Analysis: Tackling tourism’s economic trade-off

Stephanie Draper, director of sustainable development for charity Forum for the FutureForum for the Future works with businesses and major cities to find ways to create a thriving economy that enhances people’s quality of life and does not trash the planet. I’ve been an environmentalist most of my life, but also a keen traveller, so I am lucky to lead Forum’s sustainable tourism programme.

We work with a range of companies to create more sustainable destinations, promoting low-carbon travel and working out how the industry should respond to future social and environmental challenges.

Let’s start with one of the big questions: the trade-off between the environment and the economy. How do you balance the negative climate-change effects of flying against the socio-economic benefits of tourism?

Environmentalists say we have to stop flying if we are to avert climate change, while the industry argues communities that rely on tourism will suffer if we stop flying to distant places. Both points are valid, but the debate is increasingly polarised and there is an imbalance of information. We know roughly how much a flight contributes to climate change, but the same cannot be said for economic benefits.

You can calculate the carbon footprint of your holiday on a multitude of websites such as Reduce my Footprint or Climate Care. A flight to Turkey for a family of four would generate about 2.2 tonnes of carbon. That amounts to 95% of the overall carbon impact of an average holiday, or around a quarter of a family of four’s annual allowance if they were working to a carbon budget.

The economic benefits are sketchier. Tourism is undoubtedly an economic powerhouse. It accounts for one in 11 jobs worldwide and 10% of global GDP. In some countries, tourism provides large chunks of national income.

But how much of your hard-earned cash do the local communities you visit actually receive? The Ethical Travel Guide produced by Tourism Concern calculated that only £250 of a £1,500 holiday to Kenya reached the country and none of it reached the local Masai population. But for an average holiday, it is difficult to know.

Research by the Overseas Development Institute shows holidaymakers can make an active contribution to poor communities by buying indigenous crafts, using local transport and guides, taking local excursions and eating at restaurants serving locally grown produce.

We need a simple calculation to illustrate how much of the cost of a holiday reaches a local community. When we buy Fairtrade coffee we can see how much of the amount we pay goes to different parts of the supply chain by counting the number of bands on a coffee cup on the packaging. Let’s have something like that for holidays.

There are ways and means to do this, but it won’t be easy. Ultimately, there could be a label in a brochure that tells a customer the value they are adding by making a booking. That way people can decide whether a holiday offering 25% value to a local community is worth blowing their carbon budget for.

This would stimulate debate and give people a choice. It should also improve the economic benefits for communities that do not get much at present.

But we also need ways to avoid these sorts of trade-offs in the first place, because ultimately nobody wins. Someone on a Pacific island gets a short-term benefit if we keep flying to visit him or her, but their long-term prospects are grave as climate change causes sea levels to rise.

The UN World Tourism Organization recommends visitors should stay longer to enhance the economic benefits of flying. More time allows people to visit more places and spend more money, and it works for climate change, too. If you have the same people in a resort for three weeks, you reduce the number of flights needed to keep a place full, and reduce the climate footprint of the resort.

Six Senses offers discounts for people who stay longer than two weeks in the Maldives. If we all took fewer, longer long-haul holidays it would be better for communities and the environment.

Let’s get the economic benefits of tourism firmly on the agenda, find ways to calculate and maximise the benefit of holidays to local communities and look for options that give people the best of all worlds. After all, that’s what holidaying is all about.

Stephanie Draper is director of sustainable development for charity Forum for the Future and a trustee of The Travel Foundation. She will be contributing regularly to Travel Weekly on the subject of sustainable tourism.

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