Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The United Nations World Tourism Organization has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. When the conference Pure, held annually in Marrakech, Morocco, asked me to moderate a roundtable of international journalists on the subject of sustainability, I thought the challenge would be to find something that hasn't already been said. We're all onboard, right?

Wrong. The group certainly contained believers, but they sat alongside skeptics and contrarians.

Farhad Heydari, international executive editor of Departures and Centurion in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Pacific and Latin America, threw down a gauntlet early, declaring that, far from being inspired by the little cards in hotel rooms asking him to hang up towels to "save the planet," he's unmoved.

"That's why I go to a hotel," he said. "New towels and sheets every day. Otherwise, why not just stay at home?"

Heydari was to ultimately prove himself more provocateur than climate change denier -- "moderation in everything," he allowed at one point -- but was clearly skeptical about both the sincerity of industry efforts and consumers' appetite for responsible travel.

And who isn't a little skeptical at this point? To Heydari's point, the righteousness of tent cards urging towel reuse to "save the planet" is undercut somewhat by the knowledge that reductions in laundry bills also help pay for the owner's four-wheel-drive Range Rover.

Seda Domanic, editor-in-chief of Vogue Turkey, lamented that sustainability had become, well, unfashionable.

"We need to make it sexy," she said. "The fashion world is good at that and has raised the consciousness of sustainability in fashion. It used to be that you bragged about new bags, new shoes, but now people are proud of not buying -- or, rather, buying sensibly. Don't buy something that's cheap and on sale but you'll never wear it."

I don't think Domanic was equating "buying sensibly" with, say, buying sensible shoes. Similarly, "sensible travel" isn't synonymous with "traveling sensibly."

Sensible travel sounds boring because the essence of travel satisfaction hinges on leaps into the unknown. In travel, adherence to prudence would be, frankly, insensible.

Some around the table made the case that sustainability and excitement in travel weren't mutually exclusive.

"Travelers need to see cause and effect," said David Prior, international editor of Conde Nast Traveler. "If they become involved in a project, working in a local community, it can be the highlight of a trip, but tying into climate change is much more difficult."

On the other hand, he said, "There's a growing percentage who are willing to pay more for something better for themselves and the culture, especially compared to six or seven years ago. Customers are demanding accountability, and there's a [backlash] against poor buying practices."

Heydari pooh-poohed the notion that the travel industry has moved significantly into more sustainable models -- "Little baby steps every five years. Not much changes." -- and further, said that journalists shouldn't concern themselves with educating readers about sustainable travel.

"I don't think it's our responsibility at all," he said. "Our mission is to provide information in a digestible way. We don't have to preach. Readers are already informed."

"Not necessarily," Prior said.

"Our readers are," Heydari asserted. "Look, we live in a throwaway society. We say we're ecological, but it's so much b.s. Unless you recycle water, limit the use of plastics in bathroom amenities and go for biomass heating and maybe TV-less rooms, all of which I am a proponent of, it's a lot of hot air."

"Not true," said Francisca Kellett, travel editor of Tatler in the U.K. "You do see it in very tangible ways. Some support orphanages or show commitment to recycling."

"Those are anomalies," Heydari insisted. "At the end of the day, most are cutting corners because they're just trying to make money."

"One doesn't cancel the other out," Kellett countered.

But even she wasn't convinced that consumers are focused on sustainable travel when they plan vacations. "Ten percent are passionate," she said. "Thirty percent don't care. Sixty percent say they care, but their actions show differently. Only 4% offset their flights [by buying carbon offsets]. When you come down to it, it's a holiday, and they don't want to spend a lot of money [on sustainable travel]."

Attention to sustainability varies greatly by a traveler's country of origin, and all agreed that the notion of sustainability has not, for example, impressed the Chinese tourist.

Gema Monroy, section editor of Conde Nast Traveler Spain, said, "In Spain, what is really important is food, so everyone is very aware of responsible eating and knowing where ingredients come from. But they don't take sustainability into consideration more broadly. They see 'eco' as a trend, a fashion, even a fake."

Domanic had an explanation that took into account both an obsession with food and nonchalance about bigger issues: "It's about indulgence. Be responsible at home, but on vacation, cut loose."

And, for her, inconsistency undermines overt messaging about environmental awareness.

"I was at an ecolodge in Spain," she recounted. "They took us on a picnic -- all plastic cups."

I'll end with an area of agreement: All present felt that tourism presented a danger to destinations. Monroy, who lives in Barcelona, which is famously pushing back against tourists, admitted that, as a travel journalist, she felt conflicted.

"Cities are losing their identities," she said. "And I feel part of the problem."


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