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Travel agencies: how to make tourism sustainable?

From the "A World For Travel" forum held in Evora a few weeks ago to the Cop26 in Glasgow in November, as well as certain conferences organized at the IFTM Top Résa trade show in Paris, tourism, as it is mostly practiced, is raising questions, criticism, and reflections on its environmental and social consequences. What if sustainable tourism was one of the solutions to global warming?  To respect the planet and the local populations visited, what good practices should your clients follow when traveling in France and abroad?

1/ Why is sustainable tourism essential?

Because tourism is a pillar of the world economy

In 2019, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), approximately 1.5 billion international tourists traveled around the world, continuing to grow for nearly 10 years. The tourism sector then supports nearly 10% of the global workforce