In Dubai, a city distinguished more for its ability to transform its environment than to protect it, industry leaders from around the world gathered last week for the eighth World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit. And regardless of how the printed program defined the agenda, the panelists, moderators and attendees of the summit returned time and again to the task of defining the industry's role in "greening" travel.
Concerns about the downturn in the U.S. economy, the price of oil, travel infrastructure and the health of airlines weren't entirely absent, but they were often refracted through the prism of environmental issues. There were no "green" panels, but for the better part of two days speakers frequently turned the spotlight on global warming and sustainability questions or seized moments to brag about accomplishments in greening their companies.
Unlike the tight focus of the two previous summits, this year's theme, "world citizens," was sufficiently broad to allow what was most keenly on attendees' minds to surface.
Marriott International CEO Bill Marriott set the tone in his opening keynote by announcing his company's commitment to protect 1.4 million acres of rainforest, at a cost of $2 million annually, in a joint project with the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
There seemed to be consensus in a panel that followed that fuel prices and desire for efficiency were driving much of the industry's proactive environmental activity.
"Airlines are the most economically motivated to get green," Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said. Mahmud Jan Mohamed, managing director of Serena Hotels Africa, added that "hotels [assign] a lot of employees [to look into] environmental issues that affect cost."
Both men called for industrywide standards that would raise consumer trust regarding corporate claims of environmental responsibility, but Wyndham Worldwide CEO Stephen Holmes, who seemed frustrated at times with the direction of the discussion, said his company, while "mindful" of environmental concerns and developing standards for its franchisees, was also focused on the needs and regulations of local communities. Ultimately, he said, "we allow consumers to make the decisions," and he warned against turning industry bodies into police forces.
Dubailand CEO Mohammed al-Habbai discussed Dubai's environmental awards and efforts, including a mandate that took effect in January to construct buildings using only "the highest" environmental standards. But he added, "I don't think any city can save the planet through an urban environmental effort."
Khosrowshahi asserted that "asking the travel industry to offset [carbon] is asking too much." He said technological developments would enable travelers to arrive at the airport and offset the carbon footprint of their imminent travels.
On the question of consumer trust, Costas Christ, a columnist for National Geographic Adventure and an eco-activist, said from the audience that consumers regarded the room cards urging them to reuse towels as little more than a plea to increase the hotel's profits and allow the CEO to purchase a new BMW. "Why not say on the card that you'll donate any savings to help an environmental cause?" he asked.
Over the next 30 hours, other topics were discussed, but seldom in complete isolation from environmental issues. Toward the end, green fatigue set in with some speakers and attendees. A panel on "looking ahead" morphed into a discussion of whether the industry should set a goal of reducing carbon by 20% by 2020 or, as suggested by Six Senses Resorts and Spas CEO Sonu Shivdasani, by 50% because, he said, "If you don't have a big, hairy-ass goal, you won't get there."
Gerald Lawless, executive chairman of Dubai Holding's Jumeirah Group, told moderator Nik Gowing of the BBC, "We shouldn't spend all our time talking about carbon emissions." When Gowing persevered on the subject, WTTC President Jean-Claude Baumgarten, speaking from the audience, urged Gowing to move on. "The discussion is too much on one topic," he said. "We have other issues, infrastructure issues."
Gowing ignored the prodding, staying on the question of emissions for another 10 minutes and cutting short audience members who tried to ask about other topics.
I found all of this very interesting. You'll note that there are two other articles in Travel Weekly this week on environmental topics, and you, too, may find yourself suffering a bit from green fatigue.
The WTTC brought together a blend of great speakers but gave them a rather mushy theme. The fact that green frequently filled the void means either that the topic is consuming internal corporate discussions or companies' public relations departments are working overtime. Perhaps both.
While no one displayed outward signs of freaking out over the state of the global economy or the price of oil, many companies said they were expecting growth to slow in 2008. This is not a year when they're going to feel they have the discretionary income to invest in transformative and bold green initiatives that could collectively have an impact on the industry's carbon footprint.
What is happening this year, as noted by Khosrowshahi, Mohamed and others during the conference, is that companies are looking for the places where greening and cost savings converge. Which means that the carbon produced by even the slowed growth of the travel industry is likely to exceed emission reductions.
"Green," of course, is not going away, and we'll likely all suffer from green fatigue sooner or later. The older we are, the more likely it is we'll feel it sooner.
But those in their early 20s will doubtless have the energy to focus on green issues rather relentlessly. They're facing the prospect of a warmer world for the majority of their lives, and they're not about to let everyone off the hook simply because we say we're tired of hearing about it.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].