Examples of Impactful Climate Action by Tourism Businesses and Destinations
The climate crisis poses an existential threat to the concept of travel itself. Healthy ecosystems and thriving communities are what make travel experiences in destinations possible. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more and more prominent in various parts of the world, the urgent need for strong and decisive climate action is increasingly clear.
Can tourism become part of the solution to the climate crisis? Considering tourism is both contributing to and affected by the climate crisis, the right question now is not whether tourism can, but how it should.
The reality is, tourism needed decisive climate action decades ago. A number of tourism businesses and destinations have already been impacted by climate-related disasters, and changing climate conditions are threatening traveler activities and experiences - from wineries to ski slopes, from island destinations to mountain resorts.
Fortunately, our industry does have inspiring examples of climate leadership. In this panel, we are sharing positive local and global examples of how industry stakeholders from around the world have implemented climate action, demonstrating we ARE part of the solution.
What are some of the examples of impactful climate action in tourism you've seen or been involved in?
A Village on a Mission to Become a Regenerative Tourism Destination
One of the finest examples of climate action and creating a nature based tourism product is the initiative Astrostays. Astrostays is the world's first community based Astro-tourism initiative that was started in the Village of Maan located at the banks of the beautiful Pangong Lake (14000ft), Ladakh, India.
Astrostays started in 2019, when local youth from the Village of Maan were trained on the basics of astronomy, star gazing and handling telescopes by a team of Astronomers from Astrostays and the Office for Astronomy for Development (OAD), a signature program of - International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Before 2019, the village Maan had no grid based electricity. Based on the request of the villagers, Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) brought solar power to every household of the village. Once they were solar powered, the villagers then upgraded their own homes into homestays to host travelers during the summer season, as an additional step towards transforming the village into a regenerative tourism destination.
Some of the homestays were then integrated into the Astrostays program as they started to provide star gazing experiences to visitors once the telescope was set up in the village, and the local youth were trained to present about the night skies to visitors.
Now every night the trained locals from the community take turns offering stargazing experiences and astronomy sessions for the incoming tourists during the season.
The proceeds from the star gazing session are reinvested into the village to set up green houses and solar water heaters that showcase their models of low carbon living and an eco-friendly and sustainable destination management approach. The village is solar powered, the experiences are nature based and the infrastructure is low carbon (all 8 operational homestays are solar powered, additionally other households are maintaining a total of 15 greenhouses for self-producing food and 20 solar water heaters).
I believe when we talk about climate action we need not only to demonstrate it but also make it sustainable and make it part of the overall ecosystem, which the communities value and preserve. For the travelers, it is important that they too embrace the efforts that have been put to make their stay more climate positive for the overall ecosystem of the region.
New Zealand Tourism Businesses Commit to Steps Towards Zero Carbon
Many tourism operators in New Zealand have been utilising their business as a means to do good for a long time, but the arrival of COVID has given businesses the impetus to be even more focussed on building back better.
The NZ Tourism Sustainability Commitment was first developed in 2017. It takes a very holistic approach to sustainability, including environmental, community, visitor and economic sustainability. It has been signed by 1600 individual businesses, but the focus now needs to be on turning these good intentions into actions.
At Tourism Industry Aotearoa, we ran a pilot project with 12 operators in Wellington to support them to make real changes within their business. The results were inspiring with every single business making significant positive changes including reducing their waste, reviewing their supply chain and engaging more with their local community. One example is Craft Beer Tours NZ who now ensure any food scraps from their tours go to local pigs. They have begun supporting charities for cancer patients and measuring and reducing their carbon footprint – that’s not a bad effort for one small company in the midst of a pandemic!
Over 20 tourism operators in the Nelson Tasman region, near the top of the South Island, have gone through the process of measuring, reducing and offsetting their carbon footprint to achieve zero carbon certification. In the group there is a range of outdoor activities, accommodation providers and restaurants who are now working together. The regional tourism office has created a fund to offset the travel required for visitors to travel to and around the region, in order to create fully zero carbon itineraries. These businesses are working towards eliminating waste (e.g. ensuring there is no plastic packaging in picnic lunches they provide) and reducing their energy usage as well as supporting local organisations focussed on pest eradication and increasing biodiversity. Each business doing this individually has a small impact, but together they have built a supportive community and send a strong message that this is a proactive region that cares.
