Can a resurgent travel industry mitigate climate deterioration?

Global travel routes are busy once again as the restrictions of the epidemic era fade and destinations welcome travelers again. Tourism’s resurgence is in full swing, but another fact is that tourism accounts for about 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, and travel-related activities, from air transportation, to accommodations, to souvenirs, leave an indelible carbon footprint in every corner of the world.
As this $9 trillion industry spins its wheels once again, is it on its way to a sustainable future?” Everywhere I look, I see some positive progress, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, no one can afford to slack off, and all forms of travel must become more sustainable because the world can’t afford to wait.” In our conversation with Mr. Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC ), he said this.

“Sustainability” fever has long since spread to the travel industry, and as people in the industry warm up to the topic of sustainability, public companies and startups are locking in new growth anchors in this area, cautions Dr. Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC): “When we talk about sustainable tourism, it’s more important to think of it as a path or journey to a more sustainable form of tourism than to use it as a type of tourism or a term.” He argues that sustainable tourism is not just about nature or one aspect of sustainability, but that all forms of travel and tourism must become more sustainable, and that “there is a lot of work to be done by everyone and a lot of improvements that need to be made.”

As early as 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) jointly defined the concept of “sustainable tourism”, which goes beyond purely environmental issues to include social issues, cultural heritage and cultural promotion, and governance, thus pointing to the right path for the industry. More than a decade on, tourism has yet to overcome the high carbon crisis, over-tourism and other problems, but the New Crown epidemic was a clear turning point, when in a few short months a world industry worth $9 trillion, or more than 10% of global GDP, came to a standstill, and while the epidemic brought the industry to its knees, it also provided a unique opportunity: for the first time, the wheels stopped spinning, and change was accelerated.
GSTC was very busy and grew substantially during the epidemic, and in Durband’s view, the pause actually provided an opportunity to reset the tourism industry: “When the world stopped traveling and touring, we actually achieved growth because many governments around the world used the quiet pause of the Covid-19 period to do more planning and development. Large brands also focused more on risk management.”
The “pandemic effect” has also changed the mindset of consumers, with 83 percent of global travelers believing that sustainable travel is essential, and 61 percent actively turning their sustainable preferences into real actions, according to, a global online hotel booking site. In recent years, more travel services labeled as “sustainable” have been screened to echo this demand trend, and “we’ve seen good progress in this area over the past few years. For example, Skyscanner, a UK-based company, when you search for a flight on their website you’ll see a little marker on the page that tells you that this flight has a 13% lower carbon footprint than another one, and they’re working very hard to provide that information,” Durband explains. Durband explains.

