In the years since COVID-19 nearly shut down tourism, most of the travel industry has been focused on rebuilding, celebrating new reports of increasing bookings as if they guarantee a forecast of nothing but sunny skies for years to come.
Now, about those sunny skies …
A new report from a consortium of organizations focused on sustainable tourism warns that a responsible approach to climate change — one that would allow the tourism sector to reach the United Nations’ goals of halving global emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050 — is likely inconsistent with trends showing tourism doubling between 2019 and mid-century.
That’s the bad news.
The good news? While the team behind “Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond,” the report published this week by the Travel Foundation, sees no way to hit the 2030 target while allowing tourism to grow, it identified one scenario that could achieve the 2050 targets without shutting things down.
But it won’t be painless. New threats of inequities loom. And one segment of the travel industry may be asked to make disproportionate sacrifices for the common good.
Subscribe to our newsletter below
A wide range of stakeholders have echoed the report’s rallying cry for action.
“This is not going to be easy, and no business can act alone or simply ignore what needs to be done,” says Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager for Intrepid Travel, an Australian adventure travel company. “Change requires all of us to work together, and climate action has to happen at all levels.”
The Travel Foundation published the report in collaboration with Breda University of Applied Sciences, European Tourism Futures Institute at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, the Centre of Expertise, Leisure, Tourism and Hospitality and the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. The team’s goal was to find a way to allow travel to continue growing while meeting the climate targets stemming from the Paris Climate Accords adopted in 2015.
That’s a small needle to thread. “We have delayed action for too long, and as a result our options have narrowed,” writes Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, in the report’s foreword.
Continuing with business as usual, including maintaining current growth rates, isn’t a serious option, the report concludes. The world is already facing dangerous and widespread disruption from climate change, and those effects will only worsen by 2050.
“This assessment should act both as wakeup
call and motivation to act. There is huge opportunity for travel and tourism in
a decarbonizing world, but we must act with urgency and unite in our vision for
a ‘good’ transition,” Sampson writes.
big take home message is that we have moved into a new paradigm where the only
option is systems transformation. We should therefore call out the many overly
optimistic strategies and plans which
assume – implicitly or explicitly – that we can carry on as usual in the (blind) hope that technology and offsetting will see us through.”
Tourism vulnerable to climate change effects
Tourism doesn’t account for an outsized level of carbon dioxide emissions. Direct emissions from things like travel are estimated at only 5% of global CO2 emissions. Indirect emissions – associated with laundry services and food production, among others – add another 3-6%.
Yet even if the tourism sector isn’t the world’s biggest offender, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, whether they be beaches eroded by rising seas, ski resorts with no snow or raging wildfires that shut down parks and forests. For some businesses, addressing climate change is a matter of survival.
Nearly 80% of Iberostar Hotels and Resorts’ all-inclusive resorts are on beaches in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, says Megan Morikawa, the company’s global director of sustainability.
“Iberostar has identified exposure to climate change as its primary business risk, seen through damages from hurricanes, beach loss and degradation of coastal ecosystems,” she says.
So what can be done? The report cites two options: Either curb the entire global travel system – a choice that hurts everyone in the industry and could ruin destinations and businesses that depend on tourism revenues – or prioritize net zero trips like rail and electric cars while reducing long-haul flights that pollute the most.
That option creates “pain points,” in Sampson’s words, and it won’t affect all stakeholders equally.
“The one that gets all the headlines is the one about aviation,” he says.
While analysts didn’t intend to single out airlines, that sector's business model is most at odds with the climate goals. Airlines need more time to develop more plentiful sources of sustainable aviation fuels and replace less-efficient fleets, the report shows.
This is not going to be easy. ... Change requires all of us to work together, and climate action has to happen at all levels.
Susanne Etti, Intrepid Travel
If left unchecked, long-haul aviation — defined as round trips of 10,000 miles or more, about the distance from New York to Athens — would account for 40% of all tourism’s emissions by 2050 even though those flights represent just 4% of all trips.
To achieve its goals, the report recommends capping long-haul trips to 2019 levels, while taxing airline tickets to generate money for investments in research and development, and subsidizing tickets on rail lines to encourage more travelers to use the carbon-friendly option.
The report envisions that by 2030 plane tickets will be two-thirds more expensive in real terms than 2019 levels and three times their 2019 cost by 2050.
Those price hikes are intended to help keep the industry growing. The report says if tourism can play out its scenario, the overall number of trips doubles between 2019 and 2050, total revenues increase by 80% and overall guest nights increase by 91%. Even with the higher ticket costs, the report predicts the number of flights will continue to increase, only at a slower rate.
Avoiding more inequities in tourism
Seeing continued growth in the sector is important to the report’s authors not only to protect the business interests of those who depend on tourism dollars but to also address another concern: Ensuring tourism’s existing inequities aren’t worsened, either by making travel the domain solely of wealthy elites or leaving developing countries to carry a disproportionate burden for climate change’s effects.
“Decarbonization is critical, especially for small island developing states,” says Jens Thraenhart, CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing, adding, “Understanding that Barbados remains on the front line of the climate crisis and, as a tourism-dependent economy premised heavily on its natural assets, ensuring that efforts are prioritized to build resilience is paramount.”
Companies like Expedia Group expressed their support for the effort. Tessa Lee, the company’s senior manager for climate and sustainability, says Expedia Group is committed to raising awareness for more sustainable and responsible travel choices.
“This new research from the Travel Foundation helps us better understand our collective path forward and align around action,” she says.
“The findings show that it won’t be easy,” says Joshua Ryan-Saha, director of Traveltech for Scotland. “Difficult trade-offs will need to be made, but by working together to drive new innovations and formulate new practices and policies, we can transform tourism for the better.”
Some stakeholders emphasized how even a solution with pain points was better than a COVID-like shutdown.
“In the Envisioning 2030 scenario, we see growth for the sector as a whole, both in number of trips and revenue,” notes Ewout Versloot, a strategist for the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. “This scenario vehemently refutes the notion that tourism must cease to exist or that we should stop flying altogether. This is important. We have to safeguard the values and positive impact travel can bring for future generations as well.”
Even with so much at stake, the report doesn’t address how its vision could be carried out. Who will collect the money? What mechanism will implement taxes on airfares?
“We don’t exactly say … how those decisions would be made,” Sampson says, suggesting that stakeholders would either have to do things voluntarily or governments would need to step in to regulate the industry.
“The cynical side says that won’t be achieved because that’s not how it goes,” Sampson says, “but the positive side says this is a real call to action for working toward these realities.”
He could find comfort in the reaction of Verónica Kunze, the undersecretary of tourism in Chile, which depends more than most nations on the arrival of the type of long-distance travelers who would be restricted under the report’s scenario.
“Chile is a country highly exposed to the consequences of climate change and, in particular, our tourism industry faces high risks,” she says. “The task is enormous, but taking action as soon as possible will allow effective results to be achieved in the medium to long term.”
PhocusWire editor in chief Mitra Sorrells contributed to this report.