Responsible tourism is changing

By Justin Francis, Responsible Travel CEO

Electric-powered airplanes

Several decades ago the pioneers and early adopters of responsible tourism got busy, mostly motivated by a love of local people and wildlife. The desire was to run a good business and do what could be done to support local people and conservation.

Since then great efforts have been made to encourage more in the tourism industry, and destinations, to adopt the principles of responsible tourism. Progress has been made in many, many ways across many types of tourism and destinations. Where we are now is unrecognisable to when I started in this industry 20 years ago.

However, nobody I know think it's been rapid or is enough.

Why has progress been hard?
It's occurs to me that there are two key reasons why change has been slower than it might. Also that this is about to change, for reasons I'll come to.

The first issue lies with a fault line at the heart of our concept that we are all very aware of. Everyone who has been an advocate of responsible tourism for international clients will have been asked the same question many times: "how can it be responsible if you have to fly to get there?"

Many environmentalists have argued that the impacts of global warming that result from flying are far worse than any benefits responsible tourism brings. In short, that 'responsible travel is a myth'. They have also argued that there 'will be no techno fix' to this problem or alternative to the use of kerosene fuelled jet planes. This left us in a unique dilemma. Unlike other industries who could work towards a more sustainable future, where we were there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

This was very damaging to our legitimacy; some might say reasonably so. If you've ever wondered why the biggest environmental NGOs don't engage with responsible tourism, or that there is limited donor funding, it's because of this concern.

This fault line has also made it far harder to build brands around responsible holidays requiring an international flight. Consumers, too, have been sceptical about whether international tourism can be described as responsible.

The second issue
While many of us have been arguing that local people often suffer from irresponsible tourism, we've struggled to raise awareness and understanding of this issue amongst tourists or in the mainstream press. It's felt like we've been shouting into the dark and nobody has been listening. This too has been limiting. Why would anyone be keen to support responsible tourism if they are not aware there are any negative consequences of tourism?

Has anything changed?
I think both the issues that have held back progress are now changing. First, it's now clear that we will have electric planes within the next 20 years. The first are already flying, and easyJet believes some of their short haul flights will be electrically powered within a decade.

Of course we shouldn't underestimate the challenges faced by electric flight, or concerns that it needs to happen much faster, but this is a game changer for responsible tourism. It means that we can realistically hold a vision of a truly sustainable international holiday. It also means that we've got something to push for: more investment and quicker adoption of electric planes.

Second, local people have taken to the streets to protest against the impacts of uncontrolled mass tourism this summer, and this has been major news. Dubbed 'over tourism' this became a big story in mainstream media across the world.

It's really the first time that irresponsible tourism has captured the media and public's attention in a major way. Next year I'm afraid it will be worse because so little thought has really gone into addressing these issues over the past 20 years, and tourist numbers will grow further.

What does all this mean?
I'd be interested in your thoughts on this but my feeling is that things will get worse before they get better: there will be faster growth in carbon-emitting planes with existing jet fuels, and greater issues globally with over tourism. However, I also think that there will be a much greater focus on responsible tourism - and a future with clean, electric aviation - than ever before.

Responsible tourism is less flawed as a concept than in the past. I believe that with the introduction of electric planes, responsible tourism will deserve, and will get, far greater recognition and support than ever before.

Businesses and governments increasingly feel vulnerable around unsustainable tourism and will be looking for solutions. As a result of the media coverage of overtourism, I think tourists too will start to understand many of the things that you and we do, better than ever before.

Small as we are, and big as the issues are to overcome, I hope that our voices and ideas will get an even greater hearing in the future.

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