My key observation though this work is that big improvements are made through lots of small steps. Climate action gains momentum when you have a group of people working towards a similar goal – which in turn inspires more to join. It's just important to make a start.
Marine conservation, climate action and tourism
The marine environment encompasses two-thirds of the Earth's surface. From the mudflats to the open ocean, it has provided protection, source of livelihood, and recreation for a significant portion of the world's population. But there's another reason to protect the marine environment—they're crucial to climate action. Did you know that mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes can store up to 10 times more carbon than tropical rainforests1? You might start calling ocean giants like whales our climate heroes if you find out that they help provide up to 50% of our oxygen and accumulate carbon in their bodies2.
Tourism can be a valuable tool to conserve our natural resources. Destinations play a vital role in protecting vulnerable marine species and habitats while fostering a culture of stewardship among the local communities. Here are two great examples:
- A mangrove forest gives back: In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, decimated numerous towns and claimed many lives in the Philippines. It was one of the most catastrophic disasters ever to hit the country and brought attention to responding to the climate emergency. But residents of Silonay, a small town in Oriental Mindoro, Philippines, realized they owed their lives to their mangrove forest. Efforts since 2009 led to the protection of the 42-hectare mangrove forest now known as Silonay Mangrove Conservation and Ecotourism Park3, managed by a people's organization, and led by local officials and a growing number of community volunteers. Over a decade later and more super typhoons since Haiyan, the mangrove forest continues to stand strong, protecting the people of Silonay.
- Whale Heritage Sites: The Whale Heritage Site program is an initiative by the World Cetacean Alliance in partnership with World Animal Protection that recognizes outstanding places where people are able to work collaboratively within their communities to make and enforce decisions that will benefit cetaceans and their habitats in the long term. For the travel industry, Whale Heritage Sites provide a clear marker to help identify and support sustainable practices and create a platform for communities to engage with marine culture, heritage and biodiversity. Since the program's inception in 2019, the program has been elevating marine wildlife conservation in highlighting a community's relationship with the animals resulting in stronger positive conservation attitudes.
1 Keys to successful blue carbon projects: Lessons learned from global case studies
2 Whales as marine ecosystem engineers
3 The Conservation Agreement as an Ecosystem-based Adaptation Strategy to Address Climate Change in Silonay, Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, Philippines
Impactful Carbon Offsetting Initiatives Across the Tourism Value Chain
Sustainable Travel International has been advocating climate action for nearly two decades, working with destinations, businesses and travelers to mitigate tourism’s impact on our planet. I am constantly learning about impactful projects out there, and I believe that done right, carbon offsetting is one of the ways we can take climate action.
With the collective action of destinations, businesses and individuals we are able to support projects around the world that depend on climate financing. Just last month, we offset 2000 metric tons of CO2 with the Trocano Amazon Rainforest project. The Trocano Project’s main objectives are the protection of 1.3 million hectares of rainforest that is at risk of deforestation. The project sequesters carbon, conserves biodiversity and provides clean drinking water to local communities in the area.
Below are three examples of impactful climate action I’ve been involved with, all incorporating effective offsetting approaches
- Destination: In 2020, I began working with the team at Sustainable Travel International to create a carbon calculator for visitors to Palau to measure and offset the carbon footprint of their trip in an effort to make Palau, the world’s first carbon neutral tourism destination. Through the project, I surveyed tour operators, accommodations, and restaurants in Palau to actually understand the carbon footprint that is associated with visitors. We also held a workshop for local food producers to better understand the challenges they face in creating and marketing food products to meet visitor demand. As a result of the project, we learned that visitors’ footprints to island nations like Palau are predominantly long-haul flights, which could also be high-spend visitors that support local businesses. We also learned that the CO2 footprint of food, although quite small in terms of an entire trip, is still important to consider when we see islands like Palau import as much as 95% of their food.
