Holidaymakers and the environment: what travel agents need to know

A United Nations report on tourism and climate change could fuel the public’s concerns about their environmental impact. Are you prepared to face their questions? Jackie David reports

The environmental impact of a holiday would have been the last thing on the average British traveller’s mind only a few years ago.

But soon, you could find your customers listing their carbon footprint right up there next to price as one of the deciding factors when choosing a destination.

According to a recent YouGov survey for Eurostar, more than half the UK public (57%) have environmental impact on their mind when planning a journey of 300-400 miles.

More than a third agreed, or strongly agreed, that environmental concerns will have made short-haul flying socially unacceptable within just a few years.

The public’s growing awareness is something TUI Travel can vouch for. In recent research by the travel giant, 59% of customers said holidays with a low impact on the environment would influence their decision when making a purchase, and 77% said holidays with a fair deal for locals would influence their choice of trip.

“The upshot is, we know our customers are increasingly interested in these issues and there is increasing momentum for TUI UK – as well as UK plc – to be a responsible business and respond to customer interest,” said James Whittingham, environmental manager at TUI Travel.

But while the big boys seem to be in tune with consumers’ concerns, small and medium-sized businesses are burying their heads in the sand. According to a survey by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, two out of three SMEs are ignoring the environmental debate.

Even more worrying is the 72% of SMEs that said they would address environmental issues when the company grew – not the best strategy when customers are hungry for information now.

Of course it’s not only tourism that’s facing the challenge, but with its obvious associations with emissions – not least of all through growth in cheap short-haul aviation – travel companies of all sizes need to be seen to be taking climate change seriously.

ABTA head of business development and consumer affairs Keith Richards explained why the association is being proactive: “All our surveys show consumers are increasingly aware of climate change and the impact on the environment, and they want information,” said Richards.

“The important thing from our perspective is how can we make it easier for people selling tourism to engage with consumers about their concerns without extending the selling process.”

With this in mind, last November ABTA launched its own carbon-offsetting scheme, Reduce My Footprint. The idea behind the initiative is that the agents that are aware of the issues can demonstrate their commitment to reducing negative impacts and also help those customers with concerns to do their bit for the environment.

According to a United Nations report launched this month, some of the world’s most popular destinations, including the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and small islands in the Indian Ocean, are going to be hardest hit by climate change, so the time is fast approaching when it will be impossible to ignore the issues.

The report makes it clear that there will be losers and winners as climate change takes effect. A gradual increase in temperatures could benefit UK tourism, for example.

But Emma Whittlesea, sustainable tourism adviser at South West Tourism, warns that not all climate change will be good news even for the domestic market. “Milder winters are predicted to also be wetter, and extreme weather conditions such as floods and storm surges will disrupt holidays and threaten tourism infrastructure,” she said.

“In Boscastle and Gloucestershire we’ve already had first-hand experience of the problems these events cause. Likewise, increased numbers to the region at peak times could place excessive pressures on the residents and environments and affect the visitor experience. So, like any sector of the economy, we have a responsibility to take action to reduce our contribution to climate change.”

But as Dr Murray Simpson, lead author of Climate change adaptation and mitigation in the tourism sector, points out, it’s not all doom and gloom. “We shouldn’t be looking at this as just a bad thing. Even in the case of say, African safaris, while there may be negative impacts, there may be positives too, such as wildlife gathering in particular areas more frequently.”

The last thing anyone wants is to dissuade tourists from visiting countries where tourism is the economic lifeline. “It’s important to recognise that destinations have a role to play in mitigation and adaptation and this will encourage the traveller to stay in places that are actively playing a positive role in the issues surrounding climate change,” added Dr Simpson.

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