Why DMOs are the essential ingredient for tourism’s climate transition

by Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation


It is easy to make a strong case for why DMOs must lead the charge for climate action in this decade and beyond.

Tourism destinations are on the frontline of the climate crisis. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 ranked climate inaction as the number one threat to the world and the most severe risk, in terms of potential impacts, over the next decade. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, droughts, wildfires and extreme weather events are already impacting many favourite holiday destinations, and not only in far-flung corners of the world. Climate impacts threaten the resources on which tourism relies: coral reefs, snowy mountains, beautiful islands, coastal resorts, as well as fresh water supply, food security and humanity’s fundamental willingness and ability to travel. And this means that any reliance on tourism actually increases exposure to these risks.

DMOs will also be highly motivated by the accelerating trends and drivers for change, such as consumers consistently displaying a growing concern for the planet and desire to travel sustainably (corroborated by just about every consumer survey going), global financiers seeking to invest responsibly and avoid climate-based risks, and the extent to which the world’s land and economies are managed by governments – at national, regional, state and city level - committed to reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

DMOs can play a critical role in catalysing climate action in their destination. They are well placed to align tourism’s efforts with the climate ambitions of their wider community. They are well placed to bring together public and private efforts to unlock destination-wide solutions, such as installing electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure or encouraging product innovation to future-proof the place-brand offer. And DMOs are well placed to support the many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in their sector that are crying out for a simple and streamlined process for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain.

Yet while it may be easy to make the case for DMOs and climate action, it’s fair to say that, aside from some notable front-runners, DMOs are still learning what it takes to demonstrate leadership and meaningful action in this space.

There are many reasons for this. For some, a narrow focus on recovery after the pandemic has frustrated efforts to introduce longer term “build back better” strategies which would strengthen resilience to future shocks. For others it is an issue of mandate, and a lack of support from board members or stakeholders who may, mistakenly, see climate action, rather than inaction, as a distraction or threat to the future of their tourism operations.

However, for the majority of DMOs the real issue is not a lack of motivation, but of agency. “Where do we start?” is the common refrain. Despite being so well placed to catalyse action in their destination, DMOs often lack basic literacy on climate issues, not to mention appropriate levels of human or financial resources, and they often lack control over essential destination assets and infrastructure. It turns out that, when it comes to the support needed for climate action, DMOs and their SME communities are the most underserved parts of the tourism ecosystem – but this also presents a tremendous opportunity to unlock tourism climate action at scale.

As such, the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism is placing a particular emphasis on DMOs and the tools, resources and networks they need to provide destination-wide support and alignment. This UNWTO-led initiative, which the Travel Foundation supports as the Implementation Partner, is an urgent call for a decade of climate action with the aim of halving emissions from tourism by 2030. Signatories commit to creating an action plan, as well as reporting on their progress. Nearly 700 tourism organisations have already signed up, including DMOs such as VisitScotland, Turismo de Portugal, Turisme de Barcelona, London & Partners, the Pacific Tourism Organisation, Destination Québec Cité, and Visit Finland, which recently brought 60 DMO and business signatories into the initiative along with them.

The Declaration offers five pathways for climate action: measure, decarbonise, regenerate, collaborate and finance. Recommended actions under each of these categories are set out on the One Planet Network website, with a library of resources and more planning tools, including a briefing paper on measurement and a “quick start guide” for climate action planning, currently in development.

After collaborating with VisitScotland on drafting the Glasgow Declaration and launching it at COP26 in November, we have continued to work together to understand how best to build capacity for climate action in destinations. VisitScotland is now providing advice on how tourism businesses can reduce emissions, launching a campaign for the use of local food producers and suppliers to support the local economy and reduce food miles, as well as working across agencies to encourage visitors to use public transport.  It has also formed a strategic partnership with Zero Waste Scotland to look at more efficient ways of managing energy and waste from different types of tourism businesses and events. We also brought VisitScotland together with another Glasgow Declaration signatory, the Travel Corporation, which has tour operations and hotels in Scotland, to identify areas for public-private innovation.

Another leading destination, Norway, launched a bold new tourism strategy last year that includes a commitment to halve CO2 emissions in the local tourist industry by 2030, reduce the carbon footprint from transport by 10% a year and to increase the value of tourism to the country.  One way they seek to achieve this is through linking data on emissions and consumption to inform strategic decision-making about market development and ‘climate-smart’ market priorities.  The tool will enable a better understanding of the relationship between the monetary value of a consumer and their climate costs.   

The task of climate action planning across this diverse sector can be difficult and technical, but these examples show that useful and supportive action by DMOs is possible.  Given the complexity involved and the urgent need for better climate action planning, it is critical that DMOs receive the practical and realistic guidance they need, taking into consideration the evolving destination management mandate and the complex stakeholder landscapes they must consistently navigate while driving towards collective action. After all, destinations are everyone’s business - they are the enterprises, the communal spaces, the public infrastructure, the culture and history, and the people that we all rely on, and protecting them for the long-haul must be a shared responsibility and industry priority.

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