As a Guardian journalist,
I wanted to write a mainstream book that spoke directly to travellers
and tourists, but also to those within the industry that hold
so many of the important levers to possible solutions. The book
has been billed as an 'investigative travelogue' - part investigation,
part travel writing.
Yes, I'm pleased to say that so far the book has been positively
received with good reviews in the Financial Times, the Irish Times
and the New Statesman. Better still, people who have read the
book have started to contact me to say how compelling they found
the book's findings and conclusions.
Do we know the stats
-- are holiday travelers doing so independently or are they participants
in group tours?
In the UK, at least, there is certainly growing evidence that
more and more people are travelling independently - booking a
flight, car rental and hotel online, grabbing a guidebook and
off they go. According to the UK's Office of National Statistics,
UK citizens made almost 45 million holidays trips abroad in 2006,
of which 18.8 million were inclusive tours, so that's about 42%.
Sorry, I don't have global figures. There is certainly a debate
to had though - which I raise in the The
Final Call - about whether it is automatically a good thing
that more and more of us travel independently. Travelling this
way carries with it much greater responsibilities, in my view,
but ultimately it can have a more positive impact, particularly
with regards to making sure as much of the money we spend 'sticks'
to the destination.
After writing this book, do you have some unanswered questions
of your own?
The big one for me is how the tourism industry is going to face
up to what I saw from my investigations as a series of mounting
and grave problems. Surely, there can't be many other industries
that would risk destroying their own key assets in such a cavalier
and short-sighted way. There seems to be very little in the way
of preparing and investing for the future - the prevailing attitude
within the industry seems to be to make as much money as quickly
as possible with little, if any regard, for the long-term future
of the destination. As someone with young children who already
point to the atlas in their bedroom with a sense of wonder, this
saddens me deeply.
In your essay on Travel Mole - Travel
industry has 'head in the sand' over climate change - you
say that "the travel and tourism industry is a long, long
way from truly grasping the scale of the problems that lay before
it – in some ways it reminds me of where the tobacco industry
was about 40 years ago." Sould we be looking for leadership
from the industry itself when those in charge are rarely accountable,
rarely transparent and the simplest data about tourism statistics
What is absent is solid data to answer vital questions:
How many people are traveling? Where does the money go? We also
need to embrace dialogues that permit discussion about more subjective
topics: How empowered are locals to make decisions that affect
their livelihoods? Are travelers satisfied with the information
at hand in making choices about where to go and what to support?
If what we are seeking are ways for travelers and locals to be
more ethical to each other and to place -- the resource base for
the interaction -- then isn't it time we start talking about supporting
decentralized movements and campaigns rather than make expectations
of government and industry?
I totally agree with you about the point that the leadership within
the global tourism industry - organisations such as the UN's World
Tourism Organisation, the World Travel and Tourism Council - lacks
transparency, is made up of a small, often transferable cabal
of industry executives, and that the statistics they pump out
about the industry have to be taken with a pinch of salt. When
researching my book I had to largely rely on some of their figures
and this sometimes made me a little uncomfortable. But sadly there
does seem to be a real lack of truly independent figures, ones
that cannot be accused of supporting an agenda.
But isn't that true of all statistics to a certain degree? NGOs
can often be accused of just the same thing, for example. That's
why in the book I tried to rely much more of what people 'on the
ground' were telling me in person, even though statistics will
always play their part in this kind of investigation.
The question of where the money goes is, of course, one of the
hardest to pin down with hard, reliable figures because vested
interests are either trying to prove it does indeed 'trickle down'
and benefit everyone in the local community, or that it most certainly
doesn't. But from just talking to many low-level tourism workers
around the world - the chambermaids, the taxi drivers, the waiters
etc - I must report that the latter seemed to be much nearer the
truth. Improving the quality of the data available will clearly
help to better answers all of the questions you raise about tourists
having the knowledge to book the 'right' holiday, or for communities
to make the best decisions about how the manage and nurture their
In general, I always support the notion of decentralisation
and I think tourism is a good example of where destinations might
fare better, both in terms of environmental stewardship and even
marketability, if they didn't have to constantly feel the heavy
hand of big government or big business on their shoulders at all
times. Global tourism seems to be governed by a one-size-fits-all
approach at the moment, and the ones calling the tunes are organisations
such as the UNWTO and WTTC, who are broadly all about pushing
the big infrastructure, 'international standard' approach to tourism.
This is the world of increasing bed capacity, more runways, wider
highways, and one in which every tourist is assumed to want a
minibar, air conditioning, golf course and buffet at every turn.
In my view, there is a damaging lack of subtly to this approach
and is one that has directly or indirectly caused so many of the
problems I have witnessed around the world. There seems to be
a fundamental lack of trust among the big-industry players that
destinations can ever know best when it comes to managing their
own assets and that their will should be adhered to at all times.
No wonder some people talk of tourism as a form of modern-day
imperialism. These players talk of believing in the 'free-market',
but this is a clever illusion in my eyes. There is little that
is 'free' about how the global tourism industry is managed at
the moment from what I can see.
Last week I spoke at the Ecotourism New Zealand Conference
which addressed the issue of transporation and climate change.
One of the participants insisted that we not only look at the
impact of climate change on tourism but the impact of tourism
on climate change. You address this topic in-depth and I cited
Final Call and this very Q&A in my presentation.
That said, I found it very interesting that Ecotourism Australia
recently issued a media
release saying that Britons are being fed simplistic and inaccurate
propaganda in advertisements aimed at reducing long haul air travel.
