Despite the fact that COVID-19 essentially grounded international travel for the better part of 2020, the tourism industry’s collective decision to address the climate emergency has gained exponential momentum over the last few months.
In December 2016, the Darebin Council declared a climate emergency. Located in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, this governing body was the first council to acknowledge and state the need for action to address the climate emergency. Since then, more than 1,850 local governments in 33 countries — as well as individual businesses, organizations, and communities ranging from vineyards to academic institutions — have declared a climate emergency. And, despite the fact that COVID-19 essentially grounded international travel for the better part of 2020, the tourism industry’s collective decision to address the climate emergency has gained exponential momentum over the last few months.
Tourism professionals have been dancing around the climate conversation for many years — tentatively noting the need to address the problem, even while the industry itself is responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. Some individual companies — such as Natural Habitat Adventures and Intrepid Travel, which have been carbon neutral since 2007 and 2010, respectively — have built climate-related initiatives into their sustainability commitments. Organizations such as the Adventure Travel Trade Association have launched programs to help members move the needle forward by addressing climate change within their businesses.
Yet, there wasn’t any cohesion to these efforts across the industry until last year — when the industry formally came together to collectively acknowledge and address the problem under the framework, Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency.
“Without having all the answers worked out, we felt we needed to start facilitating an open and honest conversation within our industry,” Tourism Declares co-founder Alex Narracott, who is also founder and CEO of Much Better Adventures, told Sustainable Brands™. “The essential first step for that is to create this safe environment within which we can all work openly to, first of all, recognize the climate emergency; accept the science around it and where we need to get to as a society; commit to making a plan; and work together with our partners and competitors to transition us to a low-carbon industry.”
Moving beyond behavior change — to culture change
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Tourism Declares is a community of travel organizations, companies and professionals who have publicly declared a climate emergency; and are working together to find solutions, support each other’s efforts, and normalize the conversation about the sticky challenges connecting tourism and the climate. Launched in January 2020 with 14 signatories, Tourism Declares now has 143 signatories including tour operators, trade associations, destination management companies, accommodations, members of the media, travel agents and a regional airline. In October, Visit Scotland became the first tourism destination to declare a climate emergency.
Signatories agree to develop a climate action plan, share their commitment and progress publicly, accept current IPCC advice to cut carbon emissions and put actions in place to do this, work together by sharing best practices, encourage suppliers and partners to declare, and advocate for change across the industry.
“What we look to do is to say to our industry that there are many different pathways toward delivering the goal that we need to deliver; and we’ll find those pathways quicker through collaboration, than by individually going off in different directions. But let’s start by agreeing on a shared goal and a shared timeframe,” said Jeremy Smith, a writer, speaker and consultant on sustainable tourism; and co-founder of Tourism Declares.
Given the devastating impact of COVID-19 on tourism, this may not seem like the ideal time for the industry to declare a climate emergency. Yet, this pandemic pause also clearly highlighted the positive impacts of an aviation-free world, exposed the dependency many communities had on international tourism, and gifted the industry time to deeply consider how it wants to operate in the future.
These are the kinds of conversations happening among those who have signed on to Tourism Declares. All signatories are invited to participate in and connect with each other in a free online community; where even those considered competitors see the value of tackling this multi-faceted, often overwhelming problem together.
“We have a shared goal of taking action on the climate emergency and we’ll all gain from collaboration,” Narracott said, emphasizing that working in a silo is counterproductive. “We all end up duplicating the same work; and we miss out on the huge benefits that come with coming together to address shared challenges, challenge each other, ask questions, share ideas, and inspire and push each other along.”
As industry players begin working together to address the climate emergency, they’re also unraveling the powerful potential they play in creating a positive impact beyond their internal operations. The tourism industry’s actions can generate awareness about climate action; but operators can also encourage active engagement, behavior change and action among travelers and within local communities. This ripple effect highlights why a collective like Tourism Declares is essential within the industry — especially as people begin traveling freely again.
“What concerns us is that in tourism, particularly our short-term rental sector, there is a disconnect between our collective goals of helping travelers see and experience the wonders of our world — to be educated and informed through fun — and the fact that we only have one Earth and we are destroying it,” said Bob Garner, owner of Casal dei Fichi — an accommodation in Le Marche, Italy, which has declared a climate emergency. Garner noted the need not only to integrate climate action into every touchpoint of his business, but to also find subtle ways to meaningfully communicate about the climate emergency with guests:
“We need them to go home with a new perspective on environmental sustainability; then, we are really making a difference for hundreds of people each year.”