Travel and sustainability: Transforming for the future17 May 2021
The year 2021 represents an interesting juncture for the travel and tourism industry and one that is full of tension. After the upheaval of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, people are desperate to travel again – to explore beyond their domestic setting and visit foreign lands. However, the pandemic has also given people time – and cause – to re-evaluate their relationship with travel and they are more mindful of the environmental impact.
The fact that we are living in a climate crisis is no longer up for debate and tourist boards, destination management companies and brands all want to respond to this emergency. For travel, those needs are particularly urgent because if tourism wants to be part of this conversation, then it must fundamentally change its practice.
Pre-pandemic, much of the focus for the industry was on ‘over-tourism’ with destinations such as Venice and Bali struggling to cope with the volume of visitors descending that were damaging the environment and locals’ daily lives. The stark environmental improvements – such as the clearer canals in Venice – seen with the coronavirus fall in tourists have focused minds.
Tourism contributes to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 4% – so it needs to get its house in order. One silver lining of the pandemic may be that it has helped unite some travel companies to do more against what they may see as their next, and united, foe.
Pent up desire for reclaiming that most enjoyable part of our lives – travel and holidays – is also balanced with a newfound urge to change. A recent global research report published by Booking.com asked travellers how they planned to travel differently when borders reopen. The report found that 53% of global travellers wanted to travel more sustainably as the coronavirus has opened their eyes to humans’ impact on the environment. Another 69% of respondents said they expect the travel industry to offer more sustainable travel options. People don’t want to return to the damaging ways of life that have contributed to the degradation of our planet. So, this terrible pandemic could provide a reset – an opportunity to think everything through, start over and correct some of the mistakes and excesses of the past. We are at an inflection point. This will be a time of transition, turbulence and disruption, as old systems creak and shift, and a new order seeks to impose itself.
As Jamie Sweeting, vice-president of social enterprise and responsible travel at tour operator G Adventures said, “In the travel industry right now, your dollar means way more than it did before COVID. You have a lot of power as a consumer. If you reward companies that are addressing climate change and work with local communities, the marketplace will change.”
He believes that going forward there will be more interest in trips that focus on time in the outdoors and going to less visited places; these are moves that make sustainable practices easier and help lessen the burden of over-tourism.
However, as travel customers’ demands change – and companies look to meet these new requirements in a challenging economic climate – there is the risk that less scrupulous operators go down the virtue-signalling and greenwashing route, rather than embracing systemic change. Since COVID-19, platitudes on greening and reinventing tourism have echoed globally across the industry as the consensus grows to ‘build back better’ but unfortunately, many are little more than empty promises.
So, what should businesses in this sector be doing to improve both their activities and their messaging and communication? The reality is that there is a sliding scale of commitment from well-intentioned tokenism at one end (reusable water bottles and paper straws) to brands with true circular economy experiences and products at the other (examples outside the travel industry include Nike’s Refurbished initiative). In between, we have offsetting – where the carbon emissions from flight travel are offset by tree planting – and actual systemic sustainability, such as low carbon fuel use and renewable energy. Offsetting is great but it takes 20 years to grow a tree so it’s not solving a problem today.
No matter how well intentioned and dedicated a company is and where it sits on that sliding scale of commitment, real change and ultimate responsibility for more sustainable travel will require government intervention. The UK government has recently revised its carbon emissions target, pledging to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. This will surely have to involve a range of actions including legislation, carbon pricing and nudge behaviour.
Everyone will need to be involved including tourist board communications to influence choice; travel brands, airlines, hotels and car rentals mitigating the impact of their operations or offering genuinely sustainable options; and travellers putting their money where their ethics lie.
Sustainability is going to have to be a collective action. There is more hope since the pandemic with the newly launched Tourism Declares and Future of Tourism initiatives uniting various segments across the industry to find scalable solutions. Tourism Declares is an initiative aimed at helping those in the travel sphere develop plans to reduce carbon emissions. More than 200 companies, ranging from travel agents to tour operators, have committed to publishing a climate action plan within 12 months of joining. Meanwhile, the Future of Tourism coalition, founded by six non-profit organisations including the Center for Responsible Travel and the Destination Stewardship Center, has called for tourism stakeholders to commit to 13 guiding principles, ranging from “Choose quality over quantity” to “Use sustainability standards”.
