Sustainable travel

Responsible Travel: How sustainable tourism has changed over the past 20 years

On the two-decade anniversary of his disruptive travel company, Justin Francis reflects on just how far the industry has come – and where it’s going next

Tuesday 06 April 2021 16:56 BST
<p>Mountains to climb: Justin Francis, founder of Responsible Travel</p>

Mountains to climb: Justin Francis, founder of Responsible Travel

Twenty years ago today, I launched a travel company to change the world. Little did I realise that the challenges facing the world in 2021 would be unrecognisable from those I saw in 2001.

I had no idea that the morality of flying would become a dinner table topic; that travel itself would lose much of its meaning in the age of social media; or that the entire industry would grind to a halt two decades later. On a personal level, I never imagined I would barely travel for five years due to kidney failure.

Responsible Travel was founded on a simple idea: that an industry which accounted for 10 per cent of jobs worldwide – that could lift people out of poverty and relied on pristine environments and diverse cultures for its success – had vast potential to be a force for good. Our marketing premise, based on my own travels, was that tourism that benefits local people and places leads to much richer experiences too.

With my co-founder Harold Goodwin, our hope was that “responsible” would become to travel what “organic” was to food; a recognised category presenting travellers with a conscious choice that would then positively influence others in tourism. We were a small but radical start-up, shaking things up from the inside.

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We named it “Responsible” – rather than “Sustainable” – Travel for a reason. We could work with our suppliers and help our customers make better choices but knew that holidays could never be perfect or truly sustainable, especially if they involved flying.

I made our first mistake early on. We suggested that customers could carry on as normal and appease any guilt by spending a few pounds on a carbon offset. In fact, no offset can reverse the impacts of carbon once it enters our atmosphere. Over time, we realised that, with renewable aviation some way off, business as usual was indeed part of the problem and we urgently needed a very different plan.

Today, I believe more than ever that there are two issues that matter above all: reducing carbon emissions and protecting and restoring nature. Unless we solve these, nothing else is possible. We must approach these two challenges through the lens of diversity and inclusivity; topics that weren’t talked about in travel 20 years ago.

Those who bear the brunt of the climate crisis are rarely those emitting the most. Fairness – for people of all racial and economic backgrounds – becomes the only way to solve the climate and biodiversity crises. The inequality in travel is stark. Just 15 per cent of people in the UK take 70 per cent of flights. Over half don’t take a single flight in any given year.

Francis in Zambia: He started his business to try to be a force for good

While I believe there are real opportunities for the industry to reduce carbon – offering low carbon and vegan holidays for example – for the past 12 years we’ve encouraged and empowered our customers to fly less. Taking longer holidays and hence fewer flights, and/or swapping flights for rail travel, reduces both emissions and the stress of more-frequent flying.

However, there are also areas outside of our control, where deep systemic change is urgently required – renewably powered aviation and taxation in particular.

We’ve campaigned hard for a fair tax on aviation fuel and for international travel to be included in our UK carbon budget. We’ve also proposed a green flying duty, with the heaviest burden falling on those who can most afford it – in first and business class – with proceeds used to drive innovation in renewable aviation fuels.

The Jet Zero Council – for which I lobbied ministers through my role in the Government’s Council for Sustainable Business – is taking that R&D forwards but it needs more funding.

In the last decade social media has eroded the meaning of travel

Like the climate emergency, Covid’s effects have been unequal too. It’s reported that 65 million jobs in tourism have been lost. Much of the impact has fallen on the economically marginalised, from jobs lost along Nepal’s trekking routes, to local guides left out of work in Africa. Those with no cash reserves or furlough schemes to fall back on have had to bear the brunt of the pandemic.

As visitors, we are, in effect, temporary residents utilising local services. Even very modest taxes levied on tourists could help build economic and environmental resilience in local communities against future shocks. This should also help manage the pre-Covid problem of overtourism – a problem I fear will rear its head once again. The only way forward is to consult more closely with local people on tourism.

In the past decade social media has eroded the meaning of travel, which for many is less about experiences and more about building a personal brand. An Instagram selfie in front of the museum becomes more important than actually going inside.

Personally, I value travel more than ever. Not just because of lockdown but because before the global pandemic, I was already travelling very little due to kidney failure and daily dialysis, which culminated in a successful transplant after my wife’s kidney donation.

From that experience I learned how precious the opportunity to travel really is. I was inspired to create one of the initiatives I’m most proud of: “Trip for a Trip”. When a customer books a holiday they have the opportunity – at no cost to them – to send a child from a disadvantaged background on a day trip.

While the prospect of a “good” tourism industry is far more complicated than I originally envisaged, I still profoundly believe in it. When done well, travel can be such a positive, powerful educator. More than anything else, it brings people from different races, religions, beliefs and cultures together – often in the most beautiful places on Earth.

That’s a wonderful thing but if our tourism industry is to survive – along with our planet as we know it – it must prioritise contributing to a low carbon, nature-positive and more inclusive world.

Justin Francis is CEO and founder of Responsible Travel.

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