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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 17:37 GMT
How to make tourism greener
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

International tourism can play the role of both victim and villain when it comes to climate change.

A hiker looks out over a mountain in Switzerland
Rising temperatures are already affecting snow-based destinations

It needs balmy weather, corals and coastlines - all under threat from rising temperatures and climate change.

But it also depends on energy-guzzling jumbo jets, air-conditioned hotel complexes and swimming pools kept pristine with environmentally damaging chemicals.

With the sector contributing to some 5% of global carbon emissions, its impact cannot be ignored.

"We have to talk about tourism and climate change," says Stefanos Fotiou of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

"Tourism cannot grow sustainably without addressing the challenges of climate change."

Balancing the boom

The most recent figures from the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) suggest that the industry continues to expand, with 610 million international tourist arrivals in the first eight months of 2007, 32 million more than in the same period last year.

The number is expected to swell to 1.6 billion by 2020.

Experts from the UNWTO say that industry is waking up to its responsibilities, aware that fuelling climate change, which degrades the very environment on which tourism depends, could undermine its business in the long term.

"A phenomenon of such magnitude cannot remain without consequences for the climate," UNWTO chief Francesco Frangialli told delegates at the World Tourism Market in London, where hundreds of representatives from the sector have gathered.

Computer generated image of an Airbus A350 bearing the colours of Emirates Airline
The future may offer more fuel-efficient aircraft

At least 60 tourism ministers have pledged to back a declaration drafted in Davos in October, committing to take "concerted action against climate change".

The agreement aims to adapt tourism to climate change, to mitigate its effects, to increase the use of alternative technologies and to channel funding for such efforts towards poorer countries, many of whom depend on tourism for a sizeable chunk of their economies.

Tourism is the primary source of foreign exchange earnings in 46 out of 50 of the world's least developed countries, according to the UNWTO.

The declaration contains no specific targets but for Geoffrey Lipman, of the UNWTO, it demonstrates governments' awareness of the balance between tourism and climate change.

"It's a first step on a road towards achieving targets. We wouldn't be here if we weren't committed to playing a part in the global response."

Breathing space

As a state dependent on long-haul tourism, Sri Lanka is one of the nations leading the way.

With 30% rainforest cover and home to 3,000 Asian elephants, the island has pledged to become an Earth Lung - a completely carbon clean sovereign state.

"Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot," says the chairman of the country's tourism bureau, Renton de Alwis.

The wide variety of flora and fauna indigenous to Sri Lanka's unique ecosystem makes it particularly vulnerable to climactic shifts.

"It is both an advantage and a responsibility for us. Little Sri Lanka has come up with the initiative to make us a carbon-neutral destination," Mr de Alwis said.

An island in the Maldives
Low-lying island states are most at risk of temperature rises

This will involve establishing codes of practice for the various tourism sectors, promoting reforestation and encouraging the use of alternative energy sources.

But other representatives from countries who depend on long-haul travel expressed reservations about targeting tourism to tackle climate change.

Australia warned against demonising aviation, Brazil insisted it should not shoulder a "disproportionate burden" and India pointed out that the best form of adaptation to climate change is development.

Dramatic action

But for many environmental lobbyists, any attempt to really alter tourism's impact on the planet must by definition, be drastic.

If I hear the words 'carbon offsetting' once more, I will scream. These kind of papal indulgences were sold in the Middle Ages
Jeff Gazzard, Aviation Environment Federation

"Business as usual is not going to move us towards a carbon neutral world," said Jeff Gazzard, of the Aviation Environment Federation, who nevertheless welcomes the Davos declaration.

He insists that industry, as well as governments, must tackle the core issues, rather than trying to rid themselves of responsibility through measures like carbon offsetting - where individuals or companies balance their carbon output by financing green projects.

"If I hear the words 'carbon offsetting' once more, I will scream. These kind of papal indulgences were sold in the Middle Ages. It is like paying someone else to give up smoking," he said.

Any improvements in plane or fuel technology, he said, would be outpaced by growth in the sector, which expands by 3-4% per year.

Aviation spewed out some 610 mega-tons of carbon each year, he points out, more than the world's fourth biggest economy - the UK.

He predicts that, by 2010 the figure will rise to 776 mega-tons and, by 2025, it will reach 1,228 mega-tons.

He proposes a hefty passenger tax on aviation of 3.6 pence (74 cents) per kilometre which would flatten demand growth to 1-2% each year.

"This is an industry wedded to kerosene," he said. "There is no tax on aviation of any meaningful variety."

Changing behaviour

One powerful driver which lobbyists, governments and industry specialists agree upon is consumers, who can shape policy with their decisions.

This trend has spawned the rise of a wealth of options such as responsible or eco-tourism which seek to reconcile environmental impact with local benefit.

European tour operator Tui Travel, which provides vacations for 30 million customers per year, says clients are increasingly asking about the carbon impact when booking their holidays, even if is the last thing on their minds when they actually arrive.

The company is pioneering a scheme to rate the energy efficiency of hotels, expecting that customer demand will transform behaviour as tour operators withdraw from unsustainable hotels and destinations.

