We’ve been campaigning to make tourism more environmentally friendly since 2001, but since then things have only got steadily worse writes Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel.
Recent years have brought the IPCC report on climate change warning we have only until 2030 to slash carbon emissions and limit catastrophe, a devastating report on the UK’s 2020 biodiversity targets, the rise of pressure groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and seemingly endless headlines about the phenomenon of overtourism.
Yet it still feels as though the wider tourism industry fails to recognise that we are facing an emergency, or the severity of the problems it has itself served to exacerbate.
That’s why we welcome the announcement last week that the Commons environmental audit committee has launched an investigation into the environmental cost of tourism and transport.
The British tourism sector is expected to expand by an annual rate of 3.8% through to 2025. But focusing only on the economic advantages of growth misses the wider picture: it will result in a significant rise in carbon emissions that will seriously hinder the government’s legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. And of course such a rise in tourism will also aggravate a host of other environmental problems, including overcrowding, polluted beaches and strain on public transport in popular destinations.
A key focus of the inquiry will be the hefty carbon footprint of the aviation industry. If it were a country, the international aviation sector would be the seventh largest emitter of CO2 in the world. Left unchecked, the industry could consume a quarter of the world’s total carbon budget by 2050. So if the UK is to have any hope of meeting its net zero emissions target, action needs to be taken, now.
The first chapter of our new manifesto for tourism, The Fork in the Road, aims to start a debate on whether a Green Flying Duty, to raise taxes for research into aircraft electrification while simultaneously reducing demand for flying, might be part of the solution.
Crucially, we want to see an end to carbon offsetting – which I believe to be a distraction – an acceptance that the planned third runway at Heathrow would be a terrible idea [environmentally], and recognition of the fact that in order for the UK to play its part in global carbon reduction, people are going to have to start flying less, and flying smarter.
Beyond carbon emissions, it is now undeniable that the phenomenon of overtourism is causing significant environmental and social problems in destinations around the world. High-profile stories range from UK national parks struggling to balance demand with the need to protect fragile ecosystems, to cities such as Edinburgh, Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona levying taxes on tourists to try and reduce demand; the Philippines closing down the party isle of Boracay to clean up beaches and overstretched resorts; and Thailand indefinitely placing Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh off-limits to tourists.
The industry must recognise its obligation to mitigate the effects of this rapid growth.
It is encouraging to learn that the committee will be seeking to identify ways the impacts of tourism can be limited and reduced, perhaps by initiatives such as taxation, offsets and closer scrutiny of so-called “eco-friendly” holiday packages that may in fact be little more than greenwashing.
The tourism industry has escaped scrutiny of its environmental impacts for many years. With the launch of this official inquiry, perhaps we’re finally going to see things getting better for a change.