Air NZ's hydrogen-powered plane project is a step in the right direction. Photo / Douglas Bagg, UnsplashAir NZ’s hydrogen-powered plane project is a step in the right direction. Photo / Douglas Bagg, Unsplash



Air New Zealand has partnered with Airbus to try and clean up air travel and I am stupendously excited. If you love travel, you should be too.

This excitement doesn’t stem from loyalty to Air NZ (although, as far as airlines go, they are excellent), a fondness for chemical engineering (the science is beyond me) or a passion for business innovation.

Rather, it comes from the tension between both loving travel and being painfully aware of its environmental and social cost. A tension that has only grown more widespread and fraught since the pandemic hit.

Sustainability has long been a point of focus within the travel and tourism industry. Arguably, the concept is just a contemporary take on ancient indigenous wisdom that has always acknowledged and valued the connection between people and the land.

Nonetheless, as the impact of tourism’s unrestrained growth became impossible to ignore, pressure mounted on governing bodies and individuals to create a tourism model that could go the distance.

Then, Covid-19 happened and tourism, along with countless other industries, ground to a standstill. Economies, advanced and developing, were hit hard, especially those relying on tourists to stop by and spend up.

As Cruise ships were docked, planes grounded and cars left in their garages, many were quick to describe the time as a much-needed break for mother earth. Now, more than ever we see the delicate balance our world hangs in.

So, as opening borders and travel bubbles inch closer, how do we navigate a deep desire to board the first plane we can with the knowledge of its impact?

No matter how you cut it, tourism will always represent some sort of pressure on the environment or the culture of a place. We will always leave a trace wherever we roam but that doesn’t mean we can’t make that trace as faint as possible.

In the past, this responsibility has sat firmly on the traveller’s shoulders. We’ve all know the advice; click the box to cover emissions when booking a flight, take alternative transport where possible, avoid ‘crowded’ destinations, book during shoulder seasons.

The issue is, like in many industries looking to go green, individual action alone can no longer move the dial. We need change on an international, industry-level scale.

Fortunately, heavyweights in the tourism industry have chosen to see the silver lining in the pandemic, describing it as an opportunity to stop, reassess and build back stronger and more sustainable than ever.

In March 2021, the world’s leading travel trade show, the International Tourism Fair, selected the theme “Rethink, Regenerate, Restart ― Tourism for a Better Normal.” Lead by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the conversation centred firmly on sustainability, for the industry and the planet.

Following this came the UNWTO’s ‘Recommendations for the Transition to a Green Travel and Tourism Economy’ submitted in May. The organisation provided thorough recommendations for a “responsible recovery of the tourism sector” that will “balance the needs of people, the planet and prosperity.”

However, these are just recommendations; only useful if they are followed by industry leaders, supported by Governments and, at some point, consumers.

It’s why travellers can (and should) get excited when change starts to happen. Even if it’s slow, even if it’s imperfect.

It’s why we can celebrate companies like Air NZ exploring liquid hydrogen-powered aircrafts in an attempt to clean up air travel, a sector renowned for its enormous environmental impact.

The science may need a few more years to make it commercially viable (it’s currently around four times more expensive compared to conventional jet fuel). Government backing may be necessary to get it ‘off the ground’ so to speak. Ticket prices could become more expensive as a result.

But, it’s a step in the right direction; One we can all acknowledge as a move towards a kind of travel that can go the distance.