The industry has to question how it operates, former Travel Foundation chief Salli Felton tells Ian Taylor
The travel industry needs to move beyond a focus on “small issues” of sustainability to address the wider impacts of tourism.
That is the view of Salli Felton, who stood down as chief executive of The Travel Foundation in September 2019 after eight years at the industry charity and six years at its helm.
Felton has no doubt about the biggest issue facing the industry. “Climate change is in our faces,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more apparent. It’s sad it had to get to this crisis point, but it’s not a surprise.
“It has to make us question how we operate day to day and that is a difficult pill to swallow.”
She also feels recognition of the negative impacts of tourism is long overdue. “We’ve cottoned on to some of the effects of overtourism, but it’s just a symptom of wider issues around destination management,” she said.
“You have huge growth in arrivals, people all wanting to go to the same places and the industry not considering what happens other than growth.”
‘Destinations must act’
Felton noted: “There isn’t one company or party responsible. It is about how we gauge and measure tourism. But it’s time for destinations to take back some power.”
She cited the Netherlands as an example, saying: “The Netherlands tourism board is looking to reassess what tourism brings to the country and what works for residents.”
The board announced a switch from promoting the country to trying to manage the huge numbers of visitors last May, noting: “‘More’ is not always better. Instead of destination promotion, it’s time for destination management.”
Felton said: “Some destinations are starting to look at how to raise funds to do things differently. In some cases that means [imposing] tourism taxes, in others it does not – it means other forms of funding.
“Tourism taxes are one component. I completely understand why the industry is cynical about taxes. I’m cynical myself about where tourism tax revenue goes.” However, she said: “Majorca has done a good job in starting the process.”
Majorca and the other Balearics islands introduced a sustainable tourism tax, levied on overnight stays and cruise visitors, in 2016. The islands’ government planned to spend €128 million of the revenue on tourism-related projects in 2019. However, the local hospitality sector remains critical of the tax.
Felton believes the industry is not moving fast enough on sustainability or acting at the scale required.
“The industry can do a lot of little things, but these are not being replicated at scale and we have to keep repeating them,” she said.
“The focus is on relatively small issues to please customers, on things that are customer-friendly. There is less looking at the impact businesses are having. For example, plastics are a massive problem. But removing plastics should be one bit of a much‑bigger programme, certainly in terms of the big companies.”
Online giants ‘too removed’
She is critical of the online travel giants, saying: “Online companies are taking small initiatives, [but] they perceive themselves as not part of the problem. They [argue they] are just ‘platforms’, but they send huge numbers of tourists to bucket-list destinations and do it with no contemplation of whether it’s sustainable. They are too far removed from the product on the ground and responsibility is diluted.”
One option, she suggests, would be to establish a trust fund into which companies would pay a share of their profits, with money going “to provide funding for countries where it does not exist, to help destinations develop the skills to manage their assets”.
Part of the problem is that many destinations “simply don’t have the skills for destination management. Marketing is their focus,” she said.
“Managing destination impacts requires a whole different set of skills and knowledge. These need to be developed to have the right people in place to advise on reducing resource use and setting clear standards.”
‘Overtourism flags other issues’
Felton warned that without extensive industry-wide action, “it is going to end up with regulation – but regulation at a country level [because] international standards can be difficult to apply.”
“Overtourism is flagging the issues,” she said. “We know there are problems in Venice, in Dubrovnik, in Barcelona, but these are better placed to deal with the problems than a small village where tourists take a selfie, leave their rubbish and go.
“If we just look at the symptoms and say, ‘Let’s restrict cruise ships going into Dubrovnik’, it simply moves the problem somewhere else.”
The underlying issue, she suggests, is that: “We look only at economic impacts, not social and environmental impacts. Tourism is not alone in having this problem, but tourism impacts build and you don’t know the real impacts until too late.”
The Travel Foundation published a study exploring the hidden costs of the sector, entitled Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, in March last year. It warned the industry is “on a shaky foundation” and tourism would “become increasingly difficult to manage” in many destinations.
Produced with sustainability consultancy EplerWood International and Cornell University of the US, the report concluded the industry’s rapid growth is “leading to damage in destinations [that] lowers the economic benefits of tourism”. Felton describes the report as “the beginning of a long piece of work” to which The Travel Foundation and her successor Jeremy Sampson are committed.
She said: “No one has answers, but we want to see the industry better understand tourism practice and change it, so destinations move away from simply marketing to look at destination management and how to build capacity in tourism.”
Felton insisted: “There is an appetite for this among destinations and companies that care about the nature of their business. Tourism has the potential to destroy destinations and the industry, [but] consumers are starting to wake up and ask questions, and companies are starting to realise they need to be able to answer questions in this area.”
For now, Felton has returned to Australia to be with her family. But she said: “I won’t stay away from sustainable tourism. I couldn’t.”
She joined The Travel Foundation in 2011 as head of programmes and became acting chief executive in 2013 and chief executive in 2014, taking over from Sue Hurdle.
She stood down in September 2019 to return to Australia, handing over to new chief executive Jeremy Sampson.
She previously worked for Virgin Holidays as responsible business manager and was an environmental manager at Heathrow.
Felton says: “The Travel Foundation was very much a UK-focused charity when I started. Now, it’s seen more as a global leader in sustainable tourism. We have people coming to us from industry and governments to seek advice and to see our research. We’ve gone to a different level.”