Xenia Taliotis 3 Oct 2019 12:38pm

The economics of green tourism

As the number of global travellers continues to skyrocket, we need to look at ways to preserve the world so that we can keep exploring it. Xenia Taliotis asks whether green tourism is really possible

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Caption: Image: Getty Images

We’re all going on a summer holiday, no more working for a week or two,” sang Cliff Richard as he and his chums cheerfully boarded their converted-into-a-mobile-home London bus and set off for the ‘Continent’ – that collective mass of Europeaness that the UK was not yet a part of. This was 1963, a time before the climate changed and before ‘abroad’ became more accessible and cheaper to get to than many parts of Britain. Cliff and company left an England that was grey and wet and devoid of joie de vivre to go where the sun shines brightly and the sea is blue, the bus driving past black and white, rain-sodden crowds into a world of glorious Technicolour. Oh the pre-CGI, low-tech simplicity of it. Half a century on and the chances are Cliff would be leaving a scorching Britain on a cheap flight to Tenerife, perhaps with an already inebriated group of cohorts. Blasé about short-haul travel, they’d have packed that day (cabin bag only); arrived at the airport just an hour before their flight; then swapped queuing at the desk for queuing at the bar thanks to online check-in. In 1950, a few years before Summer Holiday was released, only one person in 1,000, out of a world population of 2.5 billion, took an international holiday.

By 2050, says Ian Yeoman, associate professor of tourism management at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, author of 2050: Tomorrow’s Tourism and one of the world’s most respected futurologists on travel and tourism, that figure will be hovering around one in two (4.7 billion out of a global population of 9.3 billion). This is due in large part to Asia’s burgeoning middle class splashing their newly acquired affluence on foreign trips. “Wealth is the key determinant of tourism,” says Yeoman. “When economies grow, levels of disposable income also rise, with a relatively large proportion of that going on travel.” The stats already bear this out. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that by 2037, China will send out one billion new airline passengers, India 414 million, Indonesia 282 million and Thailand 116 million.

Meanwhile China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported that the number of outbound trips taken by Chinese citizens in 2018 leapt by 14.7% from the year before to just under 150 million. Add these figures to those for the rest of the world – also likely to increase, with 481 million new passengers for the US alone, according to IATA – and it’s easy to believe the only place we’ll all be heading is climate armageddon. But, in the face of the damaging effects of international travel, what can be done to discourage it? Punitive taxation? Policy? How likely is it that governments will seek to curtail tourism when it is the second fastest growing market after manufacturing, and one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and job creation? According to figures released by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the travel and tourism private sector globally, in 2018 travel and tourism contributed a record $8.8trn to the world’s combined GDP, generating 10.4% of all global economic activity and supporting 319 million jobs worldwide (10% of the total).

“It’s a tool for governments to generate prosperity while creating jobs that support women, young people and those who are often marginalised,” says Gloria Guevara, WTTC president and CEO. “In the past five years, it has accounted for one in five of all new jobs globally, and forecasts suggest that 421 million people will be employed in the sector by 2029.” With the interests of the economy, if not the environment, being served by more visitors rather than fewer, it’s no surprise that countries are mining every seam to bring in tourists. That includes war and disaster zones and, more positively, film locations. Game of Thrones has brought in excess of £150m to Northern Ireland, and Kiev’s tourist board is expecting visitor numbers to Chernobyl to rise by 30,000 to 100,000 this year, thanks to the recent HBO series. I n 2016, WTTC put the figure spent by governments on tourism marketing, promotion and visitor-related infrastructure in excess of $413bn; money well spent when you consider the case of Tourism Australia, which reported a return of A$16.1 for every dollar it spent in 2017/2018, and VisitBritain, which saw £25 for every £1. So, if governments are unlikely to restrict tourism, might higher taxation be the answer? Several cities – including Venice, Salzburg, Bruges, Paris, Barcelona and Lisbon – already charge, and it’s likely that Edinburgh will become the first city in the UK to follow suit.

But unless the levies become punitive, they are unlikely to deter visitors. Howard Hastings, a chartered accountant and MD of Hastings Hotels, Northern Ireland’s largest independent hotel group, and former chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, has seen a monumental increase in visitors to his country since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and Game of Thrones aired. Currently working on strategies to deal with even greater surges once tourists from Asia start arriving in significant numbers, he does not advocate making travel more expensive.

Hastings, who left his job as financial planning manager at Volvo Concessionaries to take over the family business in 1989, says that while emerging trends may well upend tourism as we have known it, any plans to curtail travel through price increases will only disenfranchise the less well off. “Making things much more expensive is an easy way of dampening demand, but I hope our world leaders will find more imaginative ways than that to lessen the impact of tourism on our planet. Travel brings enormous benefits, both to the destinations and to the visitors, key of which is opening hearts and minds and breaking down barriers. I’d hate to see that door on the world closing because it has a prohibitively expensive entrance fee.” Having said that, Hastings says we can’t ignore over-tourism.

