The Greening of Travel and Tourism, from Asia to Alabama

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by: Joel Makower

My travels over the past month have included speeches to two very different audiences on the same topic: The future of travel and tourism, as seen through an environmental lens. Based on these and other calls I’m getting, it seems that this industry is starting to pay attention . . . but only starting.

The two speeches — in Bangkok, to the Incentive Travel & Conventions, Meetings Asia/Corporate Travel World conference; and in Gulf Shores, Alabama, to the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau — were striking as much more for their similarities as differences. Both audiences are just beginning to come to grips with a new reality on travel and tourism.

That reality is this: Up to now, the conversation taking place on the environmental front has basically to do with "the impact of travel and tourism on the environment." Increasingly, however, it’s turning around: there’s a growing awareness of "the impact of the environment on travel and tourism."

(The New York Times wrote on a similar topic this week, in an article on climate change and tourism.)

Indeed, both of my audiences’ regions had experienced the tragic ravages of nature: Hurricane Katrina, which swept through the Gulf Coast (though 2004’s Hurricane Ivan made more of a direct hit on Alabama’s coast); and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Both events decimated their respective tourism industries for a time, and both regions are still grappling with lingering effects, including a more cautious tourist market sensitive to disruptions born of natural disasters.

The two events at which I spoke were different in one key respect. The Asian conference was more business-to-business — the audience included airlines, hotel operators, corporate travel buyers, meeting planners, and the like, mostly focused on conferences, events, and the "incentive travel" industry — while the Alabama event was more consumer facing — Alabama’s Gulf Coast attracts largely families and retirees from the South and Midwest, with relatively few conventions or business meetings.

Those differences are significant, and they mirror what’s going on in the larger marketplace of green goods and services. There’s far more, and more substantive, action on the B-to-B front, as companies in most sectors are leaning lean on upstream suppliers and service providers to reduce costs and environmental impacts and offer their downstream customers less-toxic, better-packaged, and more energy-efficient goods and services. Corporate and some government policies are mandating venues and travel options that include at least some environmental considerations, and a growing number of conferences and meetings are calling themselves "green," whether from reduced waste, lower carbon footprint, or other activities.

Meanwhile, the green consumer marketplace is more of a slog, as I’ve noted in the past, with fewer genuine success stories among environmentally improved products and services. With the exception of ecotourism — tours and travel packages that combine some sort of ecological theme, often aimed at well-heeled travelers — green leisure travel hasn’t yet caught on.

As I said, the industry as a whole is just waking up to the realities of a more eco-conscious world. And, to a large extent, they seem to have at least one foot firmly planted in denial that their world will somehow be affected by the world’s environmental woes.

They couldn’t be more wrong, of course. As the Times made clear, everyone from ski resorts to dive shops are feeling the heat, as it were, from climate change, as tourist-attracting natural wonders — snow-packed slopes, vibrant coral reefs — shrink or disappear altogether. In the developing world, where a much greater portion of the economy depends on tourism, this can be particularly devastating. As the Times noted, "In much of Africa, for instance, tourism is the major source of income and often the only source of foreign currency."

It’s not just ecotourism spots that are vulnerable. Any destination that depends on visitors arriving by air — whether tourists or business travelers — could be hit hard, especially more remote locations like Australia and New Zealand, as well as U.S. hotspots like Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. Droughts could be another factor crimping the industry, if water rationing limits showers, pool use, water park operation, etc. Don’t even think about another SARS-like outbreak of infectious disease, which, some experts say, will be another all-too-frequent manifestation of climate change, and which could dampen people’s willingness to travel for both business and pleasure.

Here’s one small but significant example of what we’re up against. In Bangkok, I gave an hour-long keynote speech that, among other things, challenged the Pacific Rim travel industry to consider how it will remain competitive in an eco-conscious or carbon-constrained world, especially as destinations in Europe and North America increasingly embrace recycling, energy efficiency, sustainable foodservice, carbon offsets, and other practices aimed at reducing the impacts of travel, meetings, and events.

For about two minutes of that hour I spoke about how some companies are starting to use a new, improved generation of teleconferencing technology as a means of reducing business travel, if only by a fraction. For example, I told them, Vodafone has adopted a policy in which employees are now required to justify why they need to fly somewhere, as opposed to using one of the company’s 200 teleconferencing centers (or, presumably, simply telephoning). The policy reduced the company’s air trips by 20 percent in one year.

"How do you compete in a world in which a portion of business travel is replaced by teleconferencing?" I asked them.

Simply asking, it seems, was a no-no. "Makower Raises Delegate Ire at IT&CMA Meet", trumpeted one industry publication, noting that

His speech prompted a walk out by two Jet Airways executives and upset other suppliers, many of whom were there representing hoteliers and airlines.

Lianne Kelly-Maartens, marketing manager for Sun International in India, said it was the wrong audience for a reduced travel argument. She said she couldn’t believe her ears when he started to advocate reduced travel and more video conferencing (with its implied reduced role for hotels) as the way of the future.

“I am well aware of the need to embrace change for the sake of the environment but many people in the audience sponsored the keynote speakers’ attendance through their delegate fees,” said Kelly-Maartens. “It’s like the Rifle Association presenting at a gun control convention.”

Did I mention denial?

(Quick aside: Was it my imagination, or has it been reported that airlines are starting to create teleconference centers inside their major hubs as a nifty means of accommodating both travelers and telecommuters? I swear I’d heard that, but can’t find a reference. Anyone?)

It strikes me, as I told both the Asian and Alabaman audiences, that amid these challenges lie opportunities. The Alabama Gulf, fiercely competing with a host of Atlantic and other Gulf beach destinations, might create a competitive advantage by forming a regional commitment to green excellence. That would likely be appreciated by, among others, the growing Boomers population frequenting its towering condos. The region is well on its way, with impressive recycling, biodiesel, land use, and other initiatives already taking place. Such efforts might even help to create new markets for green weddings, business meetings, and other events they’re not yet attracting. Meanwhile, Pacific Rim countries, needing to attract Japanese, Australians, and North Americans to remain economically viable, have similar opportunities to compete among themselves to create more environmentally conscious hotels, exhibition halls, and the like, which these travel buyers have increasingly come to expect.

Of course, none of this may stave off the devastation some regions may face in spite of their greenest efforts, should nature wipe out their prime attractions, or should energy markets crimp long-distance travel. Even without an apocalypse, the industry could be in for a tough time.

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