Tourist Industry: Global Warming Luddites

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A first page story in the Financial Times, “Tourism chiefs face guilt trip on green issues,” demonstrates that much of the tourism industry is in the deer-in-the-headlights phase regarding climate change. They can’t believe that environmental concerns, and the changing consumer attitudes that go with it, are bearing down on them.

Consider that, as reported in Vanity Fair, Prince Charles, an environmental advocate long before it was fashionable, flew coach (as opposed to the greater-carbon-using first class) to New York and cancelled a family holiday trip to Europe to adhere to his tough stand on global warming.

Now, to change metaphors, some members of the travel industry have decided to get on the train rather than be under the train. Barry Sternlicht of Starwood Hotels is starting the “1” Hotels, “the first luxury, eco-friendly global hotel brand.” The National Resources Defense Council is its environmental advisor, and will presumably hold the group to a high standard.

But the FT shows that this sort of thinking is in the minority. Much like the tobacco industry trying to forestall the growing recognition that smoking is bad for you, the tourist industry execs seem preoccupied with preserving status quo ante rather than doing their part to reduce carbon emissions:

The tourism industry has never had it so good but its senior executives are feeling strangely guilty about their success and fearful of a green backlash.

The industry is expected to expand by 4.3 per cent a year over the next decade and managers are fretting over climate change. They worry that flying is seen as the most polluting activity and are falling over themselves to champion schemes that allow the travelling public to go on clocking up air miles.

“There is a real conundrum with how we grow in a way we feel good about,” said Andrew Cosslett, the chief executive of InterContinental Hotels Group. “We need to find ways of making people feel very good about how they feel about these things.”….

Some wanted to rally governments to provide the infrastructure to meet the demand of the emerging middle classes of China, India and Mexico, who are readying themselves for global travel.

Others were worried about fuel prices, security, visa problems, technological innovation and the armies of hospitality staff needed to cope with demand which, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, will this year generate about $7bn of economic activity.

But no one could escape the dark shadow of climate change, even though they wished it. “We look at climate change as an image issue,” said Armin Meier, chief executive of Kuoni Travel, the luxury tour operator.

Maurice Flanagan, vice-chairman of Emirates Airline, was quite happy to share his trenchant view that global warming was “an argument”.

He said he was taken aback at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year at the way that airlines were being “demonised as the cause of all this”.

Mr Flanagan said more worrying than the apparent threat to the planet was the real threat to the existence of low-cost carriers such as EasyJet and Ryanair.

“If extremists get their way, thousands and thousands of jobs in travel and tourism will be lost.”

EasyJet itself was more philosophical. “The debate is over,” said Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, its founder. Airlines had to replace their fleets with modern fuel-efficient engines, he said, “But the replacement process is slow.”

Airlines, hotels and othersectors in the industry will in the next couple of weeks pool resources in a public campaign in the UK to demonstrate that they are taking climate change seriously.

They have given up trying to argue the technical niceties of aviation’s contribution to carbon emissions. Whether it is 2, 3 or 5 per cent, aviation has to do something, they have concluded.

For all the talk, practical meaningful solutions were little in evidence. It fell to James Russell of the Clinton Global Initiative to tell the industry what was expected of it.

“Don’t be an Exxon,” he told the airlines, “Work out what you can do to drive down energy consumption. Travel agents should push hotels for carbon disclosure.”

He added: “The message to chief executives is that perceptions are changing and you’ve got between 12 and 24 months to get on that route.”

Exactly how much and for how long is arguable. “It’s flavour of the month,” said Charles Petruccelli, the president of global travel services at American Express. “The problem will realise its way beyond the industry soon.”

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