Africa Travel Week

Green is the new luxury

International tourism could decline by 60-80% by the end of this year, but the silver lining to this is that air quality has drastically improved across the globe, writes Jean Lim.

Ten major cities’ air index were studied over the travel ban and lockdown period: Delhi, New York City, London, Los Angeles, Milan, Mumbai, Rome, Sao Paolo, Seoul and Wuhan. Findings revealed that under travel lockdown conditions, these cities that were normally choked with the worst air pollution saw extreme drops in fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) considered to be the world’s deadliest air pollutant1.


The link between decrease in travel and increase in air quality cannot be denied. It’s not just air travel. The world has gone from suffering from over-tourism to suddenly no-tourism overnight. And without looking at the economic loss, some positive indirect effects of COVID-19 on the environment as a whole include improvements in air quality, clean beaches and less environmental noise2.

However, because the situation is incidental, it is not a long-term way to clean up the environment and maintain sustainability.

And this is the part where a harmony should be created between luxury travel and sustainability.

Here’s the reason why:

In times of global economic recession, the luxury market is expected to remain resilient. In fact, there is already pent-up travel and spending being demonstrated by this market, especially as travel as we know it does not seem to be resuming to its ‘normal’ form anytime soon.

The luxury market is therefore anticipated to be the first to come out of economic hibernation and travel when it is already safe and possible. Hence it is highly likely that they, too, have the capacity to set a precedent of how the ‘new normal’ of travel could be.

But it isn’t simply a case of these current measures putting a pressure on the luxury market to travel sustainably. As early as five years ago, luxury travellers were already seen to be seeking sustainability when it emerged that they wanted authentic experiences in their travels.


In 2018, luxury travel company Virtuoso presented in their annual Luxe Report that perceptions of luxury are evolving as travellers are considering authenticity as the new luxury, and this includes advancing the notion of luxury travel as providing a great holiday that also helps to make the world a better place.  Global sustainability strategist Costas Christ says that this is not a trend, but an evolution of travel.

Two years on and this way of sustainable and thoughtful luxury travel has been given a buzzword: “Conscious Luxury”. Jane Mackie, IHG’s Senior Vice President of global marketing for luxury brands, says that this means taking something personally. It has to matter to you to make it meaningful. Six Senses’ CEO Neil Jacobs also adds that this means recognising that even a small move helps move the cycle and the industry towards providing a sustainable product3.

As travel writer Dawn Jorgensen points out in her #lockdownlessons interview, “Travelling will have more value again, and so will be at less cost to the world. Green is the new luxury.”

And if we are to look into a positive aspect that this global disruption has brought, let’s remember that prior to COVID-19, the world was on the brink of over-tourism. As much as we travellers didn’t welcome the travel ban, our environment definitely needed the break.

The ecosystems of Southeast Asia in particular, was already being pushed to breaking point.  Unregulated and over-tourism were seen to be the direct cause of vanishing marine life, coral die-offs, damaged cultural sites and islands overflowing with plastic and human waste.

In Europe, over-tourism is seen to be blamed for wrecking environmental havoc and ruining neighbourhoods, with local residents being pushed to little choices as landlords turn rental properties into holiday lets. Grupo 25 Aprile, a Venetian group dedicated to preserving Venice’s very vulnerable and fragile environment, urges a massive rethink on tourism in the city of canals. Their founder, Marco Gasparinetti, tells Reuters that, “We cannot go back to the previous system as if nothing happened, destroying the city with mass tourism.”

In North America alone, 24 destinations have been named which are considered to have been ruined by tourists over the past ten years. In Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay, scientists found that the average 2,600 daily visitors had left a massive amount of sunscreen in the ocean—412 pounds. And in the Bahamas’ Big Major Cay island, the famous local residents, the swimming pigs, have been dying in large numbers due to tourists feeding them on the beach, causing them to ingest large quantities of sand.

Travel and tourism brands worldwide are urged to use this time of extended break to really re-think how sustainable trave can be achieved now that we have the rare chance to start all over again.

If you personally feel like you could do with an interesting insight during these times of uncertainty, have a read of Columbia University’s article about what COVID-19 can teach us about sustainability. It provides a very simple but chilling analogy that how the virus spreads and clings so very quickly to humans is akin to human (travellers) behaviour pre-COVID: travelling everywhere easier and faster than ever at rock-bottom fares. Tragically, it is also through easy travelling that Covid-19 has spread this quickly.


Post COVID-19, travel is seen to become more expensive, air fare-wise at least. IATA (International Air Transport Association) director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac has said that as airlines start eliminating middle seats as part of social-distancing measures, and with fewer seats to sell, the era of affordable travel will come to an end4.

Because of this, people are seen to travel longer and further. And having been cooped up in their residences for so long, luxury travellers will also want to explore spectacular landscapes and still seek encounters and local experiences at a comfortable distance.

And going back to the evolution of luxury travel to ‘conscious luxury’, when you spend a much longer time in your destination, the desire to get involved in the local community increases. And what better way to make that experience more meaningful by knowing that it’s not just your personal experience that was enriched, but the local environment and community too?

And since these unprecedented times sometimes make most of us wish we had superpowers, let’s hearken to some wise words given to a superhero: “With great power comes great responsibility.” And whether we have great purchasing power or not, we surely must have realised by now that travel in itself is a luxury. It’s in our hands to make sure that the world we explore does not succumb to us.


  1. UNTWO and IQAir
  2. Science Direct
  3. Forbes
  4. IATA

Jean Lim

Jean Carmela Lim is the voice behind luxury and adventure travel blog, Holy Smithereens. Since a childhood trip to Hong Kong and her first typewriter, Jean has spent a lifetime pursuing her passion of travel writing. With a background in the airline industry and government travel, Jean now creates travel content full-time on blogs and social media, exploring life's unforgettable moments through luxurious travels both near and far.