Industry determined to do more on the environment

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Christine Mackay, co-founder of Travelers Against Plastics, demonstrates how she uses a SteriPEN to purify water in Mexico.
Christine Mackay, co-founder of Travelers Against Plastics, demonstrates how she uses a SteriPEN to purify water in Mexico.

On April 24, this report was edited to add companies' environmental initiatives.

In the lead-up to this year's Earth Day on April 22, the travel industry highlighted some of its top sustainability goals, including a determination to reduce its reliance on single-use plastic and a call for travel companies to work toward the emission-reduction goals laid out in the Paris climate accord, despite the fact that President Trump decided to pull out of the agreement last year.

"Our industry is integral to the success of the Paris Agreement," Hilton Worldwide Holdings CEO Christopher Nassetta said last week at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Buenos Aires. "And so we'd like to call on all our member companies to embrace the Paris Agreement and incorporate its objectives by establishing carbon-reduction targets for your own businesses."

The Paris climate pact, established in 2015, set multinational goals to move to greener energy sources, reduce emissions and limit the rise of global temperatures.

Indeed, in an era when the Trump administration has not only pulled out of the Paris pact but has encouraged the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back regulations and enforcement, the concern for this Earth Day is how to keep the travel industry on course with the sustainability goals it must implement to protect the destinations it sells.

Elizabeth Becker, author of "Overbooked," which delves into the travel industry's impact on global economies and the environment, said that "the average company does not have [sustainable travel measures] baked in as a top priority. No, they don't."

Becker said she was concerned there could be a slip in some of the progress that has been made in sustainable travel due to the lack of oversight and enforcement under the Trump administration.

In the current climate, however, it also appears that some players in the travel industry have a strengthened sense of determination to do better by the environment in an effort to somehow compensate for the administration's actions.

Casey Hanisko, president of the business services division of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), said, "There is a heightened awareness of the need to maintain a passionate approach to making sure that, with the power of the industry, we're moving the needle."

The ATTA teamed up with Travelers Against Plastic earlier this year to conduct a survey about travel companies' use of single-use plastic water bottles.

While 92% of the more than 500 respondents reported that they are extremely concerned with the environmental impact of single-use plastic bottles, 60% reported that their businesses still used them on all or some of their trips, averaging two bottles per guest per day.

Christine Mackay, co-founder of Travelers Against Plastic and the founder and executive director of the tour company Crooked Trails, has for the past 15 years been requiring Crooked Trails guests to purify their own water using a SteriPEN or similar portable water purification system. Four years ago, fed up with the number of plastic bottles defacing tourist sites, she decided she needed to help other travel companies and travelers get onboard.

"Everyone is realizing, 'Oh my God! We've surrounded ourselves in this crap that won't go away,'" Mackay said

Nevertheless, she admitted that completely eliminating plastic water bottles in the travel industry is a long shot.

"To see locations where you're not going to see any more plastic water bottles on the beaches or in the rivers and along the sides of the road, we're a ways off from that," she said. "What we're really doing right now is we're trying to build momentum."

A certain degree of momentum does appear to be building. With this year's official Earth Day campaign focused on ending plastics pollution, Iberostar Group last week announced that its more than 110 hotels would be free of single-use plastics by 2019. The initiative will start with its 36 properties in Spain this summer.

One big wake-up call for the industry was the news earlier this month that the popular Philippines tourism destination Boracay Island would be closed to tourists for six months beginning April 26 so that beaches and waters polluted by tourism-related overdevelopment could be cleaned.

Among those sounding an alarm was Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman, who outlined some of the changes he feels the industry needs to embrace in order to save itself.

"When [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte made the decision to really shut a destination down to tourism, it scared me," Tollman said. "It's about taking action now before anything can become irreversible."

He said travel companies, including his own, need to be willing to change the ways things have been done. That includes working to get tourists off the beaten path to reduce the crush on destinations that are experiencing overtourism and bring tourism dollars to communities that have not traditionally benefited from the industry.

He suggested spreading out the travel seasons more and working to get travelers to head out more during the off-season and not just the crowded high seasons.

Tollman said that Trafalgar, too, is looking at ways to reduce its distribution of single-use plastic bottles. Also, it is offering things like e-documents this year, in lieu of paper documents.

Other travel companies vow to do their part 

Travel companies have issued plans and promises for reducing emissions and single-use plastics, and outlined their commitments to sustainability and the environment. Here are examples:

• Hotel-casino resort operator MGM Resorts International, which boasts the country's largest contiguous rooftop solar array atop the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, said Thursday that it's investing in a 100-megawatt solar array that will be built on a 640-acre site 25 miles north of the city by the end of 2020. MGM, which is partnering with Chicago-based Invenergy on the project, says the array will be used to power its 13 Las Vegas Strip properties and will produce enough energy to power the equivalent of 27,000 homes.

• Intrepid Travel introduced a series of trips that include more "human-powered" experiences such as a walking safari in South Africa, walking expeditions in Morocco and Djibouti, as well as several cycling tours. The tour operator offsets its trips by investing in renewable energy projects but the company said offsetting isn't enough. "It's nearly impossible to eliminate all vehicle transportation and activities that require machine power from our trips, but it's important for us to minimize our output whenever possible," the company said.

• Virtuoso this month released the results of its 2018 Virtuoso Luxe Report that focused on sustainability, in which advisors noted which aspects of sustainable tourism are most important to their clients and thus that they are committed to selling as well. They include reducing plastic waste, protecting wildlife, eating local foods and supporting local farmers, staying at green hotels and conserving coral reefs. "As travelers, our choice makes a big difference when we reward those businesses that are committed to a more sustainable future right now with our hard-earned cash," said Costas Christ, Virtuoso's global strategist, sustainability.

• For Earth Day 2018, The Travel Corporation vowed to commit a portion of its profits to its TreadRight Wildlife Initiative, one of the tour conglomerate's philanthropic endeavors that provides funding to a big cat conservation project in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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