A serious debate about climate change within the travel and tourism sector

Might our appetite for travel have a fatal flaw?

A serious debate about climate change within the travel and tourism sector

There’s been a lot of coverage about the environment in the past few weeks, particularly prompted by the Extinction Rebellion protests in London and elsewhere.

I was watching out for references to tourism and travel in these animated discussions, as there is an equally strong contemporary discussion focus on the fact that we all want to go to lovely places and experience other cultures in far flung parts of the planet, but this brings consequences, and the two popular concerns are rather incompatible!

The difficult balance was thrown into relief by actress Emma Thompson who flew in from Los Angeles to be at the protests featuring Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who has become the iconic face for young people fearful for their future. Greta herself has nobly been travelling across Europe by train, showing her sensitivity to the impact of the travel and transport choices we make. She has been strongly critical of plans for London airport expansion.

Best projections of the impact of global tourism and travel on the environment signal that they will become a bigger and bigger contributor to climate change. After all, the desire to travel has become a more and more mainstream element of the lifestyles of younger generations in western society, behavioural trends that are being echoed in the increasing aspirations of those in less developed parts of the world as they copy the ‘middle class lifestyle’ of the west.

According to the European Transport & Environment body, carbon pollution from flying in Europe alone has risen 26% in the last five years, far outpacing any other transport mode.

We should, of course, acknowledge the specific efforts of many parts of the transport, travel and tourism sector to ‘clean up their act’ in terms of less damaging energy sources, environmental footprints and waste, but the fact remains that consumer behaviour patterns and expectations and the consequent demand for travel are the biggest driver of the problem, and current trends are literally unsustainable in the eyes of most informed scientific commentators.

As yet, a serious debate about this topic within the travel and tourism sector is not really taking place. The point here is that though eco-adjustments are being made, the business models are not being significantly rethought in any material way away from the adverse trends of there simply being ‘more travel activity’.

In this regard, things are in some ways getting even more problematic, with a recently reported trend to short break holidays by low-fare long haul flights looking pretty unsustainable. Thomas Cook says such ‘flight-only’ customers cut their costs by only taking hand luggage on short trips to places like the US, Mexico and South Africa – Cooks say that 40% of their summer holiday bookings are to non-European destinations, up 10% in 12 months. The company introduced ‘economy light’ fares on its long-haul routes last autumn.

Aviation is now estimated to account for at least 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Against this background, my personal view is that there will eventually have to be either significant taxation and price signals to restrain all the expected activity, or some form of ‘rationing’ of what each of us can expect to do, say in any one year, as at least this approach could ensure that there was less inequality from an approach that simply keeps much travel as just for the rich.

The industry may need to prepare to be increasingly challenged on its approach to the environmental impact of travel and tourism, as it’s unlikely that those who see the consequences as a ‘life threating’ one will accept allusions to the impact on economic growth and jobs as unchallengeable justifications for carrying on ‘business as usual’.

In this context it was interesting to see that ABTA chose English Tourism Week, (which I thought was intended to be a domestic event), to present a report on the ‘Economic benefits of Outbound Tourism’ produced by economic and business consultancy CEBR. I have to say, it uses a rather questionable set of measures to make that case, and it’s rather unlikely to persuade the green campaigners.

There’s one positive opportunity in this situation of course: if what is being campaigned for comes into effect, it certainly could mean good news for the stay at home market!

This article was originally published in issue 288 (April / May 2019) of GTO magazine.