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Save jobs or save the Earth: how should the tourism industry adapt to the climate crisis?

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By Julie Cheetham

· 4 min read

The environmental impact of the tourism industry

It’s September, and many of us who have stayed closer to home over the last few years are now packing our bags and jetting off to far-flung destinations, Prime Ministers included.  

Tourism is one of the world's largest industries, with millions of people traveling every year to experience new cultures, environments, and attractions. While the renewed appetite for travel is good news for the communities attracting the current wave of tourists, the impact of these trips poses a significant problem to our environment. As awareness of climate change grows, the industry, which contributes up to 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is increasingly facing pressure to minimize its impact on the environment.

Should we stop traveling?

The Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, agreed back at COP 26, included a target to halve carbon emissions by 2030.

Around the world, support is growing for a Just Transition – one which mitigates the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable. When it comes to travel, we must ensure that rather than cutting off long-haul destinations from the rest of the world, we work with them and enable governments and tourism boards to support destinations to become greener, and so preserve the livelihoods of those employed. 

The world’s population doesn’t want to stop traveling, and nor should we – the economic damage would be terrible and traveling is one of the great joys of life. Instead, we must find a way to balance the economic benefits of tourism, while mitigating damage to the environment. These are not mutually exclusive goals. 

Before the pandemic, tourism created one in four new jobs globally and accounted for 10.3% of all jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council

In Africa alone, tourism employs 9 million people, and it’s estimated that for each person employed 10 people are supported. That’s 90 million people positively impacted, in the least developed continent in the world. 

During the global pandemic tourist destinations around the world were hit hard by the sudden and prolonged travel restrictions. Low-skilled workers, from cleaning staff to gardeners found themselves without work in economies that had no safety net and no furlough schemes – struggling to provide for their families. The pandemic prompted serious soul-searching in the travel industry – and created an urgent imperative to achieve sustainability goals without creating further challenges for workers. 

So what should we do?

One organisation that is leading the charge is the UNWTO, through its Transforming Tourism for Climate Change initiative. It aims to help the tourism sector tackle climate change challenges by promoting sustainable tourism practices, increasing destination resilience, and raising awareness among tourists. Its goal is to ensure tourism continues to support economic growth and job creation while minimizing environmental impact and promoting a transition to a low-carbon economy. 

Travel is changing – in the future, we may see planes powered by biofuels or even solar. But the industry can’t wait for the big leaps in technology when there are so many small steps ready and waiting to happen. Change will come from a series of smaller steps and considered actions—carried out at scale—which reduce the impact of tourism, without reducing the number of tourists. 

This means measuring and minimizing carbon emissions, reducing waste and pollution, conserving water and energy and protecting natural habitats. There are so many simple actions that individuals and organizations can take to improve their sustainability without incurring significant costs, such as switching off lights when not in use, installing water butts, and choosing locally-produced food and products. These actions can also help boost businesses’ resilience to future shocks.

80% of the tourist industry is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises; they rarely have budgets to employ sustainability professionals and given the complexity of the subject, many are confused about where to start with change. Governments and tourism authorities must come together to educate and support these hoteliers to become greener and grow a resilient industry that provides jobs and sustains livelihoods. 

With the right training and knowledge, the industry can manage and reduce its impact on the planet – allowing millions of travelers to enjoy rewarding and responsible trips, that provide economic opportunity for millions around the world.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Julie Cheetham is a sustainability consultant with over 20 years of experience. Her focus lies in sustainable development and business transformation. Having worked for a range of clients across the hospitality and corporate sectors, in 2021 Julie drew from her diverse insights and together with an initial group of thought leaders, established Weeva – a SaaS platform that will enable the travel industry to adopt measurable and holistic sustainability practices.

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