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Tourism is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing industries, with international tourist receipts forecast to grow by an average of 2.4% annually over the next five year despite the global economic crisis.

This growth will place great pressure on natural habitats due to the inappropriate practice and development associated with mass tourism. Sustainable tourism aims to ensure that the development of tourism is a positive experience not only for tourists but for operators and local people themselves.

Demand for sustainable tourism is becoming increasingly popular as more individuals, business and organisations are supporting responsible tourism and joining together with authorities and local communities to strengthen sustainable tourism standards as well as promoting environmental and responsible tourism products and services.

Confusion continues over definition of sustainable tourism

There are many different definitions of sustainable tourism that have been developed over the last decade, but most tend to define it as industry activity that is sustainable at an economic, socio-cultural and environmental level over a long term period.

The formal definition from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) states that “sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism and the various niche tourism segments.” The aims include:

  • Make optimal use of environmental resources, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
  • Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
  • Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

Theory becomes a reality through the Sustainable Tourism Criteria

In October 2008, The Partnership for Global for Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), which was developed by Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation and the UNWTO launched the Sustainable Tourism Criteria programme, represented by 32 organisations from around the world.

The GSTC Partnership considers its criteria as the beginning of making sustainability standard practice in all forms of tourism, ie the minimum that any tourism business should aspire to. The programme focuses on four main areas including: effective sustainable planning, maximising socio-economic benefits for the local community, enhancing cultural heritage and reducing negative environmental impacts. It is meant to promote local businesses that protect cultural heritage and the environment.

Major airlines support CO² global agreement

In anticipation of the UN climate conference COP 15 due in December 2009, the report ‘Towards a Low Carbon Travel and Tourism Sector” was presented by the World Economic Forum at the World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen in May of this year. The study puts forward proposals for the elimination of greenhouse gas emission in various sectors such as transport and accommodation, being a collaboration between the World Economic Forum, UNWTO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, UNEP, and Tourism and Travel business leaders.

Although the UN’s Executive Secretary has stated that is not clear if the aviation sector will be included in a final global agreement in Copenhagen, nonetheless from 2012 all international airlines with flights from and to the EU will have to participate in the mandatory EU CO² Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The US has also proposed future legislation on airline CO² output.

Airlines are preparing themselves in view of future legislation. The Aviation Global Deal (AGD) which includes British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Air France-KLM and Virgin Atlantic, put forward a proposal of emissions reduction targets based on annual fuel purchases for UN climate change negotiators to consider as part of the deal to be reached in Copenhagen in December.

Industry suppliers go green

The tourism industry as a whole generates 5% of CO², of which air travel is the worst emitter contributing to between 2 to 3% of global carbon emissions, and this is expected to rise to 5% by 2015 and 10% by 2050 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Corporate responsibility has become increasingly important to airlines as carbon impacts becomes a policy focus in international negotiations and companies feel threatened by future legislation penalties if they fail to satisfy the regulations such as ETS.

In 2008, Virgin Atlantic flew the first commercial jet on biofuels. Other airlines such as, Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines have also started using biofuels, while JetBlue Airways is planning to conduct its biofuel demonstration soon.

Air France-KLM claims that fleet replacement and upgrading have reduced the company’s fuel consumption and CO² emissions by 12% over the past six years. The airline has taken significant steps to reduce weight, including cabin fittings and other service supplies.

Virgin Atlantic has been renewing its fleet and has trained its pilots in more fuel-efficient procedures for take-off and landing. As a tour operator Virgin has also included a donation in the cost of every holiday they sell which goes towards the environment and local communities of the customer’s destination. They are also the first mainstream tour operator to sell volunteering holidays.

Marriott and its carbon footprint

In 2009 Marriott International Inc won the global tourism business category of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards run by the WTTC which recognise best practices in sustainable tourism in four different categories – destination stewardship, conservation, community benefit and global tourism business.

Marriott has partnered with Conservation International and is the first major hotel company to calculate its carbon footprint. Guests can offset the carbon generated during their stay for as little as US$10. Also in partnership with the state of Amazonas in Brazil guests who book a room on Marriott.com can help protect 1.4 million acres of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, joining Marriott in its US$2 million commitment.