While these references are not 100% accurate, as changes in aircraft type, weather, and changes in flight routes can never be predicted in advance, they are a great tool to have a generalized calculation based on the duration of the flight and the type of aircraft. On the accommodation side, and Google Travel also offer visual “sustainability badges”. “We’ve been working with on this program for six or seven years now, and it’s all relatively new, and it’s really only become popular on a global and public level in the last year or two, so it’s not very well known yet, but it’s still something to look forward to,” Durband says. Durband said.
Sustainable travel experiences are not a “value-added service” supported by effective management, technology and policy tools. “Sustainable travel doesn’t mean higher costs,” Durband emphasized. Durband emphasized, citing the all-too-common example of hotel restaurants that have made great strides in reducing food waste by serving breakfast buffets that can be more accurately managed through simple techniques such as weighing the amount of food at the beginning and end of the meal. “This kind of management is an opportunity to really understand: how much food do I need to put out? Businesses can benefit from this immediately, and it’s a very simple management technique, even though many businesses aren’t even really aware of some of these no-cost management techniques.”
On a broader scale, policy tools can play a powerful cost-cutting role in the sustainable transformation of tourism, with some governments subsidizing related measures, “The Singapore model is interesting. They are setting national targets and subsidizing hotels to get certified under our certification system.” Durband explains that countries like Costa Rica and Central America have adopted incentives: when tourism companies reach a certain level in the national certification program, they can take advantage of discounts on national promotions, and Turkey has also been working closely with the GSTC for the last two years, with the country’s central government setting segmented targets that stipulate that by the end of 2024, hotels across the country must comply with 14 out of 42 GSTC standards, and that by the end of the year, hotels will be able to comply with the GSTC standards. 14 of the GSTC standards by the end of 2024, with all hotels in the country certified as GSTC sustainable hotels by 2030, a move at scale that has led to a significant reduction in the cost of certification, “The fact is that we can do a lot more without a huge financial investment, and there are all sorts of mechanisms available for creative implementation, whereas before there may have been some misconceptions and assumptions about this. ” Durband said.
As an industry about global mobility, transportation is an integral part of the tourism industry and also accounts for a significant percentage of carbon emissions across the board, with aviation bearing the brunt of this. Here’s a staggering statistic: with millions of flights taking place globally each year, the global aviation industry emits around 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. On why aviation has been put in the limelight, Durband observes, “On the one hand, aviation is more ‘visible’ than other industries – how many of us actually pass by a petrochemical plant? Yet we use, see and feel flight services, and this guilt created by relating to ourselves can lead to additional criticism of the airline industry.” Based on this, the entire tourism industry must pay attention to the aviation industry because of its greater visibility and the greater challenges it faces in shifting to cleaner energy sources compared to land vs. sea transportation.
“Air transportation is really the weak link in carbon control in the tourism industry, and in this area, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is an important solution.” Durband explains that according to the International Air Transport Association, SAF allows for reductions in CO2 emissions of up to 80% throughout the entire life cycle, and that there are currently different solutions in the field of creating SAFs, and that the real challenge lies in the fact that a lot of testing needs to be carried out on different types of SAFs in order to determine which option is viable, with some airlines, such as JAL, and United Airlines, for example, Lufthansa are very focused on this, “but we need more airlines to accelerate their involvement, to work together non-competitively on this issue, to work as a community to test different aviation fuel types before we can push for real scale production, otherwise it’s all very expensive.” Durband said.
In terms of the energy transition, land transportation is rapidly moving in the right direction, with mature technology and falling unit costs, which is a good model for aviation, Durband mentioned, “We have clean energy vehicles on land and their production scale is surging globally, including in Europe, North America and China, and we also have hybrid vehicles and LPG buses.” In his view, it will take at least another 20 years to achieve large-scale use of sustainable aviation fuels, “because we’re moving at a slower pace,” he said, “but if the public and private sectors can work together in a more meaningful, non-competitive way, we can more quickly achieve our goals.”
Hotels are also an important area for sustainable innovation in the industry, with the latest figures showing that 81% of global travelers say they want to stay in sustainable accommodations in the coming year, “Technology is getting smarter, costs have changed, and management techniques have been slow to change, for example, traditional proximity cards to control energy supply have become obsolete.” Durband describes an example of innovation from Asia: “There is a Singaporean company called The Ascott, which has about 115 hotels across Asia, including China. They are progressively installing dual sensor devices, and the dynamic sensing sensor technology has been around for a long time for lighting, but is still available for air conditioning and other places, which is a good development.”

The force majeure intervention of the New Crown Epidemic briefly alleviated the problem of over-tourism in many scenic areas, “which was destroyed by the COVID epidemic. But in some places the problem will return, and the worst cases of overtourism are usually associated with natural areas that have too many tourists relative to management techniques.” Durband explains that while destinations around the world where quarantine restrictions have been lifted have returned to the hustle and bustle, it is the iteration of management techniques that is the best way to root out the problem of over-tourism, and in some beaches in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines and Thailand, when over-tourism in the region sparked international concern, these beaches underwent a period of closure to allow nature to recuperate and reopen with better management techniques to reopen.”
Globally, for those sensitive cultural heritage attractions, governments, the international community and relevant organizations actively help, “We can clearly see that people are becoming more aware of this. Some of the cultural heritage sites are impressive in terms of improved management capacity. We’ve actually accomplished a lot in that regard,” Durband said, noting that many of the gratifying changes have taken place right here in China. “The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang have used amazing high-tech methods to analyze each cave to determine how many people can enter each day, and then they’ve set up software to control the flow of tourists ; there is an equally brilliant monitoring system at the Leshan Giant Buddha.” Durband shared with us, “But we still have a problem with sensitive natural areas and popular cities. If there are too many tourists, more than can be used by the local population, the necessary management measures are needed, and this is an area of research that needs more attention.” He added.
Will reopened destinations be more welcoming to visitors with disabilities? In Durband’s view, an accessible travel experience involves issues of social justice and fairness. “When we hear the word disabled, we immediately think of people in wheelchairs, but there are all sorts of other disabling conditions that we can all face, so I prefer to broaden this discussion to the broader issue of accessibility, and imagine that if you do better for everyone, you’ll do more for disabled people too.” Durband says it’s very difficult for people with disabilities to get special treatment for air travel, and it’s also critical to make sure someone is there to help them get on and off the train or bus at every step of the way when it comes to other transportation.

