Elusive Search for Climate Justice in Tourism

By Imtiaz Muqbil 

COPENHAGEN: An energetic two hour discussion on the issue of climate justice and tourism produced few answers to some of the long-standing and perplexing questions facing the growth of travel & tourism but did end with an agreement that civil society and the public and private sectors must dialogue more often.

The programme on December 11 was organised by a group of church-backed European NGOs which have long sought accountability on the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of travel & tourism. The presentations and questions from the audience focussed on many of the long-standing issues about the need to maintain tourism flows as a source of jobs, economic development and foreign exchange, even while ensuring its sustainability.

The crux of the problem lies in balancing the world's travel growth projections of about three billion annual international & domestic travellers, including cross-border overnight tourists, and their massive energy consumption requirements. More travel will mean more emissions, especially as tourists tend to be more wasteful in their consumption patterns, assuming it to be their right as they have paid for the holiday and all the associated pleasures that go with it.

Although potential tourists from places such as Europe are being urged to travel less, to shorter distances and use more economically friendly means of travel, at the other end of the spectrum countries such as Fiji stress that unless visitors travel those long distances to reach island nations, they will have both an ecological and economic disaster on their hands.

As Manfred Pils (President, International Friends of Nature) noted, the natural disasters caused by global warming phenomena were themselves affecting many popular tourist spots. The NGOs feel that travel, being largely an "elitist" pastime, could afford to pay any tax imposed to lower travel flows or mitigate/adapt its energy requirements. However, it was pointed out that the backpackers, who could hardly be described as "elitist", often spent more money at the grassroots level of tourism economies than the rich travellers.


The key is for the consumer to enjoy tourism in a more sustainable way. Said Mr Pils, "Technological measures alone won't solve the problems without accompanying structural and behavioural changes."

The panel began with presentation of scientific date on climate change and tourism by Paul Peeters, Associate Professor sustainable transport and tourism at the Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Transport, NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences. Citing data from various kinds of transportation, Dr Peeters said that road travel was a bigger emitter of greenhouse gases, especially in view of its greater level of use for domestic travel, although aviation is the one that usually gets the blame.

Sabine Minninger, Consultant, EED Tourism Watch, and Andreas Zotz of Respect - Institute for Integrative Tourism and Development, said THE tourism industry recognises its responsibilities but remains on track to record year after year of growth, raising serious questions about whether even the concept of "sustainable tourism growth" could be considered feasible.

Such questions included: What could mandatory targets for the tourism sector look like? How can climate policies be designed to effectively reduce emissions while not hitting the poor population segments in developing countries? Will these actions be sufficient to turn tourism into a "green economic sector"? Who pays the price for negative side-effects of carbon trading and biofuels?

She questioned the value of market-based mechanisms and carbon trading in tourism and aviation as against simpler measures such as promoting mitigation measures within the core business. "Why would the tourism and aviation industry need revenues from carbon trading to finance climate protection measures in the first place?" she asked.

She also warned that the early introduction of aviation biofuels could the rights of poor people. "We worry that biofuels, used on a high commercial level, have no chance to remain sustainable. Has the tourism industry considered the social and environmental impacts of biofuels production?"


Mr Caesar d'Mello, Executive Director, Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism said it was often claimed that tourism contributes to helping meet the Millennium Development Goals especially its primary goal, poverty alleviation. But he questioned this, noting the huge leakage factor that sees vast sums of money being sent out of countries by foreign-owned hotels, tour companies and airlines. Equally important, the money that is left behind is not equally distributed. Who really benefits from tourism? he asked.

He echoed the view of EED Tourism Watch and Respect on the negative effects of biofuels, because of the impact it would have on land-use patterns. Citing the issue of emissions by bunker fuels in the transport industry, especially aviation, he noted that biofuels would only make matters worse. He suggested that simply reducing consumption would be a far better way of cutting emissions rather than resorting to any "market based mechanism" or technological fixes.

Mr d'Mello said that tourism had now become just as big an industry as oil, armaments, and pharmaceuticals. He said that the key issue of the future would be the issue of climate justice and that people would be at the heart of it. Those who have contributed least to global warming are suffering most from it. Why do poor the have to pay the carbon bill that others have chalked up? he asked.

