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The past year brought plenty of distressing headlines for travel: heat waves, airplane disasters and the ravages of overtourism. But the tourism industry showed signs of heading in some positive directions. Here are five trends that we hope will continue in 2020

Several hotel chains are moving away from single-use in plastics in favour of bulk toiletries, such as these bottles at a Holiday Inn Express.Corey Stovin/Handout

Hotels, airlines, and cruise lines are ditching single-use plastics

For those of us who have been relying on hotel stays and cruises for a steady supply of shampoo, conditioner, body wash and sweet-smelling moisturizer, the jig is finally up. As concerns mount about the devastating impact of our over-reliance on single-use plastics, the travel industry is starting to respond.

In July, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) announced that it will switch to bulk-size amenities for every one of its almost 843,000 hotel rooms – a transition expected to be completed in 2021. Marriott International followed suit in August with a goal to eliminate single-use toiletry shower bottles in all global properties, a switch expected to be mostly complete by December, 2020.

When it comes to the friendly skies, United Airlines flew from Chicago to Los Angeles in what it billed as the most eco-friendly flight in history in June, swapping plastics for recyclable or compostable options. And earlier this month, Air New Zealand – which in July announced plans to remove single-use water bottles and single-use sauce packets from certain cabins – began test driving edible coffee cups.

On the high seas, Norwegian Cruise Line unveiled a new partnership with Just Goods, Inc (founded by Will and Jaden Smith, no less) to replace all single-use plastic water bottles with paper cartons across its 16-ship fleet by Jan. 1, 2020 – a move it says will eliminate more than six million plastic bottles a year. In 2018, NCL eliminated all plastic straws from both its fleet and private destinations.

“Five years ago when this first came up, it felt more like something for positive spin,” says Harry Sommer, incoming president and CEO of NCL. “But it’s turned into a really core belief of the company. We see the same news about trash in the ocean. Everyone on the executive team has children and grandchildren and we want to leave the world a better place than we found it.”

Indigenous tourism is gaining ground

In Canada, Indigenous tourism growth is outpacing Canadian tourism activity over all, according to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), and demand from international travelers is at an all-time high, with one in three international visitors looking to explore Indigenous culture and traditions.

In 2019, ITAC hosted the largest Indigenous tourism conference in the world, with more than 700 delegates and announced the launch of an Indigenous culinary tourism program, as well as a strategic partnership with WestJet (complete with a $100,000 commitment from the airline). Destination Indigenous, ITAC’s new consumer travel brand, will be launched in 2020.

Keith Henry, CEO of ITAC, believes that the growing interest is part of the country’s broader reconciliation project. “Beyond just activity-based tourism, we’re seeing a desire to learn about Indigenous people and hear their stories,” he says. “Visitors want to learn more about the original history and land of this country.”

Indigenous tourism experiences run a wide gamut, from hunting and fishing in Quebec or spotting wildlife in British Columbia to learning the traditional art of moccasin making or sampling contemporary Indigenous cuisine while staying at high-design Indigenous-owned lodges. Crucially, these experiences follow the dictate of “nothing about us, without us” – which is why ITAC has also named Indigenous-owned Indigeno Travel as its preferred travel agency.

Autism-friendly travel is growing

As the travel industry aims to become increasingly inclusive, new initiatives for people with disabilities are being rolled out. In particular, autism-friendly travel has gained traction.

In July, Pittsburgh International Airport announced the opening of a “sensory space,” joining the ranks of other airports including Atlanta and Birmingham in the United States, and Gatwick in Britain.

In November, Mesa, Ariz., became the first-ever Autism Certified City in the world. In practical terms, that means providing specialized training for frontline staff and handing out sensory-sensitive guides that offer a framework for navigating the destination.

Vivian Ly, executive director of Autistics United Canada, says she is encouraged by some of the efforts to improve sensory, communication and cognitive access for autistic people. “Airports are a sensory nightmare,” she says. “They are loud, busy, bright, crowded and overwhelming – for anyone really! Reducing this and providing sensory-friendly services would benefit anyone and especially hypersensitive people.”

In an ideal world, Ly says, universal design would reduce anxiety. A new joint project from Boise State University and the municipality of Boise, Idaho, uses virtual reality to alleviate some of the stress that autistic children and adults may feel before arriving at an airport and boarding the plane – especially if it’s the first time. The VR experience, which can be used both at the airport and at the Boise Library well in advance of a flight, allows passengers to be guided through the check in process, the security line and boarding the aircraft.

Animal tourism is being re-examined

Swimming with dolphins, riding on elephants and posing alongside (highly medicated) tigers remain popular photos on dating apps – but the travel industry is finally coming around to the deep harm some of these activities can cause. In June, National Geographic ran a sizable feature dedicated to social media-driven animal encounters and the miseries of captivity, including bears who spend their days chained in an unnatural standing position, elephants beaten by their handlers and sad anteaters fed a diet of flavoured yogurt.

An unofficial ethical code of conduct is emerging, driven in part by consumer preferences and in part by growing and irrefutable evidence of neglect and abuse. In October, G Adventures released their first official animal-welfare policy, which outlines a commitment to avoid physical contact with non-domesticated animals, eschew any shows where animals are required to perform and cuts out the consumption of any endangered creatures. In November, Costa Rica launched a Stop Animal Selfies campaign to encourage visitors to enjoy wildlife from a responsible distance.

Intrepid Group became the first major tour operator to end elephant rides in 2014 and have been a vanguard of this movement ever since. Tara Kennaway, Intrepid’s senior product manager overseeing operations and responsible business, says that wildlife should be viewed doing what they do best: living in the wild. “We know that by showing our travellers and local communities the value of these environments through the economic benefits of tourism, we’re helping preserve these amazing places and the wildlife that call them home.”

Travellers are returning to the rails

While there was much debate in 2019 about who should be flying and how often, the growing popularity of rail travel (both luxe and basic) ties into both environmental concerns and the move toward “slow travel” – a desire to immerse oneself in the journey just as much as the destination.

This year, Eurostar (which recently added Amsterdam as a destination) celebrated its 25th year of service, adding a series of “master classes” led by experts in food, culture and wine on some of its London to Paris routes. In June, Scotland’s Caledonian Sleeper debuted upgraded suites with double beds and private bathrooms. In September, Amtrak’s CEO announced plans to modernize services, citing the indignities and inconveniences of short-haul flights as the perfect catalyst. And this month, Siemens begins construction on 13 new night trains in Austria – sleeper cars to serve the Western European market. Passenger numbers on some routes, such as Vienna-Zurich, have reportedly grown 20 percent over the past year.

With so many options, travellers can now ride the rails and avoid a conversation with friends and family about what emits more greenhouse gases – your air travel or their children. Which seems like a good thing for everyone.

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