Efficiency is not enough

The Role of Tour Operators in Climate Change Mitigation

Tour operators currently find themselves in a dilemma: On the one hand, they recognize that climate change mitigation is essential for protecting their economic success in the long term. On the other hand, a net reduction of their corporate emissions would "cannibalize" their core business in the short term, as it requires a fundamental reorganisation of their contemporary business models.

Among the big players in the European tour operating industry, the overall commitment to climate change mitigation varies considerably. Whereas some tour operators have begun integrating voluntary offset schemes, setting up internal carbon reporting systems or formulating (unambitious) reduction targets during, others do not even have a contact person for environmental matters.

The tourism sector in most countries - inbound and outbound - is dominated by a few but strong players, which have enormous market power to influence producers and service providers on the one hand, and consumers on the other hand. The strategic decisions of leading tour operators will therefore have a tremendous influence on the future performance of the tourism sector in climate change mitigation.

Technology-oriented approaches

Analysing public reporting and communication of some big players in the European tour operating industry, it can be observed that mitigation measures are generically only undertaken as long as these are compliant with their strategy of consistent growth and expansion of long-haul segments. These measures largely aim at improving operating efficiency, such as saving energy in accommodation facilities or reducing fuel consumption of aircraft. Research shows that such an approach will not reduce the tourism sector's emissions, nor stabilise them at current levels.

For tour operators to effectively reduce their product-related emissions in absolute terms, technological innovation has to be combined with other approaches: fostering a change in travel behaviour (shift to nearby destinations, decrease in the number of trips per person and increased length-of-stay), shifting passenger transport from airplane and car to rail and coach, as well as optimizing passenger transport chains through mobility management. The European market leaders have so far become little active in these areas. The industry argues that their action potential is constrained by the current market situation: Even though tourism consumers are well aware about the problem of climate change and declare willingness to act, they do not demand climate friendly travel products nor do they accept these if offered actively (as observed with low uptake rates of carbon offset schemes). The market demand is still dominated by long-haul destinations, short breaks, air travel and individual car use.

Mitigation as a guiding principle

Additionally, low cost carriers intensify competition for the short and mid-haul markets. It needs to be questioned, however, how strong current marketing activities of tour operators reinforce such demand patterns. Despite these obstacles, there are a couple of measures to be implemented by tour operators which could lead to significant emission reductions. They include incorporating climate protection as a guiding principle into existing business strategies and assuring top-level commitment. Suppliers and partners need to be selected according to their mitigation performance. Customers need to be educated about the environmental impacts of products by qualified sales staff and through personal "carbon footprinting" in combination with credible offset schemes. Intelligent product design can reduce carbon emissions through itinerary planning, modal shift, mobility management, innovative technologies and integrated carbon offsets. Furthermore, companies can create a "carbon clean" image by collaborating with credible partners (governments, NGOs) and by communicating achievements in carbon reductions to the public.

In the short term it is likely that big operators will further enhance voluntary offset schemes, as it allows them to communicate action against climate change without undertaking immediate structural changes. There remains a risk that voluntary carbon offsetting - even though an important intermediate instrument - could become the principal means for tour operators to "reduce" emissions. Even though climate change seems to have become a major topic for the industry, willingness to initiate structural changes still seems to be limited.

Andreas Zotz works with "Respect - The Institute for Integrative Tourism and Development" in Vienna, Austria, as an expert on tourism and climate change.

(September 2008, TW 52)