Tourism must Tackle Sustainability and Climate Change Critics Head On In the Post-Covid Recovery

“As we build back better, we must build back greener”. These words, spoken by PM Boris Johnson back in October, have been echoed by leaders across the world. There is a consensus building across society that a return to normality does not mean a return to doing everything we did before, exactly how and as much as we did it before. The way that COVID 19 caused chaos across the world- initially jumping (most probably) from animal to human in a live animal market, and then across the globe via aviation and globalised international travel- is causing a lot of soul-searching as to how we treat our planet.

As humans our natural during a crisis seems to be to seek out a scapegoat. We need something or someone to blame, bad things cannot just “happen”. In the case of COVID 19, the list for the blame-gamers is long- China, the WHO, “Covidiots”, animal farmers, populist governments- and, of course, aviation and travellers. All of these have, rightly or wrongly, taken a reputational hammering in the past 10 months.

Let us be clear on this- travel and tourism is overwhelmingly a force for good in the world. Previously impoverished nations have been allowed to develop and thrive through tourism. Through travel, the we have broadened our horizons, improved our communication skills and rendered ugly cultural barriers and stereotypes of the past almost extinct.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t downsides that we must address. Climate change is an especially tricky issue for aviation in particular, but in terms of real output, the building blocks are already there- the industry has already done so much to clean up its game. Old fuel-guzzling aircraft such as the Boeing 747 are being replaced by lighter, quieter, more nimble aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner, which astonishingly has double the fuel efficiency of the former. Some of the world’s biggest hotel chains and tour operators have set up charity foundations to aid issues such as child education, wildlife conservation and fair employment practices in the destinations where they operate. As an industry, we are making a conscious and increasing effort to “tread lightly” across our planet.

It therefore appears to be the communication side that is lacking. Outside of our travel industry LinkedIn bubble, where such projects are usually promoted, how aware is the general public of the extraordinary benefits that the travel and tourism industries bring across the world? How many people know, as they step onto the magnificent beast that is the Dreamliner, that thanks to advances in aviation they have halved their carbon footprint from the same journey that they took 10 years before? How many people enter a RIU hotel in Cancun knowing that they helped to fund thousands of cancer treatments at the local children’s hospital? Or a Sandos hotel knowing that they have an entire foundation dedicated to improving lives and the ecological situation in Mexico? These are 2 examples of so many across the industry, but my guess would be that not too many are aware. We need people to hear these stories, for companies to shout them from the rooftops to counter the negative narratives prevalent in the media.

A fair question to be asked of all this is, does it matter? Do our customers care about these issues, or do they just want a decent service and good value for money? Well certainly at the moment the answer to this varies across different types of tourism and also across different source markets. But the evidence is increasingly solid that consumer awareness is very much on the increase. A study suggests that 87% of customers want to travel sustainably- a trend surely accelerated by a pandemic. In a lively Twitter exchange regarding help for the travel industry during the pandemic, I was recently told, to put it cleanly, to “Go away and work on a wind farm if you want to do some good in the world”. Such attitudes are becoming more commonplace; empathy and goodwill from the general public towards travel businesses is and will continue to dwindle if we do not better emphasise all the good that we do. The movement started in Sweden known as “Flygskam” (flight shame) will inevitably spread.

As is the case in so many different areas of society, the Scandinavians lead the way. In response to the Flygskam movement, marketing from the tour operators has been less about £299 bargain deals to Benidorm, and more about the efficiencies of new aircraft flown with high load factors, and efforts to conserve wildlife. TUI Nordic took it one step further, paying to offset the carbon footprint of their customers (a policy elegantly named “Klimatkompensationen”).

Travel and tourism is undoubtedly a force for good across the world- it enriches lives, it broadens horizons, it breaks down cultural barriers, it tackles poverty by creating wealth in regions that would otherwise struggle. The COVID 19 pandemic doesn’t change any of that. However, the industry needs a slight refresh and change of chip in terms of how it presents itself and sells itself to a sceptical audience. We do a heck of a lot of good for the world, so let’s shout about it rather than bow our heads in “Flygskam”.


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