Published on Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nobody really cares about sustainable tourism

I"ve spent the last couple of weeks having it drummed into me that nobody cares about sustainable tourism. Nobody, that is, except a tiny minority that are prepared to pay the price because they are committed to a few green principles that say more about them than the world at large.

Why should they, after all?

At the Tourism Concern masterclass, the most committed of the committed came to believe that ethical tourism is only practiced by a tiny minority of tourists from wealthy source markets, and the millions of new tourists from new markets of the BRIC countries will certainly make their choices based on price.

At a conference on sustainable destination transportation in Venice, I learned that the real driving forces behind sustainable destinations are the biofuel manufacturers.

Back in London at our own high level masterclass on sustainable tourism, the green economy and marketing, I realized once and for all that the general public won"t buy stuff just because it"s good for the world.

But getting to Venice taught me the lesson I will never forget.

Becoming increasingly aware of my travel-related carbon footprint, I"d opted to travel by train one way, even though my time was limited. In any case I was looking forward to the peace and quiet of long distance train travel - a real luxury nowadays - if an expensive one.

And my worries about booking were easily assuaged. A very short call to raileurope (I could have booked with greentraveller, said Richard), a lovely conversation with Megan and my ticket was in the post. I got it the next day. Impressive.

St Pancras exemplifies all the wonderful things about food and travel. Great architecture, a superb sense of style and luxury, plus amazing food outlets. Mainly, of course, sustainably sourced food which tastes truly GREAT. The classic outlets are there - EAT, Sourced Market, Le Pain Quotidien, Benugo, selling ethically-sourced delicious food, packed out with paying customers.
Good start.

Until of course I got on the train. Free food - total rubbish. Really nasty beef, the hardest turkey I"ve ever experienced and a execrable sugary brownie. Why they bother, God knows. Maybe Eurostar should forget about trying to cater and give their clients a voucher to redeem for real food?

And you"ve got to wonder how a really nice, polite, well-trained and well turned out steward or stewardess feels about serving such dross with elegance as though it"s the height of belle cuisine.
Anyway, the train arrived on time enough in Paris for me to get something reasonable to eat close to the Gare du Bercy.

It reminds you what travel is about when you board an international night train - especially from Paris to Venice. The only things missing are clouds of steam, properly costumed lover"s goodbyes, Hercule Poirot, and, unfortunately, good food.

I was absolutely astonished that the Italian boy behind the bar produced a little coffee bag, stuffed it in an espresso machine and, like a magic trick,  produced a prefect coffee. This was to be the height of my romantic night train culinary experience. A rubbish set 3 course dinner for 28 Euros was followed by a plastic-coated 10 Euro continental breakfast.

By the time we"d got to Milan the train was three hours late and nobody had bothered to tell the passengers.

So as a transport function it had cost some 20 hours and 400 Euros to complete a journey from central London that could have cost 6 hours and 70 Euros.

And, although the travel experience was, admittedly a little exciting and nostalgic, it was marred by horrid, expensive food, and lack of care and efficiency.

It is, of course more sustainable to travel from London to Venice by train - around 150kg of GHG emissions by plane v 20kg by train. But at the current carbon market price of 15 Euros a tonne it doesn"t exactly make a difference.

The message of our own masterclass on Friday was that, if we are serious about sustainable tourism getting into the mainstream, we can"t rely on guilt or social conscience to sell our stuff.
We simply need to deliver a better, more valuable experience.

It"s not impossible. Within the next few years it will certainly be more expensive to fly - the oil price and taxation will see to that.  It will also be cheaper to emit less GHGs - the carbon price and the various emissions schemes will see to that.

But, at the end of the day, travel is frequently an optional item and its attraction depends on two things - efficiency and experience. We really need to get both right.

The Chinese are coming, by train from Beijing let"s hope that, by then we"ve worked out just how to deliver a sustainable product that works on its own merits, selling benefits to clients rather than carbon intensive indulgences.

Valere Tjolle
Valere Tjolle edits the Sustainable Tourism Report Suite, latest special Vision offer at:

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  • Responsible tourism is a better experience

    Those involved with the responsible tourism movement will have known for some-time that the only way to make a difference at any meaningful scale beyond the few that actually care is to produce better products and experiences and market them in a way that makes people feel good. This is something that other sectors e.g. organic food learned a long time ago that only when the quality is right will the market share grow. Tourism is way behind on this. Those of us who are sustainability advocates would like to imagine that everyone would put environmental and social concerns above self-interest when making holiday choices, but a little bit of critical self-reflection will probably reveal that it takes more than having an environmental policy or soggy towels to change travel behaviour -meaningful well marketed experiences usually have primacy.

    By Nick Stewart, Monday, March 14, 2011

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