Why sustainable tourism is the travel industry’s duty3 January, 2020 / Articles
The global tourism industry has reached an unprecedented level of demand. For the first time in history, the number of tourists crossing international borders in a single year reached over one billion in 2012, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). While just over 50% of these tourist arrivals were from Europe, much of this demand is being fuelled by rising household incomes in emerging economies – not only the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but increasingly across the rest of south-east Asia and Latin America. In addition to increasing levels of international travel, it is estimated that another five to six billion people travel in their own country every year.
Given these statistics, it is little surprise that tourism is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. Yet while the positives are often widely broadcast – tourism currently accounts for 9% of world GDP, $1.3tn in exports and 6% of world trade, as well as bringing economic benefits to local communities and encouraging greater global connectivity – the negatives are less likely to be discussed, including greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and waste management.
How the tourism industry can manage this dramatic growth, while reducing its less sustainable consequences, formed the backdrop for a recent Guardian roundtable discussion sponsored by international leisure travel group TUI Travel.
A key priority for a more sustainable tourism industry identified in the roundtable was to deal with the impact of aviation on spiralling carbon emissions. Tourism presently accounts for 5% of global emissions – approximately 4% from transportation (40% of those from air travel and 32% from car travel) and almost 1% from the accommodation sector. Demand for air travel is forecast to double by 2050, and carbon emissions from flights departing the UK are forecast to increase from 33.3 MtCO2 in 2011 to 47 MtCO2 by 2050.
Dr Andy Jefferson, programme director of Sustainable Aviation, thinks it is possible to “disconnect growth in aviation with growth in carbon emissions”. How? Through the use of future aircraft technology, better operational flying techniques and sustainable fuels. He says it will be possible, with an internationally agreed emissions trading scheme (ETS), to reduce net CO2 emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050.
Others were less convinced that the ETS is the panacea. Prof Harold Goodwin of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University, argued that waiting for the ETS is a “permit to pollute” that will enable some in the aviation industry to wait until they are given high permit levels and then simply manage them down. An alternative solution – a tax on aviation fuel – would, said Goodwin, “at least level the playing field”, so that the more efficient airlines could capitalise on the benefits.
A more radical notion, put forward by James Goodman, deputy director of Forum for the Future, was “to strip carbon out of the economy completely”. He urged the industry to aim for this goal by 2050, rather than merely trying to deal with carbon emissions through ETS, carbon offsetting or otherwise.
Carbon emissions aside, one of the biggest barriers to managing sustainable tourism is the lack of globally recognised tools to measure its impact in destinations. Johan Lundgren, deputy chief executive of TUI Travel, said this was a major stumbling block for big business. “If you don’t have precise facts you’ll struggle to put up direct targets, and if you don’t have direct targets you can’t measure things, and when you don’t measure things, they tend to not get done.”
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), pointed out that ABTA has already produced a management and rating system for hotels in its Travelife programme, which grades hotels on sustainability achievements and has been adopted by TUI and other major operators. Helen Marano of the World Travel and Tourism Council pointed out that her organisation has launched its own programme, the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, in collaboration with the International Tourism Partnership. The Travel Foundation has also produced a set of industry tools for agents, operators and suppliers.
While these tools are already at the disposal of the industry, what is needed are tools that assess the impact of tourism at destination management level. Jane Ashton, director of sustainable development at TUI Travel, argued that there needs to be more data made available from local authorities; TUI had found this was a particular issue with regard to assessing water resources.
“It’s difficult to find any reliable forecast data as to which destination and which areas of countries are going to be impacted by water and within what time frame,” she said. “You get general regional information, but if we had something a little more precise it would really help us focus our efforts on the destinations that are critical.”
For Malcolm Preston, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the industry should be looking at tools that focus on the benefits of tourism. “The idea of doing least harm is not the answer,” he said. Instead, the tourism industry should be focusing on the measurable benefits of tourism.
“If we’re taking people to a destination, we should be having a positive impact on that society, because anything less is not sustainable. If the industry can’t demonstrate net positive impact, then what is it doing?”
Social, economic and environmental impacts should be assessed. The industry could then request this information from local destination managers and compare performance. This is not possible at present, as there aren’t the right tools available in the tourism trade. That the tourism industry is “behind the curve”, Preston added, is partly because it is such a fragmented industry. It could learn from other industries, such as mining, which has had to become very good at socio-economic assessments. He said it would be easy to take the tools created to assess the social, economic and environmental impact of that industry and apply them to a hotel or resort.
One of the most important indices that should be measured is the economic contribution tourists make to their destination. Goodwin believes tourism ministers are too often judged purely on arrivals numbers and bed nights, rather than actual tourism yield. But while he welcomed the call for better tools for the trade, he said sustainable tourism has to have buy-in from local government.
“Travel companies can make a difference – and the airlines might one day – but, in reality, [responsibility for] destination management has to reside with local government,” he added.
The role of the consumer in all of this shouldn’t be overlooked, said Stephen Page, professor of tourism at Bournemouth University. Many people adopt green habits at home – for fear of facing penalties for mixing up their recycling, for example – but the challenge is to encourage environmentally sound habits when they’re on holiday.
James Goodman said he would like to see it work the other way round, where tourists “see a demonstration of sustainability in action and then bring that home with them”. Dr Dirk Glaesser of the UNTWO said one of the misconceptions that needs to be broken down is that companies adopt green practices to save money. He cited the example of a hotelier who, instead of asking guests to hang up their towels to be re-used (rather than put them out for daily collection, thereby cutting down the hotel’s use of water, energy and detergents), put up a sign that said: “For every towel you don’t put out, we will plant a tree.”
Fiona Jeffrey, founder of Just a Drop, suggested the influx of tourists to the UK from India and China could be a catalyst for change. “If we started to feel that we were inundated by tourists coming into this country and being stretched in the way that destinations are overseas – whether that’s through waste or water resources – that personal experience might affect how we see the issue,” she said .
In summing up his hopes for the future, Goodwin argued the case for proactivity. “Local destinations have to ask themselves: do they want to use tourism to benefit their local community, or do they want to be used by tourism?”