More than 30 Marriott hotels are expected to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Marriott has also received the Sustained Excellence Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for three consecutive years.

Marriott spends US$10 billion annually buying products and services for its more than 3,200 hotels around the world and replacing its plastic key cards, towels, pens, toilet paper, pillows, and paint with more environmentally-friendly options. By 2017, more than 40 Marriott outlets will be outfitted with solar panels

Green consumers – up to a point

Although there is no doubt that sustainable tourism is essential for the future of the industry, it is very difficult to assess to what extent consumers are committed to become fully responsible travellers of their own accord. A number of studies have been conducted in order to assess the demand for consumer’s sustainable tourism.

A global survey by Lonely Planet of 24,500 people shows that in 2007, 84% of travellers would consider offsetting their emissions in the future, where 31% had already done so in the past. Furthermore, 70% of respondents said they had purposefully travelled in a low-impact way in the past, and over 90% would or might do so in the future.

Nonetheless, travellers who use Lonely Planet are already more likely to be concerned about their travel impact on the climate and their support towards neutralising their travel-related emissions through legitimate offsetting programmes.

A recent survey by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest online travel community, announced the results of its 2009 annual travel trends survey of more than 3,000 US travellers. The main trends identified are that travellers in the US appear to be seeking more green tourism experiences where 73% said they will be visiting a national park next year, hiking (53%), and engaging in adventure activities (47%).

34% of US respondents said they will visit an environmentally-friendly hotel or resort in the coming year, up from 30% in 2008. And 32% of those surveyed said they will be more environmentally conscious in their travel decisions this year, up from 26% in the previous year.

Levels of acceptance vary

The US survey seems to contradict a UK survey of 2,500 people online conducted by BLM Media in 2007 which revealed that 59% of holidaymakers say they will not cut down on the number of holidays abroad to save the environment, while 35% are not prepared to pay an extra £20 per holiday to offset their flight’s carbon emissions.

More than 40% said they would not book a holiday with a company just because it has green credential, whilst 35% said they didn’t know. The research suggests that people aged under 25 are the most environmentally friendly group with 39% willing to cut down on holidays abroad to save the environment. BLM Media business director Chris Armond, said: “The green message is not getting through to holidaymakers who appear to value their vacations more than the environment.” The idea that holiday makers should pay to offset the carbon emissions produced by their flights still has a long way to go before it is accepted.

According to another study of a representative sample, undertaken by Stenden University, over 75% of respondents from the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Switzerland would like to be ethical in their tourism orientation. While about 75% of them looked for information before their trip, over 90% of them were not familiar with ethical issues in tourism. The study concludes that traditional criteria to select a tourism destination – affordable cost, good weather and good accommodation and service – outweigh the ethics-oriented criteria.

Taking action now to prepare for the inevitable

There is no doubt that increasing concern about the environment and climate is having a great impact on consumer’s behavior and the tourism industry’s commitment to green tourism. Although there is a lot of controversy about green consumerism, education and marketing for this type of travel and tourism is visibly on the increase.

Sustainable tourism is essential for the development and durability of the tourism industry. There is a significant opportunity for tourism providers to add value to their products and services by maintaining a green focus and those who do not take on green actions will be at a disadvantage over the long term. Taking action now will make the business more competitive and better prepared for the higher costs and tougher legislation predicted for the future, as well as the impact of climate change.

Consumers are beginning to take notice of environmentally sensitive organisations and as travellers become more demanding growth, further growth in niche types of tourism that deliver more than the traditional holiday is expected such as rural tourism, urban ecotourism, agritourism, geotourism, heritage tourism, voluntourism and so on.

There is a need for governments, tourism business and NGOs to work together on future sustainable issues. Public/private partnerships will also play a key role in developing training in environmental and social awareness. Industry associations should also offer more incentives and guidelines for reporting.

The implementation of emissions trading on airlines as from 2012 will also have a significant impact on the uptake of sustainability through-out the industry as well as encourage further technological innovation within the aviation industry.

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