“Targeting aviation as a major source of emissions
ignores the facts. It’s such a soft target, but Britons
can do much more by reducing other sources of carbon emissions
closer to home,” Ecotourism Australia’s Chairman Alastair
McCracken said. “While aviation contributes perhaps 2% of
global emissions, the manufacturing industry, consumption in the
home, and transport in Britain each contribute about one third
to Britain’s total carbon emissions, and road transport
accounts for by far the biggest share of the transport sector.
Australia’s world-leading ecotourism products combined with
carbon offset for air travel are an environmentally-sound choice
that makes a lot more sense than a motoring holiday to Blackpool."
What is your take on this argument? And what recommendations
do you have for tourism leaders in Australia and New Zealand?
Sure, I have a lot of sympathy for all long-haul destinations
such as Australia and New Zealand (and South Africa, most of South
America, Asia) because this issue is only going to get more and
more pressing for them. However, I don't buy Ecotourism Australia's
argument about the environmental impact of aviation at all. I
accept that currently, in terms of overall global emissions, aviation
is low compared to other sectors. No one is arguing against that,
as far as I'm aware. What environmentalists and now others say
they fear is the unrestricted growth of aviation. Whilst most
other sectors - road transport, domestic heating/cooling, electrical
goods etc - have the opportunity to reduce their emissions through
efficiency gains and technological changes, there simply is no
equivalent 'techno-fix' around the corner for aviation, despite
what some in the industry might claim. (I go into this in great
detail in my book.) So while other sectors can make some of the
reductions in emissions (whether they will or not is another huge
question!), there is no such hope for aviation, especially when
set against the vast growth predictions. We must act now to reduce
demand before the growth implications get out-of-hand, with so
many nations now catching the cheap-flight bug.
But there's another important point. I've never argued that aviation
alone should be the one sector we focus all our efforts on. That
would be madness. I'm also not one to say that no one should ever
fly again. All sectors need to be tackled, in my view. But while
we have to heat our homes, cook our food, and use road transport
in our everyday lives, we don't need to go on long-haul vacations.
It is a discretionary choice and in an age when the environmental
impact of all our lifestyle choices is coming under close scrutiny,
the need to holiday must surely come quite far down our list of
true priorities. This is especially true when you consider that
one return flight to Australia from the UK represents about half
of the average UK citizen's carbon footprint over the period of
one year. Talking of aviation's contribution to global emissions
in terms of 2% may or may not be true (I argue in the book it
is in fact much higher than that for a range of reasons), but
it is also a little disingenuous. This is because only 5% of the
world's population today have ever flown in a plane. We must find
a balance of personal emissions that is equitable to all on this
Flying, whether we like it or not, can represent a big slice of
the emissions pie for the average Westerner, for want of a better
term, who likes to travel faraway on vacation. Of all the passengers
leaving the UK on a plane each year, 66% are flying for leisure
purposes. The rest is made up of business travellers and so-called
VFRs (visiting friends and relatives). In other words, the majority
of those flying are tourists. This is non-essential travel. What
I argue for is that we need to take a much more balanced view
about how much we chose to fly on holiday. Sure, if we want to
go on a long-haul flight to Australia then perhaps make it one
to savour every 4-5 years, as opposed to thinking we can just
go on long-haul flights on a whim whenever we choose. Why not
one year go on a holiday locally, then the next perhaps to a nearby
country, then after that go long-haul? We need to spread our holiday-related
emissions over a much longer period if we are to bring our emissions
down overall. Likewise, we need to introduce similar thinking
across the whole of our lifestyle, not just holidays. But nowhere
do we make such a large discretionary, one-off burst of emissions
as when we fly long-haul - our two weeks away to a far-off shore
can easily add up to produce more emissions than driving a car
over one year.
What long-haul destinations do about this problem is, indeed,
a mighty dilemma. I have gone on record many times to say that
I do not believe carbon offsetting is the answer, and it saddens
me when I hear stock responses such as: "Australia’s
world-leading ecotourism products combined with carbon offset
for air travel are an environmentally-sound choice that makes
a lot more sense than a motoring holiday to Blackpool." That
is just patently wrong and absurd. As I've also said before, the
sun-drenched beaches we seek on holiday are wonderful places to
stick your head in the sand!
I would hope that destinations that overly rely on long-haul tourists
diverse their businesses quickly. Tourism is simply too fickle
and vulnerable an industry to place all your eggs into one basket,
as many of the tourism professionals I interviewed for my book
This year Planeta.com announced that Ecotourism Laos won our first
Spotlight Award created as a way of showcasing government
websites that promoted responsible travel and ecotourism. In your
view, do you see government portals that not only provide theory
but actually do a good job of showing people where to go, who
to visit and how to travel in country? Do you have any recommendations
of what you would like to see on government portals?
The quick and honest answer is that, no, I can't think of any
government website that shows tourists where to go and what to
do when they get to their country in a way that goes beyond the
offerings of, say, any tour operator. But then again I must admit
that I haven't visited too many government portals as they would
never be my first port of call when considering a visit to a country.
I would probably trawl online guides and message forums first
to get a sense from previous visitors of the best way to try and
travel through a country with a considered and light footfall.
Information I would like to find on such a site would be up-to-date
travel advisory information as well as guidelines about how visitors
should 'behave' in their country so not to upset cultural and
social sensitivities - anything that helps the visitor to be a
positive not negative presence. One thing I would find really
helpful is proper advice about things such as tipping.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
with Leo Hickman
with Leo Hickman - Guardian
impact do our holidays have on the world?- Leo Hickman/The Guardian
Cost of Travel - WorldHum