Op-Ed: Why the Travel Industry Must Step Up Its Climate Efforts

Intrepid Travel’s cofounder Darrell Wade believes that when it comes to sustainability, tourism needs to become more regenerative.

A traveler plants a tree with a guide in Costa Rica

Regenerative travel can take many forms. On a trip that Intrepid Travel led in Costa Rica, travelers planted rubber trees with Elias, a member of the 650-member Maleku indigenous group.

Courtesy of Intrepid Travels

In 2005, I took my young family to Botswana on safari. We were excited. Who wouldn’t be? I’d planned a holiday that had us exploring some of the best national parks in the country, camping under the stars, and coming face-to-face with Africa’s “big five” animals.

Safaris come with a lot of down time, so at the airport I picked up a copy of Tim Flannery’s book The Weather Makers, the seminal book on climate, biodiversity, and the changes humans were making to the planet. I’d heard about climate change, but didn’t really understand it (it was 2005, after all). I still remember my daughter’s reaction at the bookshop—she was determined I should read Harry Potter instead. “That looks so boring, Dad!” she told me.

At this point, Intrepid Travel, the company I founded with my university mate Geoff Manchester, was 16 years old. We’d started the business with a passion to take travelers on the road less traveled—away from the all-inclusive resorts and into a more immersive form of travel, using local transport and staying in small, locally owned guesthouses. We wanted our travelers to meet locals, learn from them, and have fun along the way. But more than this, we wanted to build understanding and respect between cultures. The formula was working. We were growing fast and were nicely profitable. But reading Flannery’s book made me realize that we had a problem. A big one.

Our business was anything but responsible.

In fact, when it came to the climate, we were more like environmental vandals. Carbon-emitting transportation is at the heart of modern tourism. Thanks to a coffee break between game drives and a few data points in Flannery’s book, I was able to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to work out that Intrepid was responsible for about 250,000 tons of carbon emissions a year. Ouch! We had to do something.

After I returned to the office, I made it a point to talk to our staff and survey our travelers. A staggering 91 percent of our travelers agreed that “Intrepid should strive to reduce its emissions and act on climate change.” So we set out on a journey.

In the years since, Intrepid has come a long way. We’re now a certified B Corp and are certified carbon neutral by the Australian government (where our head office is based). We have aggressive science-based targets to plot a pathway to further decarbonization. We even have our own in-house climate scientist to keep us on the straight and narrow.

While the world is starting to decouple from carbon and total global emissions could start to fall in 2024, the travel and tourism industry is not pulling its weight.

Not wanting to rest on our laurels, we are now removing domestic flights from itineraries when possible, incorporating electric vehicles, and working with our suppliers, such as hotels, transport providers, and restaurants, to become more sustainable. Interestingly, our climate-focused actions haven’t impeded our growth. We are a far bigger company than in 2005, with a higher level of customer satisfaction and higher staff engagement. So being purposeful and profitable are not mutually exclusive.

But we are losing the battle.

While the world is starting to decouple from carbon and total global emissions could start to fall in 2024, the travel and tourism industry is not pulling its weight. Collectively our industry accounts for up to 11 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Worse, the growth in the travel industry’s emissions continues to outstrip growth in global GDP, meaning that that 11 percent figure will likely be even higher in the years ahead.

As the world plunges more deeply into the climate crisis, we risk losing the very thing we travel to enjoy: this amazing planet. Rising temperatures are already making travel in many corners of the world unpleasant. Rain forests are disappearing, deserts are growing, sea levels are rising, wildfires are raging, and snow fields are reducing.

We can and we must do better. The good news is that unlike many other industries, we in tourism have options and the potential for positive impact is enormous. The travel and tourism sector is responsible for one in 10 jobs in the world and, in 2022, contributed $7.7 trillion to the global GDP.

In Intrepid’s recent report, “The Future for Sustainable Travel,” published in October 2023, we explore the ways in which tourism might shift to not just minimize its negative climate impacts but also to maximize tangible benefits to people and the planet. We propose a move from an extractive travel industry that takes from the planet towards a regenerative one that gives back, leaving the people and planet in better shape than we found it.

The idea is not new. Anna Pollock, a tourism researcher and strategist, has been calling for the travel industry to orient itself toward regeneration since as far back as 1995. Regenerative travel involves casting aside all ideas of what travel looks like and rebuilding it brick by brick, with community and environmental restoration at its core. The Future of Tourism Coalition in 2020 published 13 guiding principles of regenerative tourism, including redefining economic success to include small business development, using internationally recognized sustainability standards when possible, and protecting a place’s cultural assets.

I see an opportunity for Intrepid to help thread sustainable initiatives, businesses, and destinations together into regenerative itineraries.

Of course, individual travelers can start planning their trips with regeneration front of mind. But even more powerful would be a wholesale shift at the levels of industry, regulations, and local government.

I see an opportunity for Intrepid to help thread sustainable initiatives, businesses, and destinations together into regenerative itineraries. Imagine a form of tourism that generates additional taxation revenue from hotels and restaurants to assist local communities with healthcare and education. Imagine that the economic contributions of tourists are used to preserve and even grow wild spaces. Imagine a form of travel that helps local people develop skills, pride in their culture, and security in their communities.

We need this kind of positive impact to become the default setting, not just a one-off activity or an ad hoc visit to a social enterprise during a two-week trip. We need to raise our game so travelers are welcomed and not resented.

Maybe I should have followed my daughter’s pleading and read Harry Potter back in 2005. Life would have been easier. But I’m glad I didn’t. And as it happens, my daughter is too—she’s grown up to be a litigator of companies that breach their environmental and social responsibilities.

Darrell Wade
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