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Responsible tourism beyond carbon

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written by
Holly Tuppen
Holly Tuppen

Why nuance is king

In our latest think piece, travel writer, researcher and sustainability expert Holly Tuppen explains why the travel industry's focus on carbon measurement may be misleading.

In the 1980s, my mother went through a phase of crash dieting. One involved eating nothing but apples and another a 'sweatsuit' and a sauna – almost as unpleasant as the week of cabbage soup. These days, our approach to health and well-being is a little more well-rounded because we recognise that mind and body are symbiotic. Regular healthy eating and exercise are more effective and sustainable in the long term than fad diets. In 2022, we're more likely to pull on neoprene for a wild swim than a dehydration frenzy (thankfully).

“So, what's this got to do with travel?” I hear you cry.

In the last few years, encouraged by the pandemic's forced pause, much of the travel industry has woken up to the climate crisis. Businesses have taken a long, hard look at their carbon spouting ways and decided to act. With the industry contributing to between 8 and 12% of global carbon emissions, it's overdue. Pledges, sustainability plans, reports, coalitions, and certifications have proliferated like wildflowers – once the seed is sown, everyone vies for a patch.

Holly Tuppen
Aiming for sustainability by focusing entirely on carbon is like trying to protect the natural world by putting fences up to keep humans out. It's over-simplifying the task at hand.
Holly Tuppen
Holly Tuppen
Travel writer and sustainability expert

It's been inspiring and heartening stuff. However, much like those 1980s dieting schemes, there's a risk that the race for quick wins denies the industry any effective, long-term change. Sustainability is never a quick win, especially in tourism, which has a convoluted supply chain and is extractive by nature.

As James Whiteman, part of the founding team at Niarra, tells me, “Whatever way we cut it, jumping on a plane to the other side of the world will almost certainly be more carbon-intensive than staying at home.” This may seem like an odd declaration for someone who's recently started a travel company, but he's right.

James isn't being flippant but responding to the wave of carbon measurement and reduction policies sweeping across the industry that, in his opinion, risk diluting real change. He continues, "Many of our partners do incredible work on the ground protecting wildlife and supporting people, but those are ignored for more tangible carbon reduction plans or targets when it comes to sustainability claims. Positive impact comes in many guises."

Aiming for sustainability by focusing entirely on carbon is like trying to protect the natural world by putting fences up to keep humans out. It's over-simplifying the task at hand.

The rise in sustainable travel certifications and carbon reduction declarations may also adversely impact small to medium businesses – those doing everything they can on the ground but cannot afford to pay out vast sums of money for a badge. It's often these businesses we're best off supporting; locally-run and managed, smaller companies tend to have a more purpose-driven and locally relevant business model.

Xavier Font, Director of the Centre for Sustainability and Wellbeing in the Visitor Economy at the University of Surrey, agrees. He says, "Absolutely, all companies need to measure the carbon they are responsible for in delivering their products, including the carbon in their supply chain and for their customers to reach their facilities. However, the level of evidence and degree of accuracy will depend on the company's size, so we don't disadvantage small businesses that may lack the resources of bigger brands."

Xavier also highlights the role travel can play in behaviour change – something the industry has little, if any, statistics or measurement on. He says, "Due to its extractive nature, travel can only be net positive if it changes our behaviour when we return home (so on-going behaviour compensates for the carbon footprint of travel). But nobody is calculating that, and few are even trying to create this type of change."

Instead, over 500 sustainable travel certifications are out there, which do not all reflect a commitment to long-term change. Russel Binks, Sales and Marketing Executive at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa, comments, "The decision to certify is often a marketing one and not a real commitment to a journey of constant improvement… some certifiers even offer a commission-based booking platform."

Justin Francis, the founder of Responsible Travel, is equally cautious, "I think the problem is when businesses start marketing before they've done the work, or when they cherry-pick a small (but easy) problems to work on and ignore the rest - which is tokenistic."

An awareness of this risk led Niarra and Tswalu to join The Long Run, a community of travel nature-led travel businesses. The organization uses a 4C framework — a holistic balance of indicators within Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce — to guide travel businesses on a long-term sustainable journey. Although The Long Run has a standard, Global Ecosphere Retreat (GER), that members work towards, it is recognised as a significant milestone rather than the finale. The journey is more important than the label.

The importance of holistic sustainability, which advocates that environmental and social factors must work in union, is a fundamental part of the Glasgow Declaration – the tourism industry's wide-reaching coalition on climate action.

Co-creator and founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, Jeremy Smith, comments, "Measurement and Decarbonisation are two of the Glasgow Declaration's five pathways. Equally important is the regeneration of ecosystems, collaboration within the industry, and financing climate action actions for the benefit of all."

He continues, "Yes, decarbonisation is important, but what I really hope is that we create wonderful places for people and wildlife to live in. Tourism has a role to play to help do that."

Delphine King, Managing Director of The Long Run, agrees, "For me, carbon is a key piece of the equation. It raises awareness and focuses attention, but it tends to simplify the debate too much. Bringing a holistic perspective requires us to question: Does how we mitigate or reduce our carbon footprint support resilience through biodiversity, behaviour change through empowerment, and inclusion?"

True sustainability is also dependent on local context. Water-saving measures and electricity dependence may be a focus for a lodge in South Africa, given it's one of the world's most water-stressed regions and electricity is generated mainly by coal. In Costa Rica, however, a lodge may put more emphasis on community empowerment, given that 98% of the country's on-grid energy comes from renewable sources. This makes it impossible to compare sustainability plans and achievements directly. The journey towards positive impact will look very different for different businesses in different locations.

So, what's the answer for travellers looking to explore the world in a more meaningful way? "We need to collectively be much more mindful of our social and environmental footprint when choosing and designing trips," James says. "We want to help our clients understand that sustainability does not boil down to one simple equation or a quick data collection exercise," he explains. Delphine echoes this, "Tools and badges are helpful, but ultimately, we must change behaviour. Travellers need to challenge themselves to travel differently, and businesses need to shake the status quo."

Like our health, getting it right takes time and effort, but it's always worth it.

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