Travel has rebounded strongly since borders opened and vaccination rates went up. While this bodes well for the tourism industry, its carbon emissions, as well as its impact on environments and communities, cannot be ignored.
How should individual tourists and industry players do their part to change tourism for the better? And can the aviation industry, which currently makes up 2.1 per cent of global carbon emissions, play a bigger role in fighting climate change?
The Greater Club gathered four experts from the public and private sectors to discuss this topic at Changing Behaviours: Sustainable Tourism, a panel discussion held on 3 November at The Great Room Afro-Asia.
The panellists who participated in the discussion are:
- Dr. Sin Harng Luh, Senior Lecturer at James Cook University Singapore
- Winston Chow, Associate Professor at Singapore Management University (SMU)
- Andy Goh, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, R+ Pte Ltd
- Moderated by Szue Hann Tan, Head of Sustainability at Keppel Land and Co-Founder of IxSA, and moderator of the discussion
The experts dissected what it means for tourism to be sustainable, including what possible steps to take, and whether or not true sustainability can be achieved.
Here are other noteworthy points from the event:
The impact of climate change on natural attractions
To Winston Chow, whose recent work includes contributing to the 2021 IPCC report, travelling sustainably is “almost impossible”. “But we sure as heck can try,” he says.
While a temperature increase of 1.5 degree celsius by 2030 doesn’t seem much, it translates into the devastation of some of the world’s most famous natural attractions. The Maldives and the Caribbean might disappear entirely due to rising sea levels, while warming sea temperatures threaten the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Alpine destinations will be impacted as snow caps melt.
Furthermore, communities will be impacted by natural disasters caused by extreme weather, or the disappearance of jobs from the tourism sector altogether.
“To complicate things, biofuels are not a viable replacement for fossil fuels used to power aviation networks, which contribute 3 to 4 per cent of global emissions”, says Chow.
“The solution isn’t to stay put entirely, but for industry players to shift the mindset of tourism to one of education and information about their impact on the earth,” he adds.
The tourism sector has yet to account for China’s eventual opening, which will strain resources even further, adds Dr Sin. China was one of the world’s biggest drivers of global tourism pre-Covid, with Chinese outbound tourists spending US$130 billion in their overseas trips.
The industry is responding to a growing demand for sustainable tourism
According to Technavio, sustainable tourism is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.54 per cent to US$335.93 billion from 2022 to 2027.
Luxury travellers are also demanding their holidays to be more sustainable.
According to a study carried out in the third quarter of 2020 by luxury and wealth researchers Altiant, 56 per cent of overall respondents, comprising high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs), rate sustainability as four or five in importance on a scale of one to five. Across Asia and Europe, this figure rose to 63 per cent.
Luxury and sustainable tourism go hand-in-hand as luxury travellers prefer bespoke experiences that are exclusive, leaving as little impact as they can on local communities and resources. With fewer people living in the accommodation, there is less toll on the environment, according to Lonely Planet.
Hospitality architects r+, founded by Andy Goh, who is also a panellist at the event, aim to “reimagine hospitality” through their holistic approach to their vacation destinations.
For instance, on top of its modular sustainable hotels based in Cambodia, r+ has also acquired farmland throughout Asia to supply dried fruit, grain and nuts to its ethical produce arm Jonah Foods.
The farms also supply farm-to-table produce to its hotel kitchens. All this is done under the r+ ecosystem, which also employs and empowers local communities.
The individual action could have profound impact
Mass tourism isn’t anything new, having started in the 60s and 70s, says Dr Sin Harng Luh. “The problem is that there were very few people who could travel then,” she explains.
“Today, we have a lot more people travelling, and trying to be responsible at this scale is very hard,” she adds.
Tourism in itself is a destructive force – the attempt to find the next frontier can spell the end of the destination, as overtourism and commercialisation wreak havoc.
“But sustainability efforts are accessible by everybody, not just for luxury travellers”, she says.
One way tourists can reduce their carbon footprint is through their evaluating their own actions, and choosing options that are less carbon intensive.
“Individual action is actually profoundly impactful,” says Dr Sin.
Perhaps tourists can fly to nearby destinations instead of going long-haul, or once in a while, choose economy class over business. “Business travel gives out three times more emissions than economy class,” she notes.
“Embracing slow travel, where one books an extended trip and reduces the number of flights taken a year, rather than stacking up flights through quick getaways, also goes some way in reducing one’s carbon emissions”, she adds.
Chow’s chosen way to reduce his carbon footprint is to buy carbon offsets from reputable projects. Some airlines offer options to offset your carbon footprint, but Chow prefers buying them from an offset provider.
These providers fund several projects ranging from clean energy developments to providing off-grid power to villages in developing countries. “But before you do that, do your homework as to what project you’re buying into,” he says.
Tourism authorities could do more to prevent greenwashing
Everyone is jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, and the tourism sector is no different. This has led to the problem of greenwashing in the industry.
How then, should the industry be quantified as truly sustainable? And with so many environment, social and governance reporting guidelines out there, how do we standardise the sustainability efforts across the industry?
“Accreditation by the local tourism authorities may help”, says Dr Sin. That could mean accrediting major players such as tourism destinations, hotels and even major F&B outlets – businesses who have the financial resources to implement quantifiable sustainability measures.
“But greenwashing is not all bad”, says Chow. Even replacing disposables with reusables has the potential to alter behaviours, as tourists become “agents of change” to their immediate networks back home.
“Maybe my behaviour away from home might be taken back home, in a sense, and then that would help with the overall sustainability objective,” he explains.
Sustainability doesn’t have to be perfect or happen overnight
Implementing sustainability projects or sustainability protocol throughout your company’s processes isn’t an instant change. One cannot be 100 per cent sustainable either.
For r+, it all comes down to “managing their own philosophy”. It has garnered criticism for using imported building materials such as steel and bricks, instead of using locally made ones, during the early months of their hotel projects.
However, it pays its workers above market rate, as well as providing them free meals. “We support them in a way that we try to be better than other contractors,” says Goh.
The event’s attendees also came up with some novel ideas on how to improve sustainability in aviation and hotels – one of these ideas include using the metaverse or augmented reality to simulate the effects of climate change on tourist destinations and educate tourists on their impact.
Another idea that could attract government interest is a windfall tax for tourism players that will go towards public and private sector partnerships, such as grants and funding to accelerate sustainable practices.