The Green Travel List has generated some tremendous examples of how it is possible to travel with a reduced impact. But what does the list say about the state of the tourism industry and its commitment to sustainability?
I think that most in the industry would accept that tourism has been pretty slow in recognising its impact on people, places and the planet. It was not so long ago that some of the largest tour operators in the UK and across Europe lobbied for the removal of the ‘eco-tax’ that the Balearic Islands imposed, which was an attempt to provide a fund from which sustainability could be enhanced on the islands. It may be that should another core tourism destination try to introduce a similar tax, then the same tour operators would fight against it again. However, for the moment, the very largest tour operators such as First Choice are making considerable efforts to understand what their impact is, and what they can do about it.
In that regard, the companies identified on the Green Travel list are ahead of the game. These companies have identified where they have an impact, and have taken steps to address these problems. Further, these companies are measuring the effect their actions are having in order that they can be sure they are making a difference. The companies go beyond what we would now expect all companies to offer, such as recycling waste, using low energy lightbulbs, turning off lights etc. Instead, we have companies installing reed beds, green roofs, heat-pumps, re-foresting large areas of land, micro-generation of power and becoming energy self-sufficient. The companies also go beyond just telling guests about the need to only wash towels every second day, but offer discounts to customers that come by public transport, or have found ways to design the need for private transport out of the product. The companies have sustainability at their core, and are not merely trying to reduce the impact of their business, but to fundamentally redesign their business to be more sustainable.
The big question that follows these examples of excellence is ‘will this be enough’? Will it be enough to continue to consume holidays, albeit consume holidays that have less impact than others? Arguably since the Rio Earth summit in 1992 we have adopted an approach to sustainability that is really characterised by us continuing to do exactly as we want, but trying (to a greater or lesser extent) to find a less impactful way of doing this. Of course, this is the logical progression of our actions, but increasingly it becomes obvious that there is a separation of what scientists tell us needs to happen, and what politicians feel able to commit to (on our behalf). This was clearly illustrated by the Copenhagen accord, which fell significantly short of even the minimum agreement necessary to put us a more sensible path forward.
If our current approach to sustainability (keep consuming, but consume differently) does not have the effect necessary, then the next stage of sustainability is likely to demand a change in the amount of things we are able to consume. For some resource-intensive industries this could mean big problems. Tourism is such a resource-intensive industry. Hence, we could reach a point where the introduction of personal carbon allowances mean that if we want to holiday on the other side of the world, then we need to collect (or purchase) our annual allowances in order to make the trip. Yet, our holidays have become central to our lives and the way we express our self-identity. So, I would argue that we all need to support those companies that have begun the transition to a greener economy. Hopefully, changing the kind of holidays we take will mean that we do not have to face a future where our freedom to take holidays is curtailed.
Dr Graham Miller is Director of International Studies at the University of Surrey and Chair of Judges of the Green Travel List, which was published in the Guardian newspaper, Saturday 20 February 2010.