- Business: Through working with businesses, I have seen an influx of travel companies who want to make their trips carbon neutral and corporations wanting to offset their employee flights. Our partners like Indagare and Rock-It Global are already implementing carbon offset solutions, others like Geographic Expeditions and Travel Beyond have pledged to implement them this year. As travel ramps up again, we aim to offer businesses simple, affordable solutions to kickstart their carbon neutral journey.
- Individual: In the past few months our team has also updated our online carbon calculator for travelers to measure and offset the footprint of their flight, vehicle and boat travel. Our calculator is unique in that you can even calculate the footprint of private charters, cruises, yachts and liveaboards. For example, a 2-week dive trip on a liveaboard in the Maldives has a footprint of 9.8 metric tons of CO2.
From Beer to Seaweed: Climate Solutions by Oregon Coast Local Businesses
The Oregon Coast Visitors Association (OCVA) is the regional destination management organization for the entire Oregon Coast as designated by the Oregon Tourism Commission. We serve the interests of visitors, residents and local businesses; those who live, work and play in our rugged natural and cultural coastal landscapes. Climate change has been impacting this special region for decades and although it is one of the greatest threats to the tourism industry, we also see it as an incredible opportunity to reimagine what responsible visitation can look like in our destination.
In 2021 OCVA officially joined Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an international community of tourism organizations that are taking responsibility for tourism’s contributions to climate change while also working together to find climate action solutions. This community has continued to create waves of impacts as was seen during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) when tourism’s Glasgow Declaration was officially launched. This level of collaboration, strategic thinking and industry alignment is one of the greatest climate action initiatives we have seen so far.
We have spent the majority of our efforts on creating a climate action plan that should be finalized in the spring of 2022. While we have been crafting this plan we have continued collaborating with stakeholders in our region, especially on the topic of local food. We received a $735,200 federal grant to support local seafood producers, processors and distributors on the Oregon Coast. Upcoming investments will keep local seafood in our restaurants, support authentic culinary experiences for visitors, provide accessible products for locals and reduce our seafood’s carbon footprint.
This process has made us hyper-aware of climate-friendly business initiatives that have quietly been underway in our region. For example, Buoy Beer Brewing in Astoria announced last year that they purchased equipment to capture and clean their own carbon emissions from brewing operations. WildSpring Guest Habitat in Port Orford built their business with sustainability as a priority. They reduced their energy footprint as much as possible and offset the remaining carbon emissions to achieve a zero footprint. Oregon Seaweed located in Garibaldi and Bandon produces dulse seaweed, which is carbon-negative: for every four-pounds of seaweed grown, one-pound of carbon is sequestered. They have been working with local restaurants and communities to make this a familiar product to locals and visitors. We strongly believe our region and industry can make a difference in climate action.
Making Time for Climate Action: Tourism’s People-Powered Climate Movement
The world’s major tourism players coming together to announce the Glasgow Declaration at the COP26 conference last year signaled that “the real momentum is there” for climate action in tourism. The significance of industry giants, major businesses and destinations agreeing to prioritize climate action cannot be overstated, and the Glasgow Declaration has created an unprecedented opportunity to elevate the climate discussion across the global tourism industry.
But the story of how such a momentum had been built, leading up to COP26, is perhaps less known, but just as meaningful and worth sharing. So my example is the volunteer team behind Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. The team represents the truly people-powered nature of this movement, and I’m proud to count myself a member.
Tourism Declares was initially started by a small group of concerned industry professionals. Despite the difficulties and roadblocks thrown at us by the pandemic, and despite being a completely volunteer-led effort, Tourism Declares successfully became - after many months of discussions, brainstorming, meetings and outreach calls - the largest network of tourism organizations and professionals dedicated to climate action.
