Sustainable tourism gains traction

Travellers and travel agents alike are keen to preserve the beauty of holiday destinations. But are we ready to curb our cheap-flight weekend-away mentality to make it happen?

Traditional mokoro logboat, Botswana

Traditional mokoro logboat, Botswana. Photograph: Alamy

News that the Caribbean could have lost up to 80% of its coral reef over recent decades comes as no big surprise to Louise Armstrong. Five years ago, she sat down with leaders in the tourism industry and mapped out the sustainability challenges ahead. The subsequent Tourism 2023 report made for a long list. «There’s everything from the impacts of climate change…to the availability of resources and the cost of travel in the future,» notes Armstrong, a senior sustainability adviser for UK environment non-profit organisation Forum for the Future.

As the travelling public, we’ve grown accustomed to hopping on a plane for our week or two in the sun. But can our planet cope with everyone heading overseas for their hols? And if so, can we realistically expect water-hungry golf courses or group treks into areas of sensitive biodiversity when we get there?

The tourism industry is taking the search for answers seriously. Why? Not because it’s suddenly gone green. No, what’s at stake here is the very viability of its core business model.

Stripped down to the basics, travel firms sell places: nice, comfortable and ideally beautiful places where your average punter will part with their hard-earned cash to visit. «If we’re not managing these [destinations] in a sustainable and sensitive way then they will be degraded and the product won’t be viable in the long term,» explains Mark Tanzer, chief executive at the UK travel trade association ABTA.

There are shorter-term drivers too. For starters, better environmental management can deliver immediate «material benefits» for hotel operators and destination managers. Think lower water and energy bills, most obviously. Then there’s brand reputation to consider. No tour operator wants its customers returning home grumbling about plastic bags on the beach or shoddy treatment of local staff.

On a more positive front, new business opportunities could await those in the vanguard of sustainable tourism. Future holiday trends could be radically different from today’s, argues Armstrong. People may start looking to volunteer instead of sitting on a beach, for example. Or stressed urbanites might start searching out «digital detoxes», off the grid and into nature. Adopting a more sustainable mindset puts mainstream tour operators in good stead to consider «reframing» the business of travel accordingly, she states.

Overcoming the hurdles

Shifting mainstream tourism on to a sustainable footing is no easy task. One major hurdle is the lack of consumer demand. Those that express an interest over the carbon footprint of their beach towels or the provenance of their seafood dinner are a «fairly small part of the market» according to Salli Felton, chief executive at The Travel Foundation, an industry-funded charity.

«If you haven’t got a customer that’s demanding it, then the industry can just say that it’s giving the customer what it wants,» says Felton.

As industries go, global tourism is a patchwork affair. The sector encompasses everyone from transport companies and hotels owners to ground agents and tour operators. Even if there was a clear definition of what «sustainable mainstream tourism» meant (which there isn’t), there’s no magic button that can be pressed to force everyone into line.

«It’s a complex industry and a really fragmented supply chain,» says Felton, «so looking at how you unpick that is really difficult.»

Most importantly, there’s the basic model of the package holiday to consider. Premised on high volumes and low margins, this formula arguably leaves little mileage for investments in sustainable «extras». Then, of course, there’s aviation, without which mainstream tourism as we know it would collapse. Leading tour operators and airlines have invested heavily in reducing the noise pollution and carbon emissions relating to air travel, but short-haul flights remain «the big intractable», according to Harold Goodwin, professor of responsible tourism management at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Collaborative solutions

Foreign mainstream holidays as they exist at present can never be impact-free. That’s just life, says Tanzer. We need to weigh up the good against the bad. However, that’s not a reason for doing nothing, he insists. He points to ABTA’s Travelife programme as evidence of steps already being taken. An independently audited verification scheme, Travelife covers key issues such as energy use, site safety and working conditions at the level of individual hotels. To date, 1,280 hotel and resort owners are signed up to the programme in 45 countries.

Goodwin welcomes such industry developments, but warns that any sustainability initiative has to be grounded in practical steps. He fears small hoteliers may suffer «frightened rabbit syndrome» if too many changes are asked of them too quickly. Ensuring measures are locally relevant is essential too. The jobs of managing mainstream tourism sustainably in Venice and Orlando, for instance, are quite different, he notes.

One thing is for certain: no single travel company, however broad its reach, will be able to resolve the sector’s sustainability challenges alone. Collaboration is critical, says Fran Hughes, head of programmes at the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), an industry-led group.

She cites the example of measuring carbon emissions. At the request of their corporate clients, a number of large hotel companies began calculating the carbon footprint of a typical night in one of their hotels or of a typical conference event. The problem was that they all adopted different methodologies. «For anyone getting that information, it was a nonsense, really, because they [customers] couldn’t compare one with another,» Hughes states.

In response, ITP joined with the World Travel and Tourism Council and, together with 23 global hotel companies, developed a common system for measuring hotel emissions. Launched last year, the methodology has now been adopted by over 15,000 hospitality organisations, «from individual B&B owners to large consumer hotels». ITP has now convened a similar working group to devise best practice advice around water management.

What sustainable mainstream tourism looks like and how to get there is still very much up for debate. Yet what’s manifestly clear is that only by working together does the industry have a hope of devising answers that are effective at scale – whatever those answers may be.

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Date / Fecha: 18/08/13

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