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Published on Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Travel industry has 'head in the sand' over climate change

"If, like me, you will not give a second thought about the impact on the environment of your holiday..." Give him his dues, Jeremy Skidmore certainly knows how to kick off a polemic. It got my attention, anyway, and judging by some of the reaction from Travelmole readers it ruffled the feathers of others, too.

But while it"s always fun to play the contrarian, I have to say - and I do actually agree with some of his points about APD and LiveEarth - that Jeremy"s comment piece left me stone cold.

Is his take on climate change really a representative view of the travel industry? After all, Jeremy is a former editor of Travel Weekly and a prominent industry spokesperson.

I speak as an outsider to this industry, but someone who has spent the past year observing it and investigating the various environmental, social and economics impacts - both good and bad - of the global tourism industry for my book The Final Call.

I have interviewed many dozens of representatives from your industry around the world, from chambermaids to CEOs, to gauge their views on not just tourism"s impacts on climate change, but also a range of other important but often muffled issues such as exploitative low pay, natural resource depletion, ecological degradation and sex tourism.

It saddens me to say that I was not greatly encouraged by my findings - I came across a lot of Jeremys on my travels. In truth, I think the travel and tourism industry is a long, long way from truly grasping the scale of the problems that lay before it - in some ways it reminds me of where the tobacco industry was about 40 years ago.

The scent of denial is thick in the air. I can"t think of any other global industry - you work for the world"s largest service industry, no less - which seemingly plays such a dangerous game with its key assets - the mountains, the coral reefs, the tropical islands, the rainforests etc. Once they"re gone, or at least tarnished beyond repair, then so is your industry.

Just from a position of self-interest, you would assume everyone in the industry would be doubling over backwards to protect and nurture these assets, if only to secure long-term business. Where exactly are you going to be sending today"s children on holiday once they reach adulthood?

And don"t forget just how much more pressurised the resources of each destinations will be once the tens of millions of tourists start arriving from places such as China and India, as the World Tourism Organisation is predicting.

Your industry should be leading on these issues, not be dragged kicking and screaming into this debate like a spoilt child which is used to getting its own way.

After all, it could be argued that you have the most to lose in the long term. Anyone who carries on with a business-as-usual attitude will surely be out of business in the not-too-distant future, not least because consumer attitudes - despite questionable surveys that suggest otherwise - are surely moving in only one direction when it comes to these issues.

I would love for your industry to prove me wrong - and some of the reaction to Jeremy"s comment piece gives me hope that his kind of viewpoint could soon become isolated - but I fear that too many of you are simply dancing around these issues.

For example, please don"t keep saying that carbon offsetting is the way to mitigate your industry"s climate-change impacts - it is a nothing less than a sticky plaster shielding a festering wound.

Easy answers are rarely the right answers. Sun-drenched beaches are wonderful places to stick your head in the sand, aren"t they?

Leo Hickman is a features journalist and editor at the Guardian. His latest book "The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays" is published by Transworld.

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  • Broad strokes are unhelpful

    As often happens with this type of story a broad brush is used to tar a huge industry - although thankfully Sue Ockwell's comment addresses at least the actions of operators within the AITO fold. Many operators like Explore have and do and will continue to take the issue of environmental care seriously and yes, we do understand the link between today's actions and tomorrow's resources. It is a shame that Leo Hickman's piece doesn't recognise the large number of companies whose actions demonstrate a far greater awareness than he presupposes. I assume his book will address the poles of travel industry thinking on this issue. Certainly we at Explore have taken care of the environment as a given for the last 26 years, and have recently made the decision to become the first large operator to include a sum to cover carbon offsetting on all flights. Yes, this may appear to be sticking plaster stuff, but the benefits are real at many levels. The whole debate about flying and global warming seems to suppose that the western world is capable of immediate change and forgets that people have to carry on living their lives as best they can, emitting carbon as they go perhaps. Change will come, but making blanket assertions against large commercial communities such as the travel industry is potentially unhelpful and certainly inaccurate.

    By Paul Bondsfield, Wednesday, July 25, 2007

  • Excellent essay, a few questions

    Should we be looking for leadership from the industry itself when those in charge are rarely accountable, rarely transparent and the simplest data about tourism statistics remains suspect? What is absent is solid data to answer vital questions: How many people are traveling? Where does the money go? We also need to embrace dialogues that permit discussion about more subjective topics: How empowered are locals to make decisions that affect their livelihoods? Are travelers satisfied with the information at hand in making choices about where to go and what to support? If what we are seeking are ways for travelers and locals to be more ethical to each other and to place -- the resource base for the interaction -- then isn't it time we start talking about supporting decentralized movements and campaigns rather than make expectations of government and industry?

    By Ron Mader, Wednesday, July 25, 2007

  • Environmental issues have been part of AITO's remit now for nearly 20 years

    I'm glad to say that there are many, many people in the travel industry who care passionately about environmental issues. For those who don't care, the key business imperative of protecting what we sell, if only for purely selfish reasons, should mean that environmental issues are not something to be ignored. The 150 tour operators within AITO (and, via them, their AITO Specialist Travel Agent counterparts) undertake to follow AITO's five-point Responsible Tourism (RT) statement and to appoint an RT representative to ensure that they adopt the guidelines set by AITO as a minimum. Many have gone far further and spend a good deal of time, thought, effort and money on what must now - 20 years after AITO first became involved - be the hottest issue on the business agenda. On which topic, I'd like to invite Leo Hickman to attend AITO's conference this November to discuss the environment, which is AITO's headline debate. I hope and believe that he will find it encouraging to be amongst believers who do their best - with some expert advice from AITO's long-term environmental advisor, Dick Sisman - to minimise the harm and maximise the potential good that comes with travel & tourism. On the topic of Jeremy Skidmore's views, I think it is important to remember that it is Jeremy's role to create a stir - and he is extremely adept at so doing! Sue Ockwell, on behalf of AITO (The Association of Independent Tour Operators)

    By Sue Ockwell, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

  • Carbon offsetting has a place

    Great article, and I agree totally that the tourism sector must fundamentally change its ways and start focussing on reducing direct (their own) and indirect carbon emissions (i.e. through their supply chain and guests' footprint)PDQ. Where I would differ is in Leo's denial of the validity of carbon offset. So long as it is considered as an option of last resort after carbon reduction measures are implemented, and that the funds are invested wisely and verifiably, I feel that carbon offset does have a contribution to make. I agree that accurate communication of the benefits is critical, e.g. allowing organisations to use the term "carbon neutral" having simply made an offset payment is a piece of nonsense. The Commons Environemtnal Audit Committee reporting yesterday agrees with my view.

    By Sue Crossman, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

  • Link please

    Can someone post a link to Jeremy's comment piece?

    By Ron Mader, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

  • Travel industry is in denial

    Mr Hickman, you are right - the travel industry is in denial, and the comments by Mr Skidmore were indeed ridiculous. Industry leaders have a responsibility to lead the way in aligning businesses to minimise carbon emissions, or else the govt. and consumers will do it for them. As for those that don't change, well, their futures are probably going to go the same way as Mr Skidmore's if they refuse open their eyes and show some responsibility.

    By Gary Phillips, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

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