One of my greatest pleasures is travel. It has helped make me who I am; a global citizen, open and tolerant to difference (I hope). It has helped me to cope with bereavement and divorce, made me more compassionate, and inspired a career dedicated to reducing our impact on the environment. But as an environmental practitioner I face a significant dilemma about travel – I am passionate about wanting to explore the world but increasingly concerned about the impact of tourism. That’s why I’m reaching out to you today to ask you to join a conversation about how we can redefine tourism …
Previously a luxury preserved for the wealthy, tourism is now more accessible than ever. And that is a wonderful thing. Travel helps us become good global citizens, aware of global processes and environmental issues, sensitive to other belief systems, and able to contribute positively to environments, communities and cultures beyond our own.
The tourism industry offers meaningful employment to 1 in 11 people around the world and is a vital source of income for emerging nations. Tourism can be a mechanism for combatting poverty and aiding human development. It can help protect the environment from damaging developments, like logging or mining. Income from tourism can fund nature conservation programmes and lead to the protection of endangered species, because tourists will pay to see them.
The freedom to travel is a wonderful thing. I’m not knocking it and I don’t take it for granted, especially as a British passport holder, with one of the most powerful passports in the world (for now at least). The ‘right’ to travel is even enshrined in international law as a human right, thanks to the United Nations.
But if we want to go on enjoying the benefits of travel and tourism it is time for a wake-up call. We need to redefine tourism…
Please watch this video
The global reach and expansion of tourism has led to a deepening of its environmental impacts. The rapid growth in aviation, as flights became more affordable, has led to a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel. This presents a major challenge to any claim from the tourism industry to be environmentally sustainable.
Tourism can and does have negative impacts on the environment at every scale, from the local to the global. Alongside climate change, concerns include resource use, pollution, and waste. We have even seen a growth in types of tourism that can only be described as consuming nature, from the commodification of wilderness to the more sinister slaying of Cecil the Lion and the rise of trophy hunting.
The sector’s environmental impact has begun to pose a risk to its own future and the livelihoods of those who depend upon it. This is indeed a critical moment in the development of travel and tourism.
Tourism for Tomorrow
The industry is starting to respond. Environmental responsibility is now firmly on the agenda at major tourism conferences like World Travel Market. Many travel organisations are working to find and share solutions to these complex issues, such as the World Travel and Tourism Council, The International Ecotourism Society, the World Legacy Awards, and Responsible Travel.
Travel companies are putting measures in place to reduce the footprint of their tours or to provide added value to host communities. But the degree of importance they place on it, and the extent to which it really influences operational practices, is still varied. Until consumers start to demand real improvements, some companies will be reluctant to make the investments required, as it does impact on their profit margins to do so.
There is also a danger that some of the claims made by travel companies could be superficial, what we might call ‘green-washing’. Or that without independent auditing they don’t fulfill their aims to reduce impact on the natural environment, but merely serve to improve the public image of the industry.
Role of consumers
Until we as consumers demand the industry cleans up its act, the sustainability of travel and tourism will continue to hang in the balance. The future of tourism depends on the environmental and ethical demands of us as consumers. That is what will push the green agenda forward. The extent to which we are willing to purchase on the basis of genuine environmental policies, action and certifications (even if it costs more) will be what defines tourism for tomorrow.
And sustainable tourism may need to cost more. So far much of the industry has failed to internalise negative environmental externalities into the cost of travel services. That is to say, we are not paying the true cost of travel. As long as this continues, it is not in the best interests of travel companies to minimise their environmental impact or maximise efficiency.
In 2011, the United Nations emphasised that increased consumer awareness about responsible travel was a key driver for greening the tourism industry (UNEP, 2011) and there is plenty of evidence that tourists are increasingly aware of the impact of travel. A survey by the Energy Saving Trust showed that while 80% of households recognised that climate change would impact on them, and was already taking effect, only 22% were prepared to fly less often (Energy Saving Trust, 2007). There continues to be this gap between acceptance and action. A kind of cognitive dissonance.
Time to reflect
Maybe it is time to ask ourselves some hard questions.
How do we give back to the communities we visit?
How often do the environmental credentials of the company you are purchasing a flight, holiday or hotel room from, actually inform your purchasing decision?
Do you ask to see an organisation’s environmental policy before you book?
When did you last ask an airline what efforts they are making to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Are you prepared to take longer to travel by sea or train?
Do you check out those eco-claims to make sure they really are robust and supported by evidence? Do you ask if they have been independently audited or look for the presence of certifications?
Are we prepared to pay more so the price reflects the true costs of travel, including the costs to the environment? Are we prepared to travel less?
Change is coming, it has to, and we can choose either to lead change or have it forced upon us. Only by working together, can the industry and consumers ensure tourism can develop responsibly while safeguarding the environment.
Will you help redefine tourism?
I’d love to know your views and ideas. Will you join the conversation and help redefine tourism?
Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
This post contains branded video content from the World Travel & Tourism Council and is therefore a sponsored post. However, the views expressed are my own.
Feature image from NASA / National Space Science Data Center via Free Images.