While what counts as ‘good’ travel is subjective, it’s important for tourism groups to work with companies and suppliers that have the same mission. By prioritising giving their business to local hotels and restaurants that practise recycling, use solar panels and reduce waste, it makes it more attractive for others to get on board. The same goes for travellers.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and CNN International have teamed up to celebrate the transformative power being unleashed as the restart of tourism gets underway. The campaign affirms UNWTO as the unifying voice behind the global restart of tourism while harnessing the influence of the CNN brand to reach global audiences at scale.
The scale and importance of this task cannot be overestimated. Moreover, just as it will require a multitude of parties to work collaboratively, so it will require a multitude of actions. There is no time left for a single climate solution. Offsetting, net-zero goals, carbon removal, organic farming for carbon sinks – we’re going to need all of them.
We are starting to see some examples of good practice – from Visit Portugal’s recently launched #CantSkipTomorrow campaign to Palau in the western Pacific, which claims to be the world's first carbon-neutral destination and where visitors must take a mandatory eco-pledge.
Checking tourism’s carbon footprint
Strengthening the measurement and disclosure of CO2 emissions from tourism and promoting the introduction of science-based targets is necessary for the sector to effectively contribute to the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement. Dr Susanne Etti, Intrepid Travel’s environmental impact specialist, has said that having a measurement plan is the most important thing for stakeholders. “Without quantifying your emissions, it becomes immensely challenging to quantify the effectiveness of your reduction.” Intrepid launched an open-source guide to decarbonising travel businesses in April, which has since been downloaded by more than 180 businesses.
In addition, investing in low-carbon transport and greener infrastructure is vital for building a more resilient sector. Tourism will have to adapt to climate change and carbon removal – both through natural methods and technology – if the sector is to cut emissions by 50% by 2030 to remain in line with the recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
There’s also rapid innovation happening in the travel industry, to bring down the emissions of the most prominent contributors, such as air travel. From airlines using nature-based fuel solutions such as biofuels, to Airbus’ first zero-emission commercial fleet of aircraft ZEROe that runs purely on Hydrogen, but this is still not due to launch until 2035.
But whether boats, planes, cars or trucks, merely changing fuel is not enough. We need to consume and travel less – and differently when we do.
New travel behaviours
Domestic tourism has been a more immediate and obvious choice for travellers in the past year. Destinations likely to see the first surge in visitor numbers are remote coastal and rural areas, places seen as “safe” according to Patricia Yates, acting CEO of VisitBritain/VisitEngland. It will be longer before cities bounce back.
Regional campaigns will support this change, as we’ve already seen from the likes of VisitAberdeenshire, and the Hello Hong Kong campaign encouraging domestic tourism in 2020, while New Zealand aims to have 90% of local residents happy with tourism activities and supportive of growth.
One-way tour companies like G Adventures are looking to decrease the stress put on destinations by opting to travel in the offseason. However, there’s also a balance to be struck here, to ensure that travel doesn’t become the privilege of the rich, but rather that it remains accessible to everyone.
At a global level and across the value chain — from destinations to hospitality, tour operators and sustainable tourism organisations — tourism can only claim to be functioning better when all stakeholders make room for local communities to enter the tourism supply chain as active, equitable participants in the industry, not as mere ‘projects’ or ‘beneficiaries’ of tourism.
Why it matters
The climate crisis is no longer up for debate and tourist boards, destination management companies and brands all want to respond to this emergency. For travel, those needs are particularly urgent because if tourism wants to be part of this conversation, then it must fundamentally change its practice.
Everyone will need to be involved, including tourist board communications to influence choice; travel brands, airlines, hotels and car rentals mitigating the impact of their operations or offering genuinely sustainable options; and travellers putting their money where their ethics lie.
Going forward, there will be more interest in trips that focus on time in the outdoors and going to less visited places – moves that make sustainable practices easier and help lessen the burden of over-tourism.
Investing in low-carbon transport and greener infrastructure is vital for building a more resilient sector.