What does a Net Zero future look like for tourism destinations?

By Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation

The science is clear that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emission to Net Zero by 2050 at the latest. Yet imagining what a prosperous ‘decarbonised’ world will look like, and understanding how to get there, is much less clear. For those working to manage and promote tourism destinations, many of which are heavily dependent on aviation, this is a particular and considerable challenge. So, what does a growing, thriving Net Zero visitor economy look like, and how do we ensure that it can continue to support the communities and businesses that rely on it?

Envisioning tourism in 2030 and beyond

A report seeking to answer these questions, called ‘Envisioning tourism in 2030 and beyond,’ (recently released by the Travel Foundation, the Breda University of Applied Sciences and other partners) modelled different decarbonisation scenarios across transport and accommodation. The aim was to provide a positive vision of a growing global visitor economy where emissions are reduced to Net Zero. The good news is that the research did find one scenario compatible with this aim, but the report makes clear that to achieve this scenario, everyone in tourism needs to act, and we need to act fast.  

In the scenario, the shape of tourism shifts as future growth comes from the areas most ready to decarbonise. Alongside a trillion-dollar investment (around 2-3% of tourism revenue across the time period) in all available decarbonisation measures, key features of this shift include:

  • the prioritisation of trips which can reduce emissions most readily
  • some limits to aviation growth until it is fully able to decarbonise, in particular capping the longest-distance trips close to 2019 levels

 For example, a traveller might take the same number or more trips a year, but will typically be travelling shorter distances. They will use more rail, electric car, coach and ferry options for their holidays. Those who travel long-haul will take fewer long-distance trips but are more likely to stay longer, in energy efficient accommodation.

Tourism doesn’t need to disappear – but it does need to evolve

The implications of this scenario for destinations are wide-reaching and important to consider, both to manage risk and to take advantage of new opportunities. Ewout Versloot from the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC), one of the partners involved in producing the report said, “This scenario vehemently refutes the notion that tourism must cease to exist or that we should stop flying all together. This is important: we have to safeguard the values and positive impact travel can bring for future generations as well. This also means, however, that we need to start asking the right questions. Not if or what we should do, but how we can create the right incentives and transition as fairly and equitably as possible."

To ensure we are ready for this future and to help us to get there, new destination development, management, and marketing strategies are needed that take into account the necessary shift in visitor flows across both transportation modes and geographies. This includes evaluating long-term plans against the decarbonisation scenario, as well as examining the gap between where the destination is now and where it needs to be. Key questions to ask include whether any plans rely on growth from long haul markets, how to tap into growth from regional or domestic markets, plus whether any shift in attention to different markets requires changes to the destination’s brand and positioning. In the scenario, cheaper and more easily available train, coach and ferry travel, as well as a trend towards slower travel, will open up new markets and new product development opportunities with a chance to innovate and diversify your offer.

It’s encouraging to note that a shift towards more domestic tourism holds significant possibilities: around 9 billion domestic tourism trips were made worldwide in 2018, six times more than international trips and in the European Union, revenue from domestic tourism exceeds inbound tourism expenditure (UNWTO, 2020). Meanwhile, a long-haul journey will become a genuine ‘trip of a lifetime’, with travellers staying longer and experiencing more of the destination. So, for those destinations that depend heavily on long-haul markets and where there is little potential for domestic visitors - for example, small island destinations - planning might include a focus on lengthening visitor stays by offering products of extended duration, setting minimum nights and strategically scheduling flights to and from the destination to optimise revenue. Increasing taxes and environmental charges to further compensate may also be an option.

We need to develop new KPIs for more sustainable tourism

Another important shift for destination management strategies includes moving away from purely economic growth targets towards a more balanced view that also focusses on the social and ecological value of tourism. A leading destination in this regard is New Zealand, where the Tourism Industry of Aotearoa has rooted its own plan and goals in Indigenous values and has set clear targets related to community/resident satisfaction, as well as to the reduction in carbon emissions and tourism’s contribution to the economy. Can you maximise the benefits from tourism with the minimum carbon cost?

Of course, a vital part of any destination strategy that aligns with and supports a thriving Net Zero visitor economy will be a Climate Action Plan. The report makes clear that destination Climate Action Plans should account for emissions from travel to and from the destination. For many DMOs this is particularly challenging as it involves quantifying emissions from tourism-related activities that are not under its direct control.

However, there are a number of DMOs that have successfully started to do this, including the City of Valencia, which became the first city in the world to verify and certify the carbon footprint of all its tourist activity. Both the Netherlands and Norway are also measuring emissions from travel to and from their destinations and both have focussed their marketing regionally, on Scandinavian countries and other European countries. For those looking for support and alignment with other tourism organisations on climate action planning, the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism sets out five pillars to include, as well as supporting tools, webinars and case studies. By signing the Declaration, organisations commit to publish a Climate Action Plan within a year. Later this year, the Travel Foundation will also be launching climate training for destinations with Expedia Group, which will aim to equip DMOs with the knowledge and skills to become a hub for climate action in their communities.

Cross-border collaboration is key for success. 

Collaboration will also be key for tourism to make the shift towards a Net Zero future, and DMOs are well-placed to lead these efforts. This includes bringing together stakeholders across the destination for knowledge and data sharing, as well as providing support for businesses to adapt. For example, The Oregon Coast Visitor’s Association is running education campaigns and providing training and tools for travel businesses to support emission reduction. Similarly, the Icelandic Tourist Board has developed a tool for operators, providing information, guidelines, data, and checklists.

DMOs are also in a good position to co-ordinate efforts internationally, supporting the call for shared policies, innovation, investment, and data sharing. Such cross-border co-ordination is not only valuable in sharing solutions, but will be particularly important in the development of new, multi-destination offers, for example to support international journeys by rail or car. Gwendal Castellan, from Destination Vancouver said, "The decarbonisation scenario challenges destinations to connect much more closely with their neighbours. Destinations will need to collaborate and become champions of enabling developments like these and advocating for timelines that match the 2030 and 2050 climate goals."

It’s clear from the ‘Envisioning Tourism in 2030’ report that there is a huge opportunity for destinations in a decarbonising world, but to realise it, we need to act now. The report sets out a positive vision of what the holiday experience could be in a Net Zero world, a world where the tourism sector continues to grow and thrive. To get there, our only option is to change – our plans, our goals, and our mindsets.

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