Can large-scale tourism ever be sustainable?
By Louise Oakley 

Jan 2, 2012

Sustainable tourism is no longer the reserve of eco retreats, remote nature reserves or tented camps. In fact, the only way sustainable tourism will make a difference is if it's embraced by the mass travel and hospitality sectors and promoted to the consumer properly - at the right price and via evidence of the product actually being sustainable, rather than merely "going green".

This was the premise behind several of the discussions at the second edition of World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi, held at ADNEC in December 2011. Rather than showcase niche examples of green hotels and holidays, the conference did away with preconceived ideas of sustainable tourism and focused on addressing the core issues of how to offer sustainable products for the mass market and - importantly - on whose responsibility it was to do so.

Ruth Holroyd, group head of sustainability at The Thomas Cook Group, was the first to challenge traditional perceptions of sustainable tourism. She questioned whether an eco lodge, gentle on the environment but accessible only to a limited wealthy few likely to arrive on scheduled flights, was really more sustainable than a large but low-impact hotel for the mass market, who would be travelling with limited budgets on charter flights and coaches.

Presenting a photo of a small eco lodge, Holroyd said: "I want to challenge if that means that sustainable tourism and sustainable travel is only possible for the wealthy - and I would beg to differ. Why should sustainable tourism only be for small groups of more wealthy people? Others are entitled to it as well and in fact it is the mass form of sustainable travel that will really make a difference to destinations," she asserted.

"Mass tourism done well can be sustainable as long as it's done in conjunction and collaboration with customers, hoteliers and destination governments. This is what is actually needed to create a sustainable industry and the sooner that that's accepted then the faster the change can actually happen."

Putting its money where its mouth is, in November Thomas Cook announced a new group-wide vision for sustainable futures entitled 'Travel the world without costing the earth'. The aim is for every holiday Thomas Cook sells to be sustainable, not just a smattering featured in an 'eco' brochure, said Holroyd. The group reaches 23 million customers worldwide and runs 93 aircraft and has set some ambitious targets, including a 20% reduction in electricity used across the entire group and 12% improvement in efficiency across its airlines.

It has also subscribed the entire group to Travelife, an international certification scheme for the travel industry, created by the industry for the industry, which Holroyd believes "will eventually be recognised by most of our customers".

Thomas Cook's initiative was commended by Professor Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism. According to Goodwin, what is most important now is progress against these targets set by large multi-national companies.

Small-scale initiatives - referred to Goodwin as cul-de-sacs and by-ways - should be confined to the past as tour operators look to mainstream sustainable options. "Eco tourism was a cul-de-sac, it was a mistake. It was about saying 'we'll green the tourism industry by focusing on 1 or 2% of it'. I still hear people today saying eco tourism is the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry - it is these sort of awful myths that actually frustrate change," stated Goodwin.

"There is no doubt in my mind that progress can only be made by dealing with big companies and mainstreaming significant change towards sustainability," he asserted.
"It was convenient for the mainstream industry to focus on eco tourism because it just left that agenda to a few small companies. The change that has come out of the adoption by TUI and Thomas Cook of sustainability as part of their mainstream strategy is really where we need to be going globally," Goodwin said.

He argued that it didn't matter whether there was a list of sustainable criteria that everybody agreed on, just that the primary issues - of carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, waste, water and local economic development - were acted upon. In addition, people should be held to account for this.

"It's not about what's next, it's about the progress against set targets - against which the salaries of people like Ruth are being judged.

"We start from the fundamental principle that all forms of tourism can be more responsible. Tourism is what we make it. If we don't like the way tourism is, it's our fault."

But Goodwin added: "At the heart of responsible tourism is taking responsibility, the problem is that it's everybody's and it's nobody's. We need to challenge companies to take responsibility for their impact".

The role of the consumer
Goodwin placed some of the responsibility for sustainable tourism on the consumer. But, how can consumers make sense of the terms 'eco', 'sustainable' and 'green'? Do they need, or even understand, certifications? Is the industry making it too complicated for travellers and guests? Is it really down to the airlines, tour operators and hotels to engage guests in the mass sustainable mission?

Justin Francis, chief executive and co-founder, was blunt about the level of consumer demand for sustainable travel. "There is a lot of data that shows the growing interest tourists have in responsible tourism," said Francis.

"But I want to get very real about the market - there's no research that has been published that has shown that the social and environmental impacts are the most important factor in choosing a holiday. It's always about the right product at the right price," he claimed.

Therefore, sustainable tours and accommodation must do far more than 'tick' the green box.

"For me, at its most competitive, responsible tourism is about more authentic experiences that create better places to live in and better places to visit," said Francis.

As a result, he said he was "not in favour" of global certification standards - of which Green Globe, Earth Check and Green Key are examples - because requirements vary from country to country.

"When a national or a local government legislates for a certification that's very powerful and that's how I see the certification of responsible tourism headed," Francis suggested.

Green Globe director of communications Bradley Cox argued that international certifications were useful as not only are they recognised by consumers, but they encourage hotels to disclose vital energy information, such as with Movenpick Hotels and Resorts - which is striving for Green Globe certification across all its Middle Eastern hotels.

However, Francis and Cox were in agreement on another vital issue; that of the need to stop expecting the consumer to cover the cost of companies' "going green".

"We have to… stop asking the traveller to spare some change to offset or pay for our green," said Cox.

Francis said he was "fed up" with the fact this issue kept occurring.

"I'm fed up with the research that keeps coming out asking if people will pay more for responsible tourism. We seem to be asking it of ourselves, we're painting ourselves into a corner. Why should responsible or more thoughtful tourism be more expensive? Why should using local guides or fresh food, saving costs on energy and water and waste, be more expensive? We made a mistake - it doesn't need to be more expensive.

"As the movement develops the choice increases. It started in the early days with more expensive exotic holidays but now there is something for everyone. It's maturing as a marketplace. I wish those of us in the industry who commission research saying 'would people pay more' would stop doing that. It's not doing us any service," said Francis.

Professor Geoffrey Lipman, director and associate, and Schuman Asscoiates, agreed, as did Professor Goodwin.

"If there is a price to be paid it should be for the holiday, same for the airline, if there is a price to be paid put it in the ticket not the offset, and let the customer make the choice on that basis," said Lipman. "Carbon offsetting [was] another terrible mistake in my view," added Goodwin.

"It took the pressure off the airline - air-passenger duty does exactly the same thing - there's no incentive for the airline to de-carbonise its form of transport. We know there are significant changes that can be made on new technology but currently there is no incentive other than the rising price of oil to force the industry to do that - it's a missed opportunity," claimed Goodwin.

Tackling sceptism
Another issue, said Cox, was the need to draw a distinction between "being sustainable versus going green".

"Scepticism is the major issue in the consumer market that we face - 75% of us say we're sceptical when a hotel claims to be green, the other 25% just don't believe it so there is a huge ingrained scepticism. The reason there's scepticism is that most of the language is termed around 'we're going green'," he said.

"'We're going green' means 'we're going to be green, we're not green yet, but we're going to be green'," Cox pointed out.

"Using that as a base for your communications is a very handicapped form of communication; it immediately implies mistrust and scepticism -  you have to be sustainable. If you stop making claims about green and start to be sustainable you will find many activities occurring within your business that are actually authentic and legitimate.

"You can stop talking about being green and you can show them what it is to be a sustainable business," Cox rightly concluded.

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