He said the overall model of tourism development was flawed, and with the numbers set to grow, there is a growing urgency for a paradigm shift in the way business is done. A fair and just business model would need to incorporate strong labour and community components. He said that much of the problem boiled down to the lack of a people-centred community perspective in the planning processes.

He called for travel & tourism to be assigned fixed and binding targets in terms of its emissions reductions, with a fixed time-frame in which to implement them. He also highlighted the dangers of nations becoming highly dependent on tourism and urged them to develop alternative development models to reduce their vulnerability "to this highly vulnerable economic sector".

He also regretted the fact that the UNWTO was having a side event on Dec 18, the last day of the climate change summit and asked why it did not hold a similar event with the civil society movements instead.


The UNWTO's Director, Sustainable Development Department, Luigi Cabrini pointed out that the organisation was well aware of all these issues raised, was doing considerable amount of work on research and study on each of them, but perhaps needed to improve its communication efforts.

Mr Cabrini noted that travel has become an essential part of life. He agreed with the paradox that good climatic conditions are a key tourism resource but tourism is also a contributor to climate change. At the same time, it is a vital economic factor and contributor to meeting the MDGs. Thus, he said, it should not have to carry an unfair share of any taxation efforts other forms of curbs and controls. He said the UNWTO was also tracking changes in travel behaviour - such as using rail instead of air, resorting more to video conferencing instead of short trips for business travel, and the use of new renewable energy technologies.

He agreed that leakages exist in the form of payment of foreign loans, marketing, imported products and services and franchise payments but said that leakage tends to decrease over time as the economies develop and domestic sources of goods and services increase. He stressed that there was no denying that tourism did benefit other sectors in that it creates more jobs for youth and women, helps SMEs due to its low start up capital costs, and requires no additional assets apart from the cultural and natural resources of the country itself.

He highlighted UNWTO activities such as the Sustainable Tourism - Eliminating Poverty (ST-EP), noting that it included 150 projects designed to help the poor and build up SMEs. Although these projects may not lead to sweeping changes in the tourism industry in their host countries, the UNWTO anticipated they would be seen as exemplary pilot projects that investors and developers could follow.

Mr Cabrini cited the four-point Davos Declaration which suggested the following: Mitigate emissions (transport and accommodation); Adapt businesses and destinations to changing climate conditions; New technology; and help poorer regions adapting. These points were meant as a guide and recommendations to governments and industry and consumers and also to the research and media networks.

He said that UNWTO had held numerous conferences, workshops and events dating back to the first international conference in Tunisia in 2003, all designed to build awareness, capacity and research on the links between tourism and climate change. He said a Study on Tourism for the Green Economy Report was being prepared in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme. Set to be published in 2010, the study would be targetted at governments, businesses and shareholders, and aimed at building a strong case for attracting investments in sustainable tourism.


Mamadou Mbodji (ASAN, NatureFriends Senegal) said that Africa knew well what it meant to be at the receiving end of climate-change related injustice. He stressed that there is clearly a gap to be bridged. While tourism does generate income for African people, it was also important for tourism to adapt by reducing its energy consumption.

At the moment, he said tourism flows were north to south. Investors have expropriated lands from the local people, many of whom are now realising how badly they have been affected, even as the income from tourism goes back to the people of the north. To counter that, since 1996 NatureFriends have launched ecotourism programmes that are designed to make visitors stay longer, and depart with more money left behind in the country itself as well as a greater level of respect for nature and culture. This is what sustainable and alternative tourism is all about.

He also reiterated the warning about biofuels, noting that Senegal had recently seen an increase in jatropha plantations, which had led to a lot of conflicts with the local populations who once used to grow cereals and vegetables. As they can no longer to do, the result is an increase in poor people, with all the associated problems that brings.

Sumesh Mangalassery (Kabani/ECOT) said that the words "sustainable tourism" and "tourism growth" are incompatible and contradictory. He also sought stringent and more responsible action from groups like the UNWTO and joined Mr D'Mello in expressing "extreme disappointment" that the side event on Dec 18 was being organised by the UNWTO with the WTTC and not the grassroots movements.