Durband keeps a close eye on progress in this area, “There are more and more specialized travel companies popping up around the world because there is in fact a huge lack of unique travel agencies focusing on this area for disabled or disadvantaged groups.” They need to know which hotels are doing a better job than others in the city, and which transportation providers are doing a better job than others in getting their clients out of the hassle of getting around, and these companies are on the rise, he said. On this front, GSTC has also developed new multilingual courses and made them available online. “For example, we’ve just launched an accessibility and inclusion training course that discusses accessibility and disability, and we’re also building the infrastructure for Chinese language training, as well as we offer training in many other languages.” Durband adds. More often than not, change exists in the attention to detail and reflection, “In the field of accessibility, people talk a lot about universal design, and if we open our minds we can think about it: because anyone can slip and fall in the shower, the shower stall should have at least one solid grab bar that I can hold on to.” Durband gives the example, “Another example is that after the age of 45, almost everyone’s eyesight declines to a greater or lesser extent, but when all the designs and fonts in a hotel shower are striving for sleek aesthetics of form, I can’t even read the word ‘shampoo’ clearly on a light-colored background in low light. ‘.” He added, “Design on the go should take into account the needs of the user, too much emphasis on appearance at the expense of functionality is where we need to broaden our thinking, and in fact simply marking distinctions clearly with color avoids extra steps.”
Optimistic about the increasingly vibrant and diverse sustainable travel offerings on the market, Durband observes, “These types of emerging businesses tend to see well-deserved growth because there are a lot of consumers who want this kind of experience.” An Australian company called Intrepid Travel, for example, has grown rapidly in recent years, running tours in places like China, the UK, or Africa, offering complex, multi-day itineraries, insisting on the use of more sustainable accommodations and cleaner-energy vehicles, and working very hard to provide travelers with authentic, on-the-ground experiences, including access to locally produced crafts, products, and intangible culture, such as dance and music. At the same time, Durband emphasized that tourism services are not a tangible product that can be touched, but rather a whole that consists of hotels, land transportation, and various components, “We need to give these businesses the appreciation they deserve, but also recognize their limitations,” he said, “I want to again emphasize the importance of cross-sector collaboration, and there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of integration.”
“I’ve previously given very positive reviews of China’s rail system, which I’ve personally experienced and it’s fantastic,” said Durband, “In the transportation sector, we’ve achieved some great connectivity, with more and more convenient modes of public transportation such as light rail, buses and trains to the city center, and achieving seamless connectivity is the goal of the next phase of development.” This will require engagement and investment from both the public and private sectors, and in France there is now a law that states that flights cannot exceed a certain number of hours if there is a rail route available, a rule that currently only affects one route, but which will become stricter as time goes on. “This policy attempt is key and means that the public and private sectors are working together to address the complexities of sustainable tourism.”
Another high-profile case is Slovenia’s Green Gourmet Tourism Route, “Slovenia is a small country, but they have a very successful tourism program, and we’ve been tracking it quite a bit to see where they go beyond the traditional tourism product.” Durband describes the Green Gourmet Tourist Route, where visitors are able to immerse themselves in the local community through cycling, one of the most immersive ways to do so. “I think what’s inspiring about really engaging and interesting authentic itineraries like this is that you can’t create a wonderful cycling food trail like this if the foundational effort hasn’t been done beforehand.”
The key, therefore, is to build the foundational components and make them interlinked, which cannot be done by tour operators alone – it has to be a hard work effort by the destination at the municipal, provincial or national level, etc., to push for the involvement of more suppliers, and “for many years now, the local government has been trying to push and incentivize businesses to operate more sustainably and to promote their fabulous gastronomic cultures . This is the Slovenian model, and the results are obvious, and now they have a great itinerary.” Durband said.
In closing, Durband gave an example of collaborative innovation: “One very interesting thing on this topic is that Prince Harry of the UK used his celebrity influence to launch Travalyst, a travel sustainability initiative, four years ago, and a number of online travel agents have joined this nimble organization, including Ctrip,, TripAdvisor, Visa and Expedia, among others.” They are working together non-competitively to promote sustainable standards in the travel industry. Of these, and Google are leading the way, as they joined the initiative earlier, but other signatories have committed to work with them non-competitively to adopt these methods and utilize them.
Looking ahead, Durband said, “I hope more projects like this go ahead, with non-competitive sustainability work across sectors in aviation, hospitality and land transportation, change is already happening, but the pace has to be faster because the world can’t afford to wait.”

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