Travel threatens the planet’s health

SINGAPORE, 13 September 2019: World tourism leaders met this week in St Petersburg for the annual UNWTO general assembly that pushed sustainability and innovation to the top of the agenda.

The 23rd Session of the General Assembly of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) hosted by the Russian Federation, attracted 1,000 participants from 124 countries.

Just days before the assembly opened, UNWTO released details of its latest World Tourism Barometer highlighting the strength and resilience of global tourism.

In a nutshell, international tourist arrivals grew by 4% from January to June 2019 when compared with the same period of 2018.  Regions leading the growth in travel are the Middle East (+8%) and Asia and the Pacific (+6).

As global travel soars to new heights, you have to take your hat off to the UNWTO fraternity. They certainly know how to travel.  Just a few weeks earlier, they travelled to Buenos Aires capital of Argentina for an event, and this week they pop up in St Petersburg for handshakes and hugs. There are hundreds of government officials who are always on the road travelling to and from UNWTO hosted talkfests.

In a press statement to mark the opening of the 23rd General Assembly, the UNWTO talked up tourism’s contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But tourism’s negative impact on climate change gained only a passing mention in the press statement.

Are UNWTO and tourism leaders failing to address the negative impact that tourism has on climate change?  Perhaps they are in denial?

Tourism is responsible for between 8 to 10% of the world’s carbon emissions according to research that hit the headlines earlier this year. But how many of the thousands of tourism-related events and conference are taking on board the challenges of reducing the industry’s impact on climate change?

A report published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, last May, widely quoted in the media, worldwide, quantified the environmental impact travelling has on climate from transatlantic flights, cruises, hotel stays to even cheap souvenirs.

Researchers said, “flying less and investing in payment schemes to offset the damage caused by travel is now essential to avoid unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions”.

The Nature Climate Change report showed that “many nations regarded tourism as a relatively low-impact development option, leading them to invest massively in infrastructure to draw more tourists.”

But research now shows that tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential forms of economic development.

Also, the tourism industry stands to lose attractions due to climate change. As temperatures rise, snow and ice could become less reliable in places that depend on them to draw tourists such as Finnish Lapland or ski resorts in Switzerland. Rising sea levels will threaten coastal resorts, including tropical island destinations such as the Maldives.

In the travel industry, do we take the call to travel less seriously? Are we questioning the value of attending so many events that are clearly established as commercial ventures?  Media organisations faced with failing advertising revenue organise conferences to reverse balance sheet losses.

We could all be guilty of falling into the trap of telling others to “do as I say and not as I do?” We talk and write about the need to tackle the threat of climate change but remain unwilling to change our travel habits.

The UNWTO in one of its reports recommends that tour operators could play a bigger role by influencing the tourism supply chain. They can create awareness among their customers. Present the case to make travel more compatible with the environment.

The UNWTO in one of its reports noted that transportation causes around 75% of the CO2 emissions generated by tourism with aviation representing around 40%.

At the time, it said airlines should “embrace technological improvements, regulatory and market-based measures to reduce the impact.” Airlines claim they are making progress.”

But the UNWTO also recommended behavioural changes and that might need to start with the CEO of the UNWTO setting an example. We are constantly bombarded with invitations to register for must-attend events. Should we set an example by cancelling our attendance at 20% of the trade events that require airline flights?