Wolfgang Mehl (Climate Alliance Austria) noted that if science calls for temperature increase to be capped at 2 degrees Celsius in order to avert even more serious climatic consequences, the average consumption of every person on the planet would have to be capped at two tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. However, he said, just one flight from Europe to the US would use that up. And as road transport is a far greater mover of people than the aviation industry, any proposal to tax aviation bunker fuels should also lead to a proportionate tax on road use.


Feiloakitau Kaho Tevi, General Secretary, Pacific Conference of Churches, Fiji, said it could not be discounted that tourism is bread and butter for Fijian people. At the same time, he said, tourism has harmful and negative effects.

True, tourism is a labour-intensive industry and provides jobs for unskilled labour at the lower-rungs of society. But, he said, the higher echelons of management are dominated by foreigners who "have a good time for three years and then go back." He said it would be better for them to start training up local people to hold management positions. In that sense, he said, concerns over leakage of tourism income are spot-on.

He was also critical of the hotel environmental conservation initiatives. "It's nice to have all these schemes about not washing towels, but what good does it do and how does one measure the impact if there is no baseline data. And it's nice to have certification schemes but how does one measure the effectiveness of that if there is no audit?"

He also scoffed at the environmental "awards" given to resorts from different countries. "We don't know why they are awarding this island resort when we know the resorts are importing their water from mainland to the island, using diesel and fuel in the process. It just does not make sense." Fei Tevi said it would also be good to seek more import substitution and usage of more locally made goods in the industry.

However, looking at it from the other side, he said it was important for civil society movements to prove that if tourism is bad, then what's the alternative? He said both his brother and sister are working in resorts and generating income which feeds their families. "If they lose their jobs, what's the alternative? So you can't just say tourism is bad."

He added, "Yes we are concerned about climate change but we are happy to receive tourists as it is because of you coming that gives my family food to eat. Tourism is vital for our growth. But people need planes to get there. At the same time, I understand the dilemma that poor countries face when dealing with climate change and tourism." He agreed that it becomes a bit of a "jumbled message" and in fact, the best way to raise awareness of the sinking islands is if the visitors came and saw the problems for themselves - "come and see them before they disappear."

The question and answer session began with a participant from India asking whether there were any tour operators in the room. Only one person raised his hand, in a room packed with about 50 people. The questioner, who only identified himself as Gopi (and himself later turned out to be a tour operator), said this was part of the problem, that both the NGOs and governments and private sectors spent too much time talking to themselves and not amongst or with each other.

Many questions were directed at Mr Cabrini who was asked to justify the methodologies of the ST-EP programme and whether they incorporate a private sector component and whether they were as sustainable as they are supposed to be. He responded with a detailed explanation of how the system worked and the processes involved in ensuring that they delivered results. He also noted that one critical issue the UNWTO is working on is alternative ways to measure tourism beyond just tracking growth in numbers and tourism receipts.

Mr Cabrini was pressed to explain why the UNWTO does not get more involved in setting and enforcing emissions reductions targets or other such energy reduction standards. He replied that the agency has neither the ability nor the power to enforce standards. All it can do it is to establish a legal framework on issues and suggest lines of action, leaving it to up to its individual members to make their own decisions accordingly.

One of the interesting questions came from a man who identified himself as a hotel worker in Mexico. He said many of the problems emerged because the workers were never consulted in the development process, and landed up losing their local land rights as well as getting the short end of the stick when it came to tourism development. He said many good ideas actually come from the workers themselves because "workers know how things work." He said the idea of not changing the linen as an environmental conservation measure had actually come from a worker who saw it as a pointless for towels to be changed every day.

The lone tour operator in the room raised a very brief point, saying that the heart of the cyclical problem was that the global environmental crisis was being blamed for causing poverty but tourism was seen as alleviating poverty but also contributing to the environmental crisis.

The clear bottom-line message that ensued was that while civil society movements are seeking accountability and voicing the views of the grassroots, "we are all looking for answers from someone. Somebody has to put tourism on the map with a strong voice. We are looking for UNWTO to do that," said one participant.

There were also calls for the industry to make stronger efforts to dialogue with the civil society movements. Mr Cabrini acknowledged the necessity of that, saying that NGOs were all welcome to participate in the side event on Dec 18. Unfortunately, most of them will have left by then.

This article was published by Imtiaz Muqbil in Dispatch 6 of Travel Impact newswire (14th Dec. 2009)