriching trip again, a cleaner, fairer industry will be there to welcome us.