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Conversation with Leo Hickman (2007)

Photo: Zion National Park

From the archives

Leo Hickman (@leohickman) is a journalist and author of Guardian Book’s The Final Call subtitled ‘In search of the true cost of our holidays.’ It’s one of our favorite books of 2007.

Leo, I just had the opportunity to read your book cover to cover. It’s excellent and I am very pleased it is nominated for our book of the year award. It has the elements of some of my favorite investigative reporting while showcasing your talent at narrative writing. What’s the background of this book — how was it written? Is it being well received?

I first had the idea for The Final Call about five or so years ago. Like many people, I had enjoyed visiting destinations on holiday but often left wondering whether my visitation had actually had a positive or negative impact of the destination itself and its peoples. I wondered about the damage to the local environment, and the natural resources. In addition, I wondered about just how much in the way of income my visit was ever likely to bring to the local population. So about 18 months ago I set off on a series of trips to popular destinations around the world – Cancun, Ibiza, Miami, Kerala, Costa Rica, the French Alps, Thailand, Benidorm, Hong Kong, Dubai etc – to interview as many people ‘on the ground’ as I could to try and better understand the full impacts – warts and all – of the mighty global tourism industry, something I was surprised to learn hadn’t really been done before outside of academic and NGO circles.

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.” Should 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 remains suspect?

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 destinations.

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 The 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 planet.

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 would testify.

This year Planeta.com announced that Ecotourism Laos won our first Ecotourism 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.

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