Travel industry should spur action on climate


Christina Beckmann
Christina Beckmann

The headlines about air travel's contribution to the carbon emissions driving climate change are impossible to ignore: Tourism is now believed to account for 8% of global emissions.

Yet people in the industry also know that travel has many benefits. Not only does it contribute significantly to global and local economies, it also can deliver increased awareness and engagement for wilderness and wildlife conservation and a range of social issues. In the adventure travel industry, we consider carefully how to balance the negative impact of air travel emissions with the important positive benefits our industry brings.

In April, I joined 95 people from 18 countries on an expedition to Antarctica hosted by the renowned polar explorer Robert Swan, in partnership with the Explorer's Passage.

As we traveled through the Antarctic Peninsula -- gliding next to humpback whales, walking next to chinstrap and gentoo penguins, searching out elusive leopard seals -- I learned many new facts about climate change and how it is dramatically altering Antarctica. The implications for people all around the world, regardless of how distant they might be from Antarctica itself, are far reaching.

Participants spent time in lectures by climate scientists and in conversations, both formal and informal, with Swan and his son Barney, who had just come off an effort to walk to the South Pole demonstrating the use of renewable energy.

One afternoon, as we approached Damoy Point, the northern entrance to Port Lockroy in the Antarctic Peninsula, Swan spoke for a podcast about his life's mission of building awareness of climate change and igniting a global "climate force" to protect the Arctic and Antarctica.

His words crystallized for me how pivotal Swan's adventure travel experiences had been in his life. The experience he'd had walking to the North and South Poles, witnessing the changes in these landscapes over time, caused him to dedicate his life to pursuing the lofty and worthy goal of building global awareness of climate change and the need to preserve these precious ecosystems.

And while Swan's lonely, physically grueling expeditions are out of the realm of possibility for most of the world's population, the opportunity to take an adventurous trip and experience an environment and culture radically different from one's own that awakens a life change is not.

Notably, the World Travel & Tourism Council notes that tourism's direct growth of 4.6% is outpacing the global economy in 2018 for the seventh consecutive year. Adventure travel businesses report growth year after year, with the majority of business owners saying the driving factor behind that growth is new customers.

And so it occurred to me, staring out at the glassy surface of one of Antarctica's calm harbors: What if everyone who took a trip made even a single change in their lives as a result of what they learned and experienced during their time away?

My employer, the Adventure Travel Trade Association, represents more than 1,300 adventure operators who could be engaged, energized and equipped to suggest to their guests ideas for lifestyle changes.

Indeed, many of the tour operators and guides in our network are passionate about the environments and communities where they work. They already provide information about the environment and climate change, especially those operating in places like the Arctic and Antarctica.

Yet the final piece of this puzzle -- helping travelers consider more specifically how they can act on new information and their emotional connection to new people and places once they return home -- is something in which everyone working in tourism, from agents who sell packages to guides who lead guests, can take part.

Research suggests that the efforts could be well-received, as decades of anecdotal evidence are supported by systematic studies into traveler motivation. The growing body of research suggests that travelers are seeking more than just a great escape and relaxation. They want also an "expanded worldview," and often, quite intentionally, they are looking for "transformation."

Swan's expeditions to Antarctica speak directly to this motivation, inviting a range of people, from young entrepreneurs and environmental activists to senior corporate executives, to travel with him, learn from each other, build relationships and connections and grow a network of global climate activists.

Not every experience has to be as singularly focused as Swan's to be effective. In the adventure travel community, it is quite routine for people to share stories of travel epiphanies, times when they have experienced some profound and unexpected realization while traveling.

And while in this corner of the tourism world, these epiphanies typically occur during an extended time away and involve rafting or climbing or trekking, there is no reason this is the only way these life-changing epiphanies might happen.

As adventure travel veers increasingly to the softer side, with emphasis on nontechnical, nonstrenuous activities, we find the client base broadening, offering the magic of the travel epiphany to more people than ever before.

Fueled by the Instagram culture, which creates ever-increasing waves of travelers yearning for one-of-a-kind experiences, the industry has at its disposal unprecedented access to people from all walks of life.

Through travel experiences, we can inform, educate and influence how people interact with their environment and with each other. We can reduce our use of single-use plastic on trips and encourage people to do the same when they return home. We can explain clearly the impact of climate change in the places where we operate and talk frankly about ideas for reducing carbon emissions in our daily lives.

People working in tourism might feel afraid to offend a guest, afraid to bring something as serious as climate change and carbon emissions into the context of a fun, relaxing getaway vacation. And yet, not talking about it, hiding from it, actually threatens our industry with appearing irrelevant, disengaged, disconnected.

There are so many new, exciting solutions to the Earth's carbon emissions problem to be explored and discussed. Consider electric planes. As Susan Ying, vice president of technology strategy and international relations for Ampaire recently noted in a presentation to travel tech companies in San Francisco, 76 companies around the world today are working on all-electric aircraft that will not contribute to global emissions.

Or consider carbon trading and the company Carbon X, whose mission through personal carbon trading is to engage millions of people in the fight against climate change by creating demand for carbon-neutral products and services.

The list of disruptors and innovators could stretch on for many pages. Where better to ignite curiosity and interest in such developments and the need for them than on a trip when people are out of their usual routines, open to new ideas and experiences?

The path to an energy transition, one in which the energy we use to fuel our industrial processes, homes, cars and planes comes from renewable sources, will require persistent support from people all around the world.

This transition and the activism that is required to bring it about seem so complex and intensive as to be out of reach. And yet, they are not; it starts with consumer awareness and a call for action from people everywhere that tourism is poised to ignite.

For all of us in tourism, I encourage considering our role in this evolving narrative, how our work might shift from simply selling an ocean cruise or leading people through exotic locales for a thrilling experience to include sending them home with ideas, convictions and relationships that will help them create change.

As Swan encouraged the group in Antarctica this past April, "We need people to follow their hearts and make a difference, because each of us can."

Christina Beckmann is senior director, strategy and impact at the Adventure Travel Trade Association and also leads the association's research program.


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