After two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions the world seemed to be opening up. First hit Delta, then Omicron, but as some experts had predicted, the contagion cases went down and the number of people entering the ICU plummeted. Several countries began to ease some measures such as the use of the Covid Pass, the prior-to- arrival PCR test, and even the wearing of masks. Whatever a post-pandemic new start may mean, the world was getting ready for it. Until it didn’t.
On the 24th of February, Russian forces invaded Ukraine starting a conflict that put a stop to the hopes of world recovery. Flights are being diverted over Ukrainian airspace thus increasing the use of jet fuel and putting extra pressure on the already beleaguered commercial air industry. Oil and gas prices are soaring, and the level of economic and political uncertainty remains high as there are no concrete plans for peace in sight. For the past two years, many people had to postpone their travel plans and now find themselves wondering whether it would be wise to spend that money in a world where the economy might contract in the mid term. What happened to the bright outlook many had foreseen for 2022?
Jeremy Sampson is a globally recognized leader, facilitator, speaker and advocate working at the crossroads of tourism, community engagement, and conservation. He was instrumental in setting up the Future of Tourism Coalition in 2020, and currently serves as the Chair of this global movement representing 6 NGOs and nearly 650 signatories. He also serves on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Destination Stewardship Working Group and is Co-Chair of the Destinations Working Group for Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. He’s the CEO of nonprofit The Travel Foundation, where he leads a global team focused on unlocking systems change in the travel and tourism sector towards a more equitable and inclusive tourism economy that benefits communities and the environment.
With spring in sight, Jeremy speaks with Travel Tomorrow about the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war on travel and tourism, the way the world is changing after the pandemic, the current challenges in terms of accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals, Climate-Positive Tourism, and more.
What is being the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the travel and tourism industry?
The war in Ukraine is a tragedy unfolding before our eyes, and the whole travel industry is reeling from it. Apart from the appalling human cost which is unimaginable and has only just begun, the ramifications for tourism are huge. Once again, businesses are finding they must strengthen their resilience – finding new source markets, adapting their product mix, hedging their costs at a time of volatile currency and energy markets and other inflationary pressures, reassuring wary customers. And of course this comes straight off the bat of a pandemic, with so many businesses relying on 2022 to be their first profitable season in three years, to see them through. Just as we saw with the pandemic, certain destinations and communities will be hit much harder, and small, often family-run businesses that do not have easy access to credit, and find it hardest to pivot to new markets, will be the most exposed.
After two very difficult years for the tourism sector (layoffs, restructuring, state aid, etc.), is there room for talk of sustainability? How?
I understand the pressures that many businesses and destinations are under, and the urgency around the need to bring back customers, re-establish liquidity and rebuild workforces. However, it’s false to see this as a dichotomy between short-term priorities and the longer-term need for a more resilient, competitive and value-driven form of tourism.
In fact, we don’t tend to use the term “sustainability” – we find it can side-line the conversation as people automatically assume we are talking about eco-lodges or cutting down single-use plastic or similar. As worthy as those things are, the kind of sustainability the Travel Foundation espouses is more fundamental to how tourism operates and focuses on the key drivers of impact on communities – considering the needs of residents, managing the risks and burdens of tourism while optimising the benefits, and fostering genuine collaboration between companies, the public sector and other stakeholders.
We all know it is impossible to return to pre-pandemic business as usual. Tourism has had to adapt and needs to continue to innovate in response to risks associated with future pandemics, geo-political uncertainty, dwindling resources and, of course, climate change. But it is also undesirable to return to the old models of tourism which had intrinsic weaknesses, exposed by issues such as seasonality, economic leakage, overdependence and overconsumption which were becoming increasingly problematic. Change is therefore both necessary and welcome, and travellers are looking for better experiences as well. The most successful organisations will use this as an opportunity. In rebuilding our industry, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance tourism and our focus at the Travel Foundation will be to support that effort all the way.
Tourism accounts for around 8%-11% of global carbon emissions. Will the pandemic bring significant and permanent changes to the way we used to travel? If so, how? What, if any, societal changes have you noticed?
