How sustainable is travel?

CHIANG RAI, 12 December 2018: Always quick to adopt a catchy phrase or a new buzz word, the travel industry could be guilty of being labelled flippant or even shallow.

One travel firm in a recent press release elevated a mid-morning coffee stop to a “curated” experience status without an explanation. Apparently being a ‘curator’ sounds better than pursuing a career as a warden or ‘caretaker.’

Other fashionable words in travel circles include ‘collaboration’ and ‘strategic’ suggesting that perhaps a bonus is paid to the hired copywriter to weave a place for them in every paragraph.  

Today’s travel marketeers jump from one collaboration to the next at the drop of the hat to the point the word becomes meaningless and they are so accustomed to its pronunciation they probably describe a visit to the toilet as a “strategic collaboration”.

But nothing comes close to the dominance of the word  “sustainable”. Everything we do in travel must have a sustainable tag whether real or contrived. Airlines, cruises, travel firms and hotels are preaching the gospel of sustainability but is really just talk?

The definition is quite straightforward:

 “Sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the travel industry, the environment and host communities”

There are four camps to please if a tourist activity is to be sustainable. It has to meet the needs of visitors, it must be profitable for the travel industry, while protecting the environment and lastly host communities have to enjoy benefits.

Unfortunately the work “sustainable” has undertones that suggest someone in the frame has to suffer a slowdown, or apply the brake to economic progress.

Talk to a local community and they are likely to say they need the economic benefits and sustainability can kick in later.

Communities are likely to misunderstand when outsiders call on them to adopt sustainable tourism. They quite justifiably point to the big cities believing urban squalor would make a better candidate for a campaign to curtail excessive growth.

The tendency when preaching sustainable tourism is to target emerging destinations, communities and villages leaving aside urban centres and mega transport providers.

Experts point out that sustainable tourism is closely linked to introducing sustainable mobility.

As long as aviation emissions make up 75% of tourism’s climate impacts, achieving sustainable tourism objectives become a distant possibility.

Tourism relies almost entirely on the burning of fossil fuels and it starts with transportation (70%) followed by accommodation (25%) and a minute 4% for community or local tour activities. But probably 90% of sustainable projects focus on village communities.

In long-term forecasts, Airbus and Boeing expect air transport to increase by about 5% annually through at least 2020 while the shift to non-fossil fuels in aviation lags far behind other transport sectors .

“By 2050, with other economic sectors having greatly reduced CO2 emissions, tourism is likely to be generating 40% of global carbon emissions.”

Driving this negative conclusion, travellers are covering longer distances, making more trips and as one expert points out “aviation lies at the heart of issue.”

Travel is far from sustainable and if we are honest even the most sustainable tourism activities are not sustainable at all in the context of the bigger picture.

And to make matters worse, “sustainable tourism” themed events are growing demanding executives travel to more and more talk fests than ever before.

We could all start the New Year by cutting travel show and conference attendance in half, without it impacting on the bottom line or sales activities. Travel when you need to on business but for leisure trips explore destinations closer to home.