Can Travel Curb Its Global Emissions and Create a Better Future?

Reflections and a new year’s resolution following the annual global summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Coral reef off of Yabou Island in the Red Sea, part of Neom, Saudi Arabia.

One of Saudi Arabia’s “giga-projects,” NEOM, is committed to regenerative tourism, like coral reef protection off of Yabou Island in the Red Sea.

Courtesy of NEOM

If you are a regular reader of AFAR, you know we’re dedicated to making travel a force for good in the world. Our tagline is “Travelers Who Care” and we are proud to speak to and for travelers who are conscientious about how they explore: experiences that enrich the traveler personally, support the communities visited, and are sensitive to the effects on our planet.

I recently returned from my first visit to Saudi Arabia—which only opened to international travelers via tourist visas in 2019—where I attended the annual global summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council. The WTTC is a nonprofit organization representing the travel industry and its members, including the CEOs of many of the industry’s biggest companies: Japan Airlines, Hilton, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Expedia, Intrepid, and Airbnb, to name just a few. The theme of this year’s summit was “Travel for a Better Future,” and I must say it was heartening to hear such resolute determination on the part of so many business leaders to do better.

To hear it in a setting like Riyadh, the Kingdom’s capital city, added a layer of purpose and complexity. Much like Saudi Arabia is aiming to build global tourism quickly, with billions spent to ensure social and environmental positivity, it also confronts a fraught history of human rights abuses. Can the travel industry, like WTTC’s host, overcome its past and create a better future?

According to the WTTC, the industry is directly responsible for more than 10 percent of the global GDP and more than 10 percent of worldwide jobs. Although it was previously thought the industry was responsible for a similar percentage of global emissions, WTTC’s new Environmental and Social Research study indicates that the sector’s greenhouse emissions in 2019 accounted for 8.1 percent of the total. Its studies also show that while the industry was adding 4.3 percent annually to global GDP from 2010 to 2019, its environmental impact increased by “only” 2.4 percent per year.

Can the travel industry, like WTTC’s host, overcome its past and create a better future?

Thankfully, speaker after speaker recognized that the industry cannot keep increasing emissions, even if at a lower rate than its growth. Travel companies committed in 2019 to becoming carbon neutral by 2050; the calls for urgent planning and action came not just from industry watchdogs but also from leaders such as Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano, who heads up the world’s largest hotel brand with more than 8,000 properties and 1.4 million hotel rooms. “Our employees demand it, our investors demand it, and our customers demand it,” he reinforced during the summit’s opening panel.

What happens without actual change in the industry? A very real, negative impact on the social, cultural, and natural welfare of the communities where travelers go. CEOs also realize that their businesses could be curtailed, if not outright shut down, if their carbon footprint continues to grow.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, urged all governments and companies to immediately make plans to reduce their carbon emissions. He believes that by doing the work to clear a path forward, they will also uncover the benefits of such change and become even more determined to take necessary action.

Sachs called on the industry to continue to protect what is best about each destination and to continue to inspire people to travel. Bringing people together increases cultural understanding, reduces the likelihood of wars—which are the most destructive thing we can do—and enables cooperation to overcome our shared challenges.

We have seen many constructive steps taken throughout the industry in the past two years. The airline industry is moving to more fuel-efficient aircraft and accelerating moves to sustainable fuels. The hotel industry is reducing food and other waste and increasing the emphasis on supporting communities through local employment. The cruise industry is also exploring hybrid ships and ways to leave a smaller footprint from port to port. These are only some of many steps. But so many more are needed.

What happens without actual change in the industry? A very real, negative impact on the social, cultural, and natural welfare of the communities where travelers go.

Holding the conference in Saudi Arabia was noteworthy. The Saudi government has stated its determination to increase the number of international travelers from around 20 million annually (a majority of which are Muslims on Hajj to Mecca) to more than 100 million per year. The government has undertaken many “giga-projects” that include the construction of tens of thousands of new hotel rooms and efforts to make some of Saudi Arabia’s natural and historical features more accessible.

Although so much construction and such a tremendous increase in the number of visitors does not on its face seem sustainable, H. E. Ahmed Al Khateeb, the Kingdom’s first Minister of Tourism, professed a determination to undertake this effort with sustainability front and center. For example, the Red Sea Project, a development on Saudi Arabia’s western coast across 11,000 square miles—including 90 islands and inland dunes—has targeted 1 million visitors annually. The project will run primarily on solar, backed by biofuel-powered generators. The promise is regenerative and responsible development, tracking sea temperatures and cataloguing sea life, and committing to making the numbers better than when the project commenced.

One can look at this skeptically, but I met and talked to leaders of some of the giga-projects themselves, and I consistently heard that they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the projects environmentally and socially positive. Words alone won’t get us where we need to go. But I was very encouraged that the words were from so many leaders and delivered with such seeming conviction to peers who would hold them accountable. It was certainly better than the converse.

AFAR is committed to helping you travel conscientiously, with ongoing coverage and conversations about industry participants, such as our 2022 Vanguard winners, who support communities and maintain a lighter footprint. We also aim to hold the industry and participants accountable by calling out where we all fall short. We believe in the positive effects of travel—and are well aware of the destructive effects if we don’t pay attention.

Greg Sullivan is the co-founder and CEO of AFAR.
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