Travel and Tourism Events: How can the industry lead the way to reduce carbon emissions?

Travel and Tourism Events: How can the industry lead the way to reduce carbon emissions?

We are entering an exciting, yet unknown territory in the travel industry. We’ve talked a lot about sustainability over the years, but it’s time to break these conversations down into meaningful and manageable actions. 

The recently launched online platform Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency aims to house content and support tourism businesses, organisations and individuals who will acknowledge we are facing a climate emergency, as well as publicly sharing their plans towards meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, and driving accountability. 

Meteorologists tell us that last year was the 2nd hottest on record. We’ve witnessed unprecedented forest fires in Australia, California and parts of Europe (including the UK). Globally we face many challenges in trying to address these issues – Trump’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos confirmed his reluctance to acknowledge climate change, while other countries (including our own) lag behind on crucial climate change targets.

Anna Pollock, Conscious Travel, GSTC Conference 201, Azores

Taking these factors into consideration, my desire to know more about what the travel industry was doing to address this, heightened.  I wanted to research how we behave and do everyday business amongst ourselves on a deeper level. Surely this the first step, a quick win versus the lengthy debate on the ‘Sooty’ business of flying and cruising. Perhaps our pattern of thinking is in boxes as we convince ourselves we are committing to Best Practice for our customers, and therefore easier to switch blame on the big players, alleviating guilt or action, and as a result disengaging from the significance of our everyday impacts. Have we forgotten to take a step back and simply review the industry we work in by making positive changes to our behaviour, decisions and the way we transact business? 

When it comes to developing, marketing, selling and learning about travel and tourism, we’re faced with too many B-B choices – according to 10 Times there are 1115 upcoming Travel and Tourism events in the calendar for the next 12 months. As an industry, do we really need to travel half-way around the world to network at a conference? Are we, as an industry, suffering from conference FOMO? 

Over the years I’ve attended, participated and presented at numerous travel conferences, marketplace events, awards ceremonies, press and product trips, forums and workshops, all tempting us to do business in a way that is unkind to our precious environment. Looking back, I wonder how much more, and better work I could have delivered if I’d spent less time travelling – dealing with the draining effects of jetlag, changes in diet, uncomfortable flights and a variety of other stresses travel can put on us versus flying less and tuning into more live conferencing.  

Thankfully organisations such as Global Destination Sustainability Index  and standards such as ISO20121 exist to accelerate the sustainable development of destinations. Their goal is to improve and align their strategies with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and drive MICE Best Practice. However, the model is focused on business travel to cities and events like IMEX. Events with a heavier focus on the leisure market have little incentive to adopt Best Practice, besides their own drive to do the right thing by realising stakeholders are just as important as shareholders. 

As well as travel and tourism events there are 171 travel, tourism and transportation award ceremony events booked in for the next 12 months (500 if you include other industries such as journalism and PR). Do we really need this many to help us recognise achievements? I worry we spend so much time on the applications, travelling to and from and attending the events, we have less time to focus on the day to day operations of our businesses and Best Practice, not to mention the carbon footprint we and the events themselves create. I’m not suggesting we eradicate awards that inspire us to do better, but I do mind the sheer volume of them and the disregard to make better choices. Besides the free PR and a pat on the back, what do we really achieve and at what cost? Or are we just left with a hangover, wondering why we didn’t win? In the current climate change crisis, shouldn’t we be looking to end the ‘business as usual’ approach? 

Recently I attended the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Conference in the Azores.  During winter this requires four flights in total – LGW-LIS-TER-LIS-LGW – an overnight stay in Lisbon outbound and inbound, plus bus transfers. Using a Carbon Footprint Calculator I calculated the total sum of Co2 for flights alone was almost 1 tonne. I explored the option to take the train to Lisbon, reducing my flight carbon footprint by more than 50% and further by cutting out a two-night stay at the airport hotel.  Surprisingly, the trip can be done in less than 24 hours, leaving at 812am by Eurostar, changing in Paris and again in Hendaye to a sleeper train, and arriving 730am the following day. Perfect, I thought. How exciting and what an adventure. To my horror the return price was almost 500 euros and I still needed to buy return flights from Lisbon to Terceira. If only I had booked 4 months previously, then I could have taken an advantage of a cheaper and affordable fare. Reluctantly, rather than not attending, I opted for the four flights.

According to Trees for Life, four mature trees will offset one tonne of C02. However, this can change depending on the species you are planting, whether the tree is appropriate for the land in question, how will they be cared for, and how long it takes for the tree to mature. Crudely speaking this is 20 years, so although tree planting is a positive action, the offsetting will not be realised for a long time. Do we have time, given the emergency?

The GSTC stated that the carbon footprint of the event was offset through the delegate tree planting on the island of Terceira (photos attached), and the Best Practice carried out pre and during the event. 1200 trees were planted, so based on the above theory the event off-set was 300 tons of Co2 – an impressive result. Around 230 delegates were registered, 71 were from the Azores however, many had to fly from Sao Miguel to Terceira Island and back, and then there were 162 delegates travelling from Europe, USA, Australasia, Asia, Indian Ocean and the Middle East. Combined, our combined Co2 emissions were huge, but at least the event considered our impact and tried to mitigate it. I call for more research on the criteria for planting trees, so we fully understand if our actions are effective at reducing emissions. 

A close up of a hillside

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We also saw Best Practice in action at the GSTC conference itself. Badges were made using recyclable paper and there was no single-use plastic to be seen. The default meal option was vegetarian, with no lamb and beef served (known for having a higher carbon-footprint). That said, I was frustrated to see some of the delegate hotels unfamiliar with Best Practice. Furthermore, buses were offered to able bodied delegates to attend lunches and dinners, when the venues were just 10 mins walk away. Studies have shown there are mental and physical benefits for human connection to the people and places we visit, and this shouldn’t exclude attending events and conferences. Encouraging walking and a connection with nature at such events is therefore Best Practice. 

Given the enormous challenges we face it’s hard to know where to focus our efforts, especially when the leisure market has been historically built on relationships and human connection.  That said we are experiencing unprecedented times, so can we rise to the challenge and adapt to change? If a tourism board were to review their RFP’s this could result in an immediate reduction in carbon emissions on a large scale.  It’s also a valuable destination PR story and shows thought leadership on the issue of climate change. My hope is that we begin to ask our peers and line-managers more difficult yet necessary questions on this topic to drive action.  Our reputation and a sustained travel industry depend on it.

Trudi Pearce
Trudi Pearce
Trudi Pearce is Founder and CEO of Responsible Tourism Consulting. RTC’s vision is to support and inspire the travel industry to adopt best practice with achievable goals, across the breadth of sustainability.

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