Making Sense of Sustainability

better tourism regenerative tourism sustainable tourism
Making Sense of Sustainability

It’s been the conference and event season for me over the last 6-8 weeks.  I love this part of the year when there's a chance to focus on industry developments and trends, both here in Ireland and around the world.   

What has astounded me this year is the prominence given to the question of ‘Sustainability’ across all events I attended or contributed to.  As someone who has been involved in the ecotourism and sustainable 'fringe' of tourism development since 2019, it has been quite a revelation to realise that sustainability seems to now be the central question.  As one speaker put it: “‘Sustainability’ has become the defining issue of our industry and our times”.


The difficulty is that it’s a very complex issue and there’s a sense of going around in circles as stakeholders try to figure it out.  While I’ve absorbed a lot of up-to-date facts and figures and projections over the last few weeks, the debate seems to be sweeping, catastrophic and negatively transformational.  The data around impacts, consequences, forecasts, trends, scenarios is overwhelming and it’s hard to make sense of it all, even if you’re very well-informed! Here's an attempt at making some sense of it for now.

It’s complex: Tourism is both a Sustainability Hero & Carbon Culprit

It has generally been said over the last decade that tourism accounts for between 2-3% of global carbon emissions.  A 2018 Australian study, however, put it at almost 4 times that at a whopping 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  The bulk of this comes from visitor transport, shopping and food.  The projection is that, due to the high carbon intensity of tourism and continuing growth in demand, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The industry is therefore set to remain in the carbon spotlight.

Tourism is not generally judged on its emissions alone however.  Tourism makes a positive contribution to official Global Development Goals and there is hardly a country in the world where tourism is not recognized as one of the most important industries for sustainable economic and social development. It is valued not only for inflow of revenue to a country, but also for its contribution to conserving cultures, landscapes and heritage and for the acknowledged value of growing understanding and respect between cultures.

It seems that tourism can make a positive contribution on many levels but you do have to pump out greenhouse gases to get the benefit.

It’s complex: Travellers want to have their cake and eat it too.

We can observe two megatrends in the changing attitudes and beliefs of consumers in general.  One is the ‘Search for Sustainability’ and the other is the ‘Desire to Travel’ i.e. at the same time that people strive for sustainability, their desire and willingness to travel keeps growing.   As its simplest, these two megatrends seem to be on a collision course with each other because of the carbon impact of road and air travel.   Somehow or other, however, the world seeks to find a way to reconcile them.

This means that travellers/visitors will undergo an increasingly complex decision-making process in the future.  Their path to purchase will not only look at the quality of the visitor experience and the financial cost, they will also (consciously or sub-consciously) assess the carbon cost of their trip. For island nations like Ireland, where over 85% of arrivals to the country are by air, a trip will make a significant dent in the international traveller’s carbon budget. 

Visitors will want to ensure in advance that it is worth this cost.  They will do considerable research into the sustainability policy and practices of airlines, accommodation providers and destinations.  It seems that people will rationalise their travel by offsetting or supporting local economies and people, supporting biodiversity and community. It’s a kind of atonement for emissions sins.

It’s complex: We haven’t decided who is really responsible – the traveller or the destination.

The jury is out as to whether the carbon effects of tourism should be attributed to the traveller or to the host destination.  This is a question of accounting and accountability.  If to the traveller, the most developed and largest economies bear the most responsibility e.g. the USA and China.  If to the destination, island nations come into sharp focus - tourists are responsible for anywhere between 30-80% of the emissions of small island economies.  Small island nations have the highest per capita destination-based footprints.  The Maldives top the list.  For anyone living on an island with a high dependency on tourism, how attitudes evolve around this question should be of great interest.



Accept the things you cannot change

  • Accept there are no easy answers here. Globally, we humans are still trying to figure this one out, to define the roadmap, to get agreement from governments and nations. So if you’re confused, know you are not the only one and that’s the nature of it for now.
  • Accept that for every ‘responsible’ action you take, somebody will find a way to undermine it by highlighting every ‘irresponsible’ action you take or your visitor has taken or your government has taken in the journey of the visitor to you.
  • Accept that pendulum has already swung and your future competitiveness and appeal will be attributable, at least in part, to your ability to minimize your carbon impact and/or to positively contribute to community and environment.

Have the courage to change the things you can

In the Search for Sustainability, there is much outside of your control.  However, there are many areas you directly influence and they are listed below.

Areas where you can take positive action to reduce carbon emissions (and often save money):

  • Energy Usage
  • Waste Generation
  • Water Usage
  • Transport – to and from your destination and within your destination
  • Green Purchasing & Green Office Policies

Areas where you can take positive action to increase environmental and social value:

  • Contribute to the conservation of biodiversity
  • Employ locally
  • Purchase local goods and services
  • Take measures to protect biodiversity
  • Be a guardian of heritage and landscape

When you distill it all down, these are the main pillars of a responsible tourism strategy for your business.  These are the areas you can take control of and be responsible for.  We are in an era in the tourism industry that calls for great leadership and a willingness to embrace great change, not just on a global and governmental level but on the level of your business as well.  That’s a fact. 

Donal Minihane, GM of Hotel Doolin, gave a great radio interview recently at the time of announcing that the hotel had become the first carbon neutral hotel in Ireland.  It's worth having a listen here  It's the best non-scientific, non-preachy account of going green that I've heard and it's from a business perspective.  It turns out it's not rocket science - more a question of mindset.


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