At the Abta Adventure Travel Conference in November of 2019, Mladen Ljubisic, head of the Slovenian Tourist Board for UK and Ireland told attendees “We need to ditch sustainability PR stunts.” Here’s a report on the state of truly sustainable tourism.
At a session on responsible adventure travel, Ljubisic told those present that the travel industry must start taking radical steps for developing sustainable tourism practices. He went on to chide “Little steps are not enough – we need to address the elephant in the room, which is air travel.” And there it is, the bitter truth of our industry’s tenuous future.
Ljubisic and others are pointing to real solutions instead of paying lip service to the industry’s most pressing issue. Let’s face it, getting rid of plastic forks and recycling are nice for a hotel’s PR boost and for, as Ljubisic puts it – “making ourselves feel good.”
But the tough decisions revolve around modes of transportation, destination management, and public/private regulation of travel. I’m sorry to have to be the one to say it, but relying on hardpressed business people in a super competitive industry, just won’t get us to true sustainability.
The Slovenian executive points to next-generation transportation innovations like Virgin Hyperloop One, which is point-on. Rachel McCaffery, Senior Advisor at Global Responsible Travel, G Adventures was also at the conference addressing the following:
- Creating a global, sustainable and authentic adventure travel offering
- Practical methods to meet the United Nations Sustainability Goals by 2030
- Tackling over-tourism – safeguarding and developing destinations
But, as Mladen Ljubisic suggested, much of what is being done by industry players is just fluff compared to what is required. Take this PhocusWire report on sustainability from a few days ago. Author Felipe Calderon Hinojos lays out the “positive signal” from an industry that will be responsible for 15-20% of worldwide emissions by 2030. Let’s face it, patting Hilton on the back for cutting the company’s use of landfills and water savings is not going to put a dent in the negative impact of hotel expansions.
Take Hilton’s new Hilton Okinawa Sesoko Resort as an example. The new highrise hotel right on the beach will certainly have Hilton sustainability/savings policies in place, but the island chain’s overall sustainability problem is what’s important. Nowhere in the Hilton PR materials will you find out about the more than 500 cruise ships docked at Okinawa destinations. You also won’t read about the 3 million visitors and over 20% increase these island ecosystems will have to support.
More flights, more visitors, more cruises, more pressure on not only delicate environments but expanded impacts on global warming, pollution, and other negative effects. Furthermore, Okinawa aims to attract more than 12 million visitors in the immediate future. The other side of this tourism coin features the effects to Okinawa’s delicate coral reefs, which are amongst the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. But there’s a lot more. I will quote from a paper entitled “Sustainable Island Tourism: The Case of Okinawa,” from way back in 2009 even before Hilton planned to build two major resorts there.
“Island tourism, however, heavily depends on islands’ fragile and extremely limited natural as well as cultural resources. Islands’ over-expanded tourism industry has created various socio-economic-ecological issues such as cultural friction, water shortage, environmental degradation, food insecurity, imported inflation and family problem on the life of islanders.”
I don’t want to become a “Hilton basher” here, but when you study the complexity of these Okinawa systems, it’s not hard to wonder if bamboo straws and solar panels on hotel roofs is going to make a dent in truly sustainable practice. And Hilton has a lot more in store where growth is concerned.
Unfortunately, PhocusWire and every other trade publication talks about demand and satisfying a “caring” tourist demographic. The solution for these industry pundits is to “satisfy the traveler” by providing the “sustainable” journey they “want.” Never, ever, is there any discussion of what it will really take to achieve sustainable travel. The bottom line is, we cannot depend on the tourists to effect the necessary change. This, from a report at The Future Laboratory frame it:
“Yet it remains that neither education nor guilt are proving persuasive tactics to influence travelers to be more sustainable. However, what we’re beginning to understand is that we need strong, meaningful metrics that local governments can use to sustain levels of tourism that are both positive for the area, but also support local people and the natural environment.”
The “PR” strategy is an old problem, as illustrated by this Travel Mole report from 16 years ago. Back then TUI, Thomas Cook, and My Travel were the subjects under scrutiny by Responsible Travel. Reading this report, superimposing today’s news on top of it, I find nothing much has changed for corporate travel. Except, that is, that Thomas Cook was not even able to sustain its business model, let alone out of the box forward-thinking on the ecosystems involved.
So, if travelers cannot or will not alter course, and if the various corporations are only going to pay lip service to these problems, the public sector is probably the only solution to the problem. Hopefully, some consensus among the stakeholders can be arrived at, but it will take movement from the governments to get the ball rolling.