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Published on Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Why tourism must become more expensive

Let's explode a few tourism carbon myths writes Stefan Gossling

Imagine this scenario for global tourism: To prevent climate change, governments implement legislation that stabilizes the cost of energy irrespective of price changes in world markets, and increase this cost by 5% per year. Aviation, tourism's largest and fastest growing contributor to emissions, is capped in its emissions, i.e. an annual maximum emission is introduced that declines by 1% every year. This, I believe, would be a serious mitigation scenario for tourism in line with pledges to limit global warming at 2°C compared to preindustrial times.

Yet, nobody in his right mind would dare suggest this, because it is easy to anticipate the outcry: The Caribbean will claim, as has happened earlier that it is  'penalized' by global climate policy, because as the most tourism-dependent region in the world, it apparently believes it has a right to maintain a specifically energy-intense economy. Hotel associations will underline that they cannot finance the additional cost of technology change. Airlines and their organizations will emphasize that they are essential for global trade, and that they are already working on future solutions. In short: Any politician even proposing an increase in the cost of energy is likely to find himself in the middle of a firestorm of protests: 'Energy', is the dictum, 'Must be cheap and readily available. '

Perhaps it is time to reflect on this for a moment, and to disentangle fact and fiction, impact and interest. First of all, fossil fuels have, for more than a decade, never been cheaper than today. Transport growth has been fuelled by subsidies, liberalization, and the disinterest of governments in the cost of energy. All of this has caused massive growth in travel, for reasons that have become ever more superficial - bachelor parties, breakneck breaks, mileage runs. We all remember Ryanair's 1 million seats campaign (as of 2015, the price is £15 per seat). As a result, there is now an understanding that transport should be cheap, and, ironically, that the most environmentally harmful form of transport, aviation, should be cheapest.

Yet, there is no human right to cheap transportation that I am aware of. With climate change, we need to learn that our actions have implications for others. So what would happen if the global number of miles that can be flown was limited by the amount of energy the sector is allowed to burn? The cost of air travel would increase, yes, but since demand is growing while operating costs can be assumed to remain constant, profit margins of airlines should increase. This should be good news for a sector that has seen negative balance sheets in most years.

We can also assume that a greater share of seats, currently one in five, would no longer fly empty. Innovation to develop sustainable low-carbon biofuels would speed up. Business travellers would increasingly use videoconferencing. Leisure travellers, as the most flexible, would seek out nearby destinations or stay longer.

Families would grow geographically closer again, rather than globally apart. And destinations would learn to diversify.

As a representative of the Caribbean said to me a few years ago, "tourism is always the self-evident development choice, as if other economic sectors did not even exist". Weigh in that all destinations want to maximize arrival numbers, while few have tried to optimize their product, and you understand that there is an innovation challenge on the table with climate change, and not one of de-growth and economic decline, as some pundits with specific business interests would want to make us believe.

As for accommodation establishments, the second largest emission sector, there is good news: Hotel managers would finally learn that becoming more energy-efficient implies a negative cost: the estimate is that hotels could become at least 20% more efficient, with investment paying off in less than two years. The amount of energy an average hotel can save is almost endless.

Who is left on the list of those supposedly 'hit' by carbon pricing? Activities, car rentals, tour operators?  They all can adjust. Customers will learn to drive smaller cars, or to save up for energy-intense activities, if these are their one-and-only holiday interest. As much as I try to find the real barriers to serious climate policy, I cannot find them. What I do find, however, is a never-ending discourse that for one reason or the other, energy has to be cheap. I also find that behind the closed curtains of political lobbyism, there is massive pressure by global corporations to maintain the status quo. The new paradigm is "green growth", but that is, by all appearances, just another name for a system that continues to increase in greenhouse gas emissions year-on-year.

It is time to start questioning the myths. And to realize that any scenario of unabated climate change is far worse for global tourism than changing price structures for travel. 

Stefan Gossling

Stefan Gössling, born 1970, has professorships in Sweden at the Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics and Lund University's Department of Service Management, as well as being research coordinator at the Western Norway Research Institute's Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism. He is on the editorial board of various tourism journals, and has published >75 papers in peer-reviewed journals. His books include "Climate Change and Aviation" (Earthscan 2009), "Carbon Management in Tourism" (Routledge 2010) and "Tourism and Climate Change" (Routledge 2012).

Stefan has worked as a consultant on behalf of organizations including UNEP, UNWTO, OECD, and he has been a contributing author to the IPCC Forth Assessment report. He has also been a member of the Advisory Committee of the UNEP Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism, as well as the scientific advisory board of various organizations.


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  • Tourism must become more transparent

    Too often the focus on increasing prices is the justification for paying attention to upper-end markets, not the travel and tourism sector as a whole. I would take issue that tourism must become more expensive when 'staycations' have become so popular during the global recession. One might argue that long-haul travel needs to increase its prices, but again, is there the transparency and accountability needed to guarantee that the extra costs are being used in socially and environmentally beneficial ways?

    By Ron Mader, Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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