In Part 1 of this theme, we made a case for using the recent slowdown in long-haul travel to explore how to tackle visitor travel emissions. In Part 2, we explored the imperative for low carbon travel, industry targets, what low carbon travel might look like, and the initial steps for communities wishing to play a leading role. In this third and final segment, we explore the difficulty of managing the elephant in the room of travel emissions and how tourism communities can: build on the initial steps identified in part 2 of admitting the problem, set ambitious targets, and create a bright vision of the future.

Travel to destinations represents 72% of all tourism related emissions, and these emissions are expected to increase. Represented by IATA (International Air Transport Association), the airline industry recognizes that just over half of those travel emissions are from air travel. IATA has set pillars to reduce these emissions by: improving fuel efficiency, capping future emissions after 2020, and reducing 2005 emission levels by 50% by 2050 with biofuels.[1]  These are ambitious targets, and while the technical pathways for these solutions exist, the airline industry may be overly optimistic[2] and likely far behind the car industry in employing the low carbon energy approaches needed to meet the significant year-over-year progress required to meet the 2030 1.5C target. Additionally, the airline offsetting program aligned with capping future emissions is estimated to be delayed three to five years due to relaxations related to COVID.[3] As if those issues weren’t enough, the travel industry growth scenarios for air travel are totally removed from influential climate plan proposals to achieve the low-carbon transition required to get to 1.5C.[4] For example, the International Energy Agency scenario plan to 2030 includes reducing flying emissions by 60% from eliminating flights of less than one hour and reducing numbers of long-haul and business flights by 75%.

This is why air travel emissions are the elephant in the room.

The difficulty faced by the airline industry to deal with the issue of rising emissions and the urgent need to reduce emissions most likely means that federal government regulations and/or market instruments designed to reduce travel demand are going to be introduced.  And, destination marketing organizations (DMO) and tourism communities will have little say about how or when air travel is impacted. Despite this lack of control, DMOs and tourism communities need to prepare for this inevitability. Communities that prepare for a reduction in air travel will display leadership in climate action and be poised for a more resilient future.

For a destination that uses a typical volume growth model based on air travel to transition to a low carbon future while remaining robust and profitable, Stefan Gossling[5] suggests a three-part solution comprised of: 1) adding value; 2) lowering carbon and; 3) reducing leakage. This three-part solution is meant to work toward the goal of reducing tourism emissions per unit of tourism value created, essentially creating high value, low-carbon, economically resilient tourism.

High value tourism might include attracting more profitable visitors who spend more or those who tend to travel during a shoulder season. Offering additional opportunities for spending through new activities or unique experiences can also help. Another less obvious form of value-added for the destination might include a duty fee or levy on air travel or other forms of high carbon travel. This additional fee may trim excess growth and or entice visitors to stay a bit longer to benefit from their higher priced travel.

Low-carbon destinations might include attracting more proximal markets and de-marketing long haul visitors by building off the COVID-19 travel trend. With reductions in air travel through regulation or carbon pricing making flying more expensive, communities may do well to focus on more regional markets, with mass transit or electric travel.  Reducing carbon from travel also includes turning around the trend of shorter stays, and growing room nights with no increase in the number of visitor trips. Within the destination DMOs can work with the industry to reduce energy use and shift to renewable forms of energy, while promoting low-carbon activities.

Finally, and perhaps one of the most interesting approaches from our perspective, is creating economically resilient tourism by capturing spending or reducing spending leakage.  This approach is especially important for communities concerned that regional travelers , at least until the community is seen as a multiday destination, may not spend as much as a long-haul traveller. One obvious way to capture spending and derive more value is to focus visitor and tourism business purchasing on local businesses that in turn purchase from local suppliers and so on. Buying local, again and again and again, keeps dollars circulating locally, and benefits the community again and again.  In fact, the local impact can be 4.5 times greater[6] when purchasing is done at local businesses.

Some other major areas of spending leakage requiring collaborative solutions include:

  • The online economy for accommodation booking or other spending that often means commissions, and taxes. don’t even flow through the community.
  • Transaction fees paid to credit card companies, which can be significant.
  • Franchises owned by foreign companies that require the local franchisee to buy from the company supply chain with sources outside of the community or immediate region.

In closing out this series on the elephant in the room, the world is quickly waking up from a year and a half of limited long-haul travel, and governments are shifting their focus to the climate emergency.  Yet, many people are eager to fly across the world with airlines that are unable to put together an urgent approach to reducing emissions. This situation means that the rest of the tourism industry will have to reduce emissions and respond to the inevitable government policies to reduce demand for flying. Fortunately, not all who remained stuck in their region for at least a year due to the pandemic want to travel abroad. People continue to be worried about health implications of long-haul travel and even more have discovered the gems that exist in their own backyard region. The DMOs and communities that do step up to lead will do right by appealing to these regional travelers and in doing so they will prepare their regions to thrive in a future of low carbon travel.




[4] Sustainable Tourism and the Grand Challenge of Climate Change, Daniel Scott, 2020.



Image credit: © Alexandr Kuzmin |