Travel less but experience more: reflections on the greenwashed travel&tourism industry

 Travel less but experience more: reflections on the greenwashed travel&tourism industry

We are at the 24th UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) attending the side event “Climate Action in the Travel & Tourism Sector”.


By walking in, we notice that there is a big audience, and some tension in in the air. After a couple of minutes, Gloria Guevara Manzo, the president of the World Travel and Tourism Council starts to speak.
“We care!” she says. But care about what: the environment or the profits?? Twenty minutes of “info” and numbers about the Travel Council, followed by: when it was founded, how many members take part in it, and the big impact they have on improving the world of tourism and the world in general.

The question “How do we engage more people in travelling ” pops up?

In a few words, the objective the council has for the future is to make more people travelling, in a more sustainable and safe way -making a lot of profit along the way. In fact, she underlines how the tourism industry has a great potential, creating more jobs and economic profits (for the big corporations).

Wow. So idyllic. So impressive! How couldn’t we see that the solution for the global crisis was so simple? And mostly, that is so insanely simple to find sustainable solutions for one of the most impacting sectors, both at the local and global scale?
Everything in the opening speech of Ms. Guevara Manzo is perfectly packaged: the presentation, the exposition, the optimistic tone. But, to be honest, it sounds nothing more than a patchwork of slogans. And for the whole time we just keep thinking: is it about taking action to combat climate change or is it about profits?
The answer arrives just a few minutes after, as the other participants start to talk. Michael Gill, director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), starts to talk very nervously about how much his company has invested in green(-washed) solution, about the importance of developing green fuel technologies, and most of all, how airplanes in the futurewill emit 80% less GHG, while repeating that “we are never ambitious enough”.

Yes, you indeed are never ambitious enough. In fact, by looking at the website of the company, the only promise made is to try “to cut off emission by 50% by 2050”, while other organizations and businesses participating at COP24 pledge to have zero net emissions instead. Yes, they definitely should be a little more ambitious.
Daniella Foster is the second speaker of the event. She works as Senior Director, Global Corporate Responsibility at the Hilton hotel chain. She starts her perfectly structured speech underlining the power of collective action, the need of a responsible growth. “This is a journey, and is something that will bring collective action and awareness”.

Yes, we totally agree. It’s a very beautiful and effective phrase, but let’s think about who is actually inviting us to develop a consciousness about climate change and to start a collective action. An international hotel chain, which in 2015 had a turnover of 2,83 billions of dollars. An hotel chain that has actually stolen a lot of possible profits to other local hotels owners and that has clients mainly from the upper rich classes. So what is precisely this collective action about? Aren’t all these beautiful words finalized to improve the image of the Hilton chain?

In the past few years, more and more corporations adopted different environmental friendly marketing strategies. This is because they know that in the medium and upper class being “eco-friendly”, at least at words, has become a status symbol. But often, unfortunately, it is just an illusion. One clear example is provided by the famous food chain McDonald’s.
The well-known brand in the past few years has started proposing more salads, some veggie burgers, hiring famous chefs to represent them…Yet, most notably, it has started decorating the interns of the locals with green or wooden furnitures, just to give the customers the impression of how green and sustainable they are.

The same strategies are used by other famous corporations, such as Nestlè, or clothing brands like Burberry, Adidas or Puma. Because being green is cool. And also because if you try to make a production or a sector more sustainable, you can also increase the prices and therefore make more profit out of it.

A second question that naturally comes to mind, when corporation like the above start talking about sustainability, is: how can actually a corporation, like a hotel chain, be sustainable? How can inviting people to travel more, or better to go on vacation more (because travelling for real is a concept not included in the whole side event) be sustainable?

Is it really necessary?

Another speaker at the event is the owner of a company that organizes international expedition to the Himalayan mountains. We guess that everyone has, at least once in his life, dreamed of going trekking to the Himalaya. Those mountains that give you the feeling of being so tiny, that make you perceive the power and beauty of nature. But in reality, the increasing tourism is destroying, just as other beautiful places is the world, the cultural and natural equilibriums. It is wonderful that everyone has the opportunity to travel, but people have to accept that not all places are for everyone. The industry of tourism made us think of ourselves as invincible, that we can go everywhere without any kind of preparation because they are working on making everything safer and easier. But, this is not the real spirit of travelling. They transformed travel into a commodity to be consumed and devoured.

To travel, people need to develop consciousness and humility. To be tourists, or better consumers, they just need money. Being a tourist is more a passive action, in which you want to be transported into another place just to feel far from your ordinary life. But at the same time, your brain keeps living the same negative emotions that you have in your normal routine. When you travel, instead, you travel with the brain and heart, enjoying the positive and the negative things as an experience.

What is necessary to be sustainable, is to travel less, but with a higher quality of the experience. It is about travelling for searching for something different from what we are used to, instead of something familiar. It is about supporting locals in improving their business and make their country flourish. It is about going slow, and slow down our habits and routines. It is about enjoying the single moments. And remember that it is not important to count the kilometers you rode the year before, but instead the people you met and how deep you got to know the place you went to.

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