Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

When speaking with Norwegian Cruise Line president Harry Sommer earlier this month about the line's plans to sail with vaccinated guests in July, he made a point to say that the onus for the care of guests resides with the cruise line and that the impact of protocols on guests would be minimal. "Let us do the health and safety," he said. "You have fun."

I thought about that when reading our sustainability feature this week.

The travel industry has a true split personality. On one hand, it's serious business. Going into the pandemic, it provided one in 10 jobs around the world and outperformed global GDP for 10 years straight.

And as a high-profile industry, its constituent companies, individually and collectively, draw scrutiny over a range of operations: environmental practices, impact on indigenous cultures, influence on the quality of life in host cities (i.e., overtourism) and its treatment of service employees.

In stark contrast, what it's selling is fun, relaxation, enlightenment, well-being, pampering and/or adventure. Our collective marketing message is: Indulge yourself for a few weeks a year. You work hard, so when it comes time to vacation, do what you want. Lie on a beach. Eat good food and drink good wine. Appreciate art. Enjoy nature. Escape to a theme park. Take a cruise.

Still, the threat of climate change and its likely impact is so dreadful that, by contrast, the desire to have fun can seem unconscionably indulgent and trivial. Do you really want to travel to get a massage, ride a roller coaster, visit a museum and drink a vintage wine if, by doing so, you're contributing, in however small an increment, to an apocalyptic future of potential drought, famine, flooding, mass migration, species extinction and, for our children, an impoverished existence?

It's true that if all travel ceased tomorrow, problems related to climate change would remain substantial. But it's also true that travel, like so many industries and so many components of our life, does, in aggregate, contribute a measurable percentage of the carbon that's warming our planet.

A significant and growing portion of travelers wants it all. They want the promise of fun, however that may be defined, but want to have it responsibly.

It calls to mind a sentiment attributed to Emma Goldman, an early 20th-century anarchist, that crystallizes the tug of war between principles and human nature: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

How does one resolve the dissonance between our reasonable concern about climate change and our drive to live life to its fullest?

In other words, how can travel (and other industries) adapt to reduce negative environmental impacts substantially but also continue to feed the human spirit?

Increasingly, as our cover story reflects, the industry is responding in ways that are truly meaningful and impactful, turning to sustainable aviation fuel for airplanes and liquefied natural gas for cruise ships.

The French are pushing toward zero hydrogen emission from airplanes over the next 14 years. And Carnival Cruise Line's newest ship, the Mardi Gras, consumes a third less fuel and emits about half as much carbon per person as any of the three Fantasy-class ships the company sent to the junkyard last year.

Both are examples of how the pandemic accelerated trends toward sustainability. But the danger we face now is that, once travel resumes and cost-cutting takes a back seat to revenue creation, the scrutiny of budgets for sustainable alternatives to achieve cost savings may no longer be a top-tier consideration. That's not a foregone conclusion but a reasonable worry. Sustainability efforts could move forward, but perhaps at a less urgent pace.

Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, once told me why the WWF agreed to an arrangement with Royal Caribbean Group to monitor its environmental pledges. "Generally, trends on the state of the planet are going in the wrong direction," he said. "Engaging leading companies in the private sector is increasingly important. We want to work with large companies that have a track record of continuous improvement and want to go further."

Early in the pandemic, Americans responded to a call to "flatten the curve." When it comes to the environment, Roberts told me it was critical to "reverse the curve."

It's true that if everyone -- everyone -- monitored and reduced their own contribution to climate change, the impact could be significant. And hooray for those who do. But human nature being what it is, most won't.

So coming out of the pandemic, companies in the travel industry must find a way to be both champions of sustainability and run sustainable businesses. To fulfill that promise, one that both satisfies customers' needs for vacations and the planet's challenges, it must in good faith embrace a corollary to Sommer's statement on health and safety protocols: "Let us worry about sustainable vacations. You have fun." 

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