It is a trend that the Unep encourages. "With your choices you can make tourism respond to climate change," says Mr Fotiou.

Do you consider the impact on the environment when you travel as a tourist? Would you be willing to change your holidays to minimise your carbon footprint?

Here is a selection of your comments:

No, I will not be changing my habits. There is too much propaganda involved for the issues to be as transparent as some would claim. So-called global warming has become nothing more than a political football to be kicked in any direction. I will be travelling constantly during the next few years. I shall avoid British airports due to the ridiculous taxes that are already levied upon travellers. By buying tickets outside the UK, in Asian countries, I can avoid nearly all of these extra costs. I advise others to do the same.
Ian Ward, Alicante, Spain

I have decided to forego extensive travel, to forego being a tourist. This was a sad decision because the world is a beautiful place, and to see the diversity of that beauty firsthand is almost inexpressibly pleasurable. I've also reduced the number of "love miles" I travel to visit family, limiting the number of journeys to distant kin.

We must act now, and if this means less flights, less airlines, less hotels and different business as a consequence, then, like the blacksmith, employment and businesses will have to change too. We must learn to live with a different economy - pared back, just sustainable - not growth, not excess. Everyone is involved, and the consequences will affect everyone. Better to change the way we live now, with deliberate and planned change, rather than be forced by environmental consequences to changes beyond choice.
Dodo, Qatar

This issue is a question of balance. Yes, we could just live our lives and survive without ever travelling to visit and enjoy the wonders that this world has to offer, spend our holidays walking around the block, but what would that do to the quality of the lives we live? The solution is to significantly increase and enhance the carbon reducers in the world, such as the forests. I would be willing to pay a "forest surcharge" on my travel expenses if I was sure that this would go directly to increasing the carbon reducers in the world.
Gerald Feldman, Oranit, Israel

If tourism contributes 5% of global carbon emissions where does the other 95% come from? Should we really not be looking at possible "big wins" first, rather than focus on a potential (carbon emissions and climate change have yet be definitively linked yet) small and easy target?
Phil, Aberdeen, Scotland

I am most certainly taking steps to curtail my consumption and this includes taking trips that don't require air travel. It's sheer folly to talk about the industry doubling or trebling in the coming 20 years... the energy and climate-related crises we are facing are going to change the way we live more than people think. Human civilization is facing destabilisation and upheaval, and it is going to be more about surviving than living the good life and taking trips. Many people don't realise that they can't eat money.
Paul Raven, Yokohama, Japan

All these initiatives are merely tinkering at the edges. A ton of carbon put into the atmosphere today will be there for 100 years, adding to the thickness of the "global warming" blanket that surrounds the earth. I have not holidayed abroad for the last eight years and have no intention of doing so in the future. Unfortunately, if it is to make any difference, everyone else will need to behave in the same way. Carbon rationing is the only solution.
Quentin, Camberley, UK

We can't ignore the role that tourism plays in development of developing countries and the third world. To cut off this vital form of income will limit these communities. Tourism has been proven to also provide protection to fragile environments by creating economic value from preservation. It can turn fishermen and loggers into eco-tour guides. There is much to be gained from strong global tourism. It is the way we do it that matters. To change the industry takes a change in consumer demand. I have stopped staying in big hotels and instead enjoy being hosted amongst the locals. I learn about the culture and the way of life and support micro-entrepreneurs in the destination, and thus keep the economic benefit where its needed most.
Andrew Morten, Netherlands

My travel business has been carbon offsetting all its flights for 10 years now. Carbon offsetting is not a solution, it is a stop-gap between having to use carbon fuels and finding alternative energies to propel aviation, which realistically is not going to happen for another 50 years. I believe and hope the machinery of carbon offset/trading will place a value on today's forests, making them more valuable in the future as living trees or "lungs" than as logged timber.
Julian Matthews, Cirencester, UK

I get a laugh out of the folks who put off travelling by air to cut down on carbon emissions. Those planes are going to fly even if you don't go along, so for me there is no individual contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The reality is that airline industry is continually working on and putting into place cleaner burning engines.
Dan, Detroit, USA

Well if environmentalists could change their holiday destinations then I would also begin to have second thoughts. One should ask the "climate change decision-makers" how they gathered at Davos to address pro-environmental issues?! Did they travel on foot or in emission-free horse-drawn coaches?
Vahid, Tehran, Iran

I am constantly considering my environmental impact as a traveller so flights are always the last resort, and, if I can't stand the heat without air-con, I don't go there! I think readers should remember that 80% of the world's people cannot afford to fly outside their own country. The rich few (like myself) are exploiting the most generous natural resource of this planet (oil) to live our own fantasies, mostly at the expense of the environments we aim to visit. There are few things more selfish. Air travel is a ridiculously inefficient method of travel and I believe the only reason it is expected to grow is due to the chronic lack of taxes. However, growth in tourism is a factor of growth in income, and as fuel prices go up (surely no-one is going to question that) then inflation will rise and incomes will fall, causing all would-be tourists to look at the most cost-efficient means of travel and it won't be the great gas-guzzlers of the sky!
Mike, Cajamarca, Peru

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