We all contributed differently, using our contacts, talents and skills to help build the movement. And perhaps most importantly, we gave our time. Some of us carved out time in our work-from-home schedules, balancing work and home duties with our passion for climate action. Some organizations made it possible for their employees to contribute their working hours to share their knowledge and lead discussions as part of the Tourism Declares network.
The fact that the Tourism Declares team has remained committed to make time for climate action - throughout what has arguably been the worst period in the history of tourism - is a testament to the strength of this movement. And in doing so, we learned that working together is the only way we can create a meaningful change.
Although our industry still has a long way to go to become climate positive, we know what we need to do: work together to promote and scale climate actions. Built on the foundation of the movement created by Tourism Declares, the momentum is there; and now it's up to all of us in the industry to maintain and grow that momentum.
The Glasgow Declaration: a commitment to a decade of climate action in tourism
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26 (Glasgow, November 2021), UNWTO launched the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism with the aim of building a consistent approach that will accelerate climate action in tourism. The Declaration was drafted following a participatory approach, which involved UNEP, UNFCCC, the Travel Foundation, Tourism Declares, Visit Scotland and many tourism stakeholders. At the launch, the Declaration counted on 300 partners. Since then, organizations have continued to sign and momentum has continued to build. To date, more than 500 organizations have signed the Glasgow Declaration including destinations, tourism associations, as well as both large businesses and SMEs (mainly tour operators and accommodation providers).
As the Declaration is a voluntary commitment that goes beyond a pledge, we are working with The Travel Foundation and Tourism Declares to develop supporting mechanisms. These will help guide and accompany stakeholders in the delivery of their commitments. Signatories commit to deliver climate action plans within 12 months of signing (or to update existing plans). Therefore, among the priorities for 2022, is providing templates and guidance for stakeholders to define plans that are aligned with the proposed pathways: measure, decarbonize, regenerate, collaborate, finance. Working groups to support this development are being set up and a repository of curated tools and resources has already been established. Signatories are also requested to report on the progress they have achieved in implementing their plans on an annual basis. As such, a reporting mechanism will also be developed in a participatory manner within the framework of the One Planet network.
We are convinced that approaching complex issues from a collaborative perspective, including for instance measurement at the destination level and measurement of Scope 3, is the right approach, regardless of whether an organization is starting their journey or ready to share lessons learned and best practice. We look forward to welcoming additional organizations as signatories committed to support the global goal of halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 at the latest.
Key Global Developments Driving Tourism’s Decade of Climate Action
The Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, building on the work of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency and which we are implementing in collaboration with UNWTO, has already brought together more than 500 public and private sector organisations. These signatories are united by their commitment to support halving emissions by 2030 and reaching Net Zero by 2050, but they are at very different stages in their climate action journey.
Those who are further ahead are now sharing their experiences. So we’ve heard from tour operators such as Intrepid Travel about trailblazing to first reach net zero and then embrace verified science-based targets, from destinations such as Norway which is seeking to change its visitor profile to retain the benefits of tourism while reducing carbon footprint, and from hotel brands such as Accor, which has reduced its food waste and invested in low carbon building and renovation projects.
However, even for those who are leading the way, there is undoubtedly still much to do and learn. For instance, VisitScotland has been at the vanguard of climate action in tourism, being the first destination organisation to declare a Climate Emergency and then joining the drafting committee for the Glasgow Declaration in the run-up to COP26. VisitScotland is now undertaking a series of pilot projects with The Travel Foundation to determine how destinations can take their first steps (and build on any actions already taken) towards net zero.
VisitScotland, The Travel Foundation and The Travel Corporation are now working to explore how to manage “scope 3” emissions at a destination level and take collaborative action with destination stakeholders. These pilots are breaking new ground, and the lessons and solutions developed will support global efforts, through the Glasgow Declaration initiative, to help travel and tourism organisations plan a pathway towards net zero.
The Glasgow Declaration will continue to develop and build the capacity of the sector over the course of this decade, drawing on the best practice that exists and encouraging innovation, collaboration and investment in climate solutions. So “watch this space” for more examples of impactful climate action!