“I don’t think anyone will question Italy’s wisdom in diverting cruise ships away from Venice’s central waterway, the Guidecca Canal, and Dubrovnik considering similar action, or in us looking at ways of restricting access by putting caps on footfall or opening times on key landmarks, but the answer to truly sustainable travel is many-fold and will include innovations in aviation fuels, new technology and greater efficiencies, particularly in food and beverage.” Andy Fairburn, director of Svane Nordic and its two companies – Nordic Tourism Collective, a notfor-profit network that connects Nordic travel and tourism suppliers with buyers, and Nordic Travel Solutions, which brings together all the region’s countries on one platform – is also anti price hikes. “I’ve spent most of my career in the travel and tourism industry and have welcomed its democratisation. I wouldn’t want it to become elitist, but we’re at a crossroads now. There are enormous pressures on our ecosystem and actually even on the infrastructure, which in some cities reaches crisis point at peak times. “Locals in Venice, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam and Barcelona are making a stand against such intense tourism, and there’s a paradigm shift happening with flight-shaming and the like – 33% of Swedes have said they won’t fly and we’ve seen a rise in staycations in the UK, though of course that will at least in part be down to Brexit.”

The obvious knee-jerk reaction, says Fairburn, is to “propose restricting everyone’s air miles, or to impose crippling surcharges”, but he doesn’t believe that’s the answer. “The solution is better management and the use of truly smart technology that operates in real time to direct crowd flow. To ease the burden of over-tourism, we need to address what I call the ‘three Ss’ – sustainability, seasonality and secondary destinations.” Fairburn is working with the Nordic region as a whole to help it adopt a more collaborative way of working and promote second-tier destinations to ease tourist flow. “It’s a hard sell, but I believe the answer lies in collaborative advantage. Every city, every country is competing for every traveller’s pound – to the detriment of our planet. I’m not suggesting for one second the creation of a utopian one-world new order – though that would be nice – but I do think a more centralised approach would help. Every town, every city, every country in the Nordic region has something wonderful to offer visitors. I hope in time tourist boards will work together to make that known.”

Bringing people to their secondary US cities and changing how the world perceives them is the approach that Mark Thompson, senior vice-president of tourism, Visit Dallas, and Mitch Whitten, executive vice-president, Fort Worth, are putting their energies into. “We want people to see beyond the headlines,” says Whitten. “Fort Worth is a Texan city and people base their decision on whether or not to visit on what they think being Texan means. We are proud of our Western heritage, and the rodeos and cowboys are undeniably a huge tourist attraction. However, Fort Worth is also home to some of the finest museums in the US, including the Kimbell Art Museum, a masterpiece of modern architecture by Louis Khan, and the Modern Art Museum, which has one of the foremost collections of international modern and contemporary art in the country. We are working to challenge people’s perceptions and showcase that we are a vibrant city with so much to offer.” By and large, Thompson agrees, but gives today’s travellers more credit. He believes that we are all looking to connect, to have meaningful experiences, to savour the true essence of a destination and to understand its people. “I think those who are passionate about seeing the world have actually gone beyond ‘experiential’ holidays. They want to get under the skin of a place and are actively seeking self-growth opportunities and experiences that add to their narrative.”

The future of travel

Recent headlines may have convinced many of us that the end of the world is nigh. Not so, says Professor Ian Yeoman, but what is nigh is the end of tourism as we have known it. Humans are adept at finding solutions to the problem of scarce natural resources, posits Yeoman, and developing new technologies that maximise those scarce resources. His book, 2050: Tomorrow’s Tourism, presents the following possible scenarios:

How we book our holidays

As many as 30% of hotel bookings in Tokyo and Seoul are now made on the day of arrival through mobile phones and this trend is only expected to grow. 2050’s typical tourist is pointing their mobile at a hotel, using augmented reality platforms to view information and then make reservations.

Who serves us

Robots will acquire human-like intelligence, demonstrate emotions and think more like humans, which may mean that hoteliers’ next attempt at employing them will meet with better success. Japan’s Henn-na hotel recently had to lay off half of its 243 robot staff because humans wanted to be served by… humans.

The new tourist

China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economic power within a generation, and India will join both as a global leader by midcentury. Asian travellers will dominate international tourism but, interestingly, there will also be an increase in the number of older tourists. Ageing populations and demography will be the trend that significantly shapes tourism flows and expenditure.

Experience is all

Travellers will have better experiences, faster service, multiple choice, social responsibility and greater satisfaction. Against this background, as the world has moved to an experience economy in which there is endless choice through competition and accessibility, the concept of fluid identity has emerged, with people flying the world and collecting countries and experiences as they go. At the same time, and especially if wealth decreases, we will also see the emergence of a new thriftiness and desire for simplicity among the less prosperous

How we travel

With fossil fuel-driven air travel condemned, bio aviation fuel will be invented, to drive supersonic or even hypersonic planes. And, perhaps, teleportation will leave the pages of sci-fi novels to become reality.