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Travel positive

Travel positive: Is this the sustainable tourism blueprint of the future?

A new piece of research is envisioning how the travel industry can survive in a decarbonising world. Helen Coffey takes a look at the data that proves that, while ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option, a good transition is still within reach

Friday 10 March 2023 08:26 GMT
What does the future of travel look like in a net zero world?
What does the future of travel look like in a net zero world? (Getty Images)

Travel Positive is a new column where we celebrate the exciting sustainability wins in the travel industry that are giving us hope for the future.

“We have moved into a new paradigm where the only option is systems transformation. We should therefore call out the many overly optimistic strategies and plans which assume – implicitly or explicitly – that we can carry on as usual in the (blind) hope that technology and offsetting will see us through.”

This is the big take-home message from a new piece of in-depth research on where the travel industry needs to go from here – and how it can survive in a rapidly decarbonising world.

Titled Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond, the report doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the future we’re facing. “We have delayed action for too long, and as a result, our options have narrowed,” Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation, writes in the foreword. “This assessment should act both as wakeup call and motivation to act.”

“Act” is the key word here. The research is aimed at convincing the travel industry to take action – urgently, now, this second – to “unite in our vision for a ‘good’ transition”. Because here’s the problem: at the moment, great swathes of the global tourism sector are stuck in burying-head-in-the-sand territory. They’re only just getting unsteadily back to their feet after being knocked down again and again on repeat by Covid restrictions over the last three years. They’re still in recovery mode and have no wish to pinball straight from that to the next crisis – namely, the climate crisis. It’s understandable, it really is. But ignoring reality is no longer an option.

We have delayed action for too long, and as a result, our options have narrowed

Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation

The facts: to preserve a liveable planet and keep global warming to no more than 1.5C, as called for in the Paris Agreement, the UN has reported that global carbon emissions need to be halved by 2030 and must reach net zero as soon as possible, but no later than 2050. All sectors and industries the world over need to massively adapt to slash emissions. But “business-as-usual in the tourism sector would see global emissions growing rapidly, not reducing,” reads the report.

Produced by The Travel Foundation, an independent charity dedicated to ensuring that tourism has a positive impact on destinations, in partnership with Breda University of Applied Sciences, European Tourism Futures Institute (ETFI), the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions and the University of Waterloo, the research aims to help policymakers and the tourism industry understand what a global, thriving, decarbonising tourism industry could look like by the end of this decade and beyond.

Read more on sustainable travel:

The tourism sector’s direct emissions – elements including flights, car journeys, rail and other transport, energy use in accommodation and tourism activities in destinations – are estimated to account for around 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Direct and indirect emissions – the latter includes tourism’s suppliers, such as laundry services and food production – together account for between 8 to 11 per cent of global CO2-equivalent emissions. It’s a pretty steep percentage already but, driven by a growing global population and increased affordability, tourism is set to almost double by 2050 compared to 2019 levels. “If business-as-usual continues, its emissions will also rise steeply (direct emissions increasing by 73 per cent). In such a scenario, tourism would use a staggering 66 per cent of the remaining climate budget between 2023 and 2100,” claims the report.

But all is not lost. Modelling what travel could look like by 2030 and 2050 in a world where tourism both continues to grow while decarbonising at the rate needed, the research found that it was possible: it just takes investment in all available decarbonisation measures and real, genuine commitment to change.

Investment to the tune of a trillion dollars, to be precise – though it’s important to note that this represents just 2 or 3 per cent of total tourism revenue over the same period – alongside prioritising trips that can most easily reduce emissions. Think those by road and rail, plus enouraging travellers to go shorter distances.

Instead of ‘well travelled’ how about we focus on ‘travelling well’?

Ben Lynam, The Travel Foundation

Limits would also need to be introduced to slow aviation growth until it can fully decarbonise, “in particular capping the longest-distance trips to 2019 levels,” suggests the research. These trips, measuring over 16,000km return – the equivalent to flying from Shanghai to Sydney or further and back again – made up just 2 per cent of all trips in 2019 “but are, by far, the most polluting. If left unchecked, they will quadruple by 2050, accounting for 41 per cent of tourism’s total emissions (up from 19 per cent in 2019) yet still just 4 per cent of all trips.”

By combining all available measures, the modelling found that “we did get very close to net zero by 2050”; an encouraging conclusion, even if it does seem a steep mountain to climb from where we are today.

So, if there was a global, coordinated effort to put these suggestions into practice – as they so desperately need to be – what might the future of trips and holidays look like for travellers? Ben Lynam, The Travel Foundation’s head of communications, shares a sustainable travel blueprint.

Nearer, longer trips

The main point to remember: we’ll still be able to travel, but there will be a distinct shift in how we do it. “A traveller will take the same number, or more, trips a year, but they will typically be travelling shorter distances. As well as flying they will use more rail, (electric) car, coach and ferry options for their holidays,” says Ben. Meanwhile, those who travel long-haul would take fewer trips, but likely stay longer.

Ben argues that each long haul journey should be “a genuine trip of a lifetime,” especially as flights should be more expensive as part of decarbonisation efforts, “and maximised – it’s all about seeing more, staying longer, and leaving feeling satisfied.”

Exotic doesn’t mean far-flung

We need to challenge the current perception that further-flung trips are of greater value. “If two holidays are the same – both great beaches, culture etc – but one is on the other side of the world, we tend to view that one as better,” says Ben. “But why fly to New Zealand if you’ve not yet sampled the similar joys of Scotland?”

Stop glamorizing frequent flying

This has already started, what with the well-publicised flygskam (flight shame) and tågskryt (train brag) movements that began in Sweden. “While there is glamour in travel, can we stop glamorizing frequent fliers – instead of ‘well travelled’ how about we focus on ‘travelling well’?” suggests Ben.

New holidays

According to Ben, the first truly net-zero holidays “must come on the market soon”. There’s also space for new products and experiences enticing us to explore closer to home to flourish.

System change

Big changes in tourism won’t come from individuals but from wide-scale system disruption, argues Ben. We need a world where we have more flexible working and school patterns, so that people “can go slower and go away for longer, reversing the trend towards shorter and shorter trips away.”

It also needs to become much easier to book end-to-end land and sea travel with multiple stops and modes of transport – and key to encouraging slow travel is ensuring that “trains are much cheaper than flights,” says Ben.

To me, this major call to action is more inspiring than it is daunting – empowering the industry and tourists themselves to make better travel choices. Longer, more meaningful trips; exploring the exoticism found in destinations closer to hope; swapping planes for far more enjoyable trains and ferries? Sign me up.

“This assessment should act both as wakeup call and motivation to act,” concludes The Travel Foundation’s Jeremy Sampson. “There is huge opportunity for travel and tourism in a decarbonising world – but we must act with urgency and unite in our vision”.

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