Following two years of lockdowns, testing regimes and restrictions, there’s growing evidence that people are still keen to travel and, more than ever, consumers appear to be choosing greener options and paying closer attention to their impact on the environment and local communities. There are many surveys and other data points that illustrate this. For example, a recent study from Expedia Group describes how tourists are now focussing on travelling for good, including visiting less crowded destinations to limit the effects of overtourism. And Google has reported it is already seeing changes in buying behaviour since providing carbon emissions data on Google Flights. A European Travel Commission report was more ambivalent, finding that travellers may be more likely to adopt practices such as buying local products and choosing locally owned restaurants, but were far less likely to adopt alternative, more sustainable modes of transport.
While overall customer demand for sustainability is certainly continuing to grow, the real driver for change is coming from organisations, responding to clear signals from shareholders, investors and voters, and reinforced by the evolving values of their staff. Listed corporations or those over a certain size are required to report on climate emissions and risks, and the public sector is also seeking to take action to meet net zero ambitions. Last year at COP26 we launched the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action with the UNWTO, UN Environment Programme, VisitScotland and others. This is the most significant initiative to tackle climate change across our industry, and almost 600 organisations (public, private and third sector) are already signed up. But we need everyone in tourism to be part of this, no matter where they are on their journey. This initiative will help signatories to create a practical plan of action and collaborate on complex challenges, while supporting the global target of halving emissions by 2030.
You serve as the Chair of the Future of Tourism Coalition. Could you tell us what the goals of the Coalition are? What has it accomplished so far?
The Future of Tourism Coalition was created during the first few months of the pandemic and brought together six NGOs (including the Travel Foundation) with a simple message that tourism needs to set a new path. At the time there was lots of talk about how we must #BuildBackBetter but that risked becoming an empty platitude without further effort to define ‘better” and purposefully do things differently to move towards it. Our aim was to provide a shared vision for what better actually means, with 13 Guiding Principles. Over 600 organisations have signed up to the principles which cover, for example, fair income distribution, sustainability standards, climate change mitigation and reducing tourism’s burden on destinations. Last year, the coalition ran a series of webinars on how to reset tourism which were incredibly well attended, and we created an online community which has brought together likeminded organisations. This year we are continuing our programme of events (watch out for our first in-person summit to be announced shortly!), as well as bringing together a range of resources that will support organisations to put community needs at the centre of tourism.
You do a lot of work with destinations through your efforts on climate action via the Glasgow Declaration, as well as helping DMOs shift their activities to focus more on long-term resilience. What are the main stumbling blocks in terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?e Coalition are? What has it accomplished so far?
The SDGs are a great way of aligning organisations and creating common purpose, but they don’t provide the specific, practical pathways needed to make progress. Working with destinations at the forefront of climate action has been hugely rewarding, but has also highlighted the many challenges ahead. For instance, there is no agreed methodology for measuring and reporting the carbon footprint, or indeed any other “invisible burden”, of the visitor economy. And more needs to be done to understand the conditions which are most conducive for new models of tourism, considering factors such as governance, finance, skillsets, and data. We believe a destination stewardship approach can deliver on tourism’s promise to be a force for good and to contribute to the SDGs, but that won’t happen unless we build the capacity of the sector, we innovate to find new solutions and new ways of working, and we collaborate like never before. The Travel Foundation exists to help make that happen.
The Travel Foundation aims to foster a more equitable and inclusive tourism economy that benefits communities and the environment. How is it doing so? What are the main obstacles?
Our approach is to build the capacity of both the public and private sectors to manage and develop tourism. We believe tourism needs a new model based on creating added value for a destination, which benefits everyone involved in the long-term, given destinations are everyone’s business.
So our work covers everything from advocating for change, to creating an enabling environment, building the know-how that is required through tools and training, and creating new solutions. This all has to take place across different levels, globally, nationally and at an organisational level, and with public, private and community involvement.
To achieve this, we have three areas of focus. The first is to encourage collaboration, particularly across the public and private sectors, building networks and offering structured facilitation towards common ground, ensuring community needs are represented. For instance, we are currently working with easyJet holidays in five destinations to identify the most significant issues facing each destination and to bring stakeholders together to tackle these. Secondly, we build know-how through training, knowledge resources and technical support. This is often a key element of our projects, where we are supporting businesses and destinations with particular challenges, for example providing training to tourism-facing SMEs in Jamaica and supporting the development of climate action plans for three destinations in Scotland. We also develop a range of training and knowledge resources for all tourism organisations which can be found in the resources hub on our website. Thirdly we offer innovation and thought leadership through pilot projects, through our research, such as our ground-breaking report ‘Destinations at Risk: the Invisible Burden of Tourism’ with Cornell University and Eplerwood International, and through our advocacy work.
The Travel Foundation promotes climate-positive tourism. Could you explain what the concept entails and how, in practical terms, it is being promoted?
Climate positive tourism is a long-term vision. It means going beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions from tourism to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon from the atmosphere and ensuring that tourism contributes positively towards the restoration of ecosystems. One of the five pathways of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism is “Regenerate” and that encompasses the positive potential of tourism to catalyse wider change in destinations. For example, that could mean stimulating demand for green energy and electric vehicle infrastructure that will help transition the wider economy towards decarbonisation, or providing an economic driver to protect and restore reefs, mangroves, forests and marshland. Tourism’s move towards becoming climate positive is an opportunity for a just transition, where the travel industry focuses its mitigation efforts on the biggest polluters for the most significant reductions, and directs global resources for climate adaptation towards the most vulnerable communities. It is also about tourism’s transformation more generally, shifting to a more equitable model that balances the needs of residents and businesses, and distributes benefits more fairly across the value chain, while managing and reducing its burden on destinations.
Could you share some details about your current projects such as the ones in Turkey and Cabo Verde?
In Turkey, we’re coming to the end of a three-year project funded by the TUI Care Foundation to improve livelihoods for small-scale food producers in the Muğla region by linking them to hotels. The area is famous for its honey, olives, citrus fruit and almonds. Traditional delicacies made from these ingredients, such as oils and jams, are now being bought by hotels. As tourism returns to the region, this project is helping to spread the benefits of tourism to inland areas, enabling farmers and producers to tap into hotel supply chains. We’ve helped 16 producer units representing over 100 farms to sell produce directly to 33 hotels. The project highlights the benefits for destinations and tourism businesses of enabling such linkages.
We are also currently delivering two further TUI Care Foundation projects: in Cyprus, where we’re cutting the consumption of single-use plastic; and in Jamaica, where we’re supporting small, tourism-facing businesses with challenges related to the pandemic, and are helping them to connect to the international tourism market.
We’ve recently grown our project portfolio significantly. We have new projects in Scotland where we’re working with VisitScotland and others on a package of COP26 legacy projects that will accelerate climate action within the sector. We have also recently begun projects to support destination stewardship approaches in Colorado, Vail and Port Aransas in the USA. The full list of our many and diverse projects is on our website, where you can also find case studies from our past projects, such as our work in Cabo Verde to establish a destination council and support its efforts to improve energy and water efficiency and to reduce the impacts of excursions on the environment.
What are the Travel Foundation’s main achievements up to this point? What are the main challenges ahead?
The Travel Foundation was set up in 2003 and since then we’ve helped to ensure tourism brings greater benefits for communities and protection for the environment, through projects in over 30 destinations, through cutting-edge research and through our advocacy work. I’m very proud of our track record, and the innovative and practical approach that our organisation brings to everything it does. It’s true that our approach has changed over the years, as the world has changed around us. Over the past two years, in response to the pandemic, we’ve directed our efforts towards supporting tourism recovery and encouraging collaboration across the tourism sector. Recent achievements include setting up the Future of Tourism Coalition alongside five other founding partners and launching the Glasgow Declaration as the most significant alignment of tourism organisations for Climate Action, which has now transitioned into a 10-year initiative which we are proud to be coordinating with our partners at UNWTO,
For us, as for many other charities and tourism organisations, these past two years have been deeply marked by the pandemic. It’s been a difficult time of rapid change and at times of great sadness, but also of resilience and of increased collaboration and the Travel Foundation has come through it with renewed purpose. Whilst there are many challenges ahead to create better tourism, I would suggest the biggest challenge is to change the mindset and mandate, away from the one-dimensional model which measures success solely by numbers of visitors and overall spend, towards an approach where the true value of tourism is recognised and developed. I am optimistic that we stand at the brink of a new era, with a unique opportunity ahead of us to shape a better future for destinations, communities and the environment while helping to address the major challenges of our time.