Asia's travel and tourism leaders gather to discuss the challenge of facing up to climate change
HE Weerasak Kowsurat, Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports welcomes delegates
Fri 2 May 2008 – The inaugural Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) CEO Challenge conference took place in Bangkok, Thailand earlier this week. Entitled ‘Confronting Climate Change’, the region’s travel and tourism industry was encouraged to collaborate on a range of environmental initiatives.
“Climate change is a dealbreaker,” outgoing PATA Chairman, Brian Deeson, told delegates. “Forget the scientific polemics: our customers are the issue, and they are not happy. They believe we’ve been apathetic on this issue. Or worse, that we’ve been in denial, that we are part of the problem. This issue has the potential to redefine the way we do business.”
In his welcome address, Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, Weerasak Kowsurat, said focusing on climate change was timely and appropriate. “The travel and tourism industry is a primary beneficiary of a clean and healthy environment. At the same time, however, we have to recognize that the increasingly important travel and tourism sector – totalling 846 million international arrivals and some four billion domestic trips in 2006 – is both a contributor to GHG emissions and, at the same time, highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“Many international travel industry organizations are doing their part to alleviate the situation. The issue was addressed at the Second International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism in Davos, organized by the UN World Tourism Organization last October. There is a widespread recognition that the tourism sector needs to focus on adaptation measures in affected tourism destinations in order to safeguard economic returns and jobs, and also on mitigation measures of specific forms of tourism in order to achieve substantial emission reductions.
“Just last week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) signed an historic commitment to tackle climate change along with top industry leaders. It commits the airline industry to attain a 25% fuel efficiency improvement target and, more importantly, towards achieving the vision of carbon-neutral growth and eventually a carbon emission-free industry. Here in Bangkok, the Asia-Pacific region will also join the effort, perhaps not a moment too soon.”
Unfortunately, says PATA, only a few hotels, airlines and tour operators in Asia have fully embraced major carbon reduction goals. Those that have, it claims, are using advanced green audit techniques that allow them to set and measure ambitious carbon reduction targets. Asia’s carbon-neutral pioneers say this is already bringing them credibility in lucrative long haul markets such as Europe and North America. PATA says these are markets where an increasing number of consumers and tour operators now insist on green benchmarking before booking hotels, tours and ground handling services in Asia-Pacific.
However, it reports environmental programmes are restricted to the private sector because of a lack of incentives or environmental policy initiatives at government level in Asia.
Six Senses Resorts and Spas now invests 0.5% of gross income from each hotel back into a sustainable, environmental and responsible fund (SERF). This averages out at $100,000 per hotel per year across the group. The company’s carbon offset programme now replaces all carbon emissions from guests’ flights as well as emissions from hotel operations.
Other hotel groups like Marriott and Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts have set ambitious carbon emission reduction and recycling targets. Whole destinations such as Sri Lanka and New Zealand are working towards carbon-neutral status.
Conference speakers pointed out that it was crucial to get staff fully motivated and empowered on carbon-neutral objectives and identified the need for local supply chains to create zero food-miles. Others called for a standardization of green audit and benchmarking programmes which, while well-intentioned, caused confusion within the travel industry and with consumers.
Sonu Shivdasani, Chairman and CEO of Six Senses summed up the challenge. “The travel industry needs sweeping goals. Not improvements of 10 to 20%, but 50 to 100%. Goals need to be structured in profit and loss plans. Eventually, we need to offset travel entirely.”
Panellists at the conference’s airline plenary session held the view that airlines had done a good job in reducing pollution and increasing environmental efficiencies but a poor job in communicating progress and future goals to consumers and governments, echoing a theme at last week’s Aviation and Environment Summit in Geneva.
“A few years ago, with commercial aviation responsible for just 2% of global CO2 emissions, airline leaders thought no-one is going to have a go at us,” said Tony Tyler, CEO of Cathay Pacific. “We were complacent about the PR aspects and now we’re regretting that we’ve become the poster boys of international evil. We feel under pressure from the media and governments, especially in Europe.”
Paul Steele, IATA’s Environment Director, said airlines were fighting back with an aggressive new strategy of carbon-neutral growth. Since 2007, he went on, airlines have had an official agenda to use new technologies such as cleaner fuels, optimize fuel efficiencies, make routes shorter and more efficient through punctuality, and use “positive economic instruments” to reduce CO2 emissions.
The conference pinpointed differences on how to share the CO2 burden. The World Tourism Organization, for example, recommends a “differential response” between rich and poor countries, whereas IATA says ‘ring fencing’ certain air routes, such as to or within poorer countries, and exempting them from carbon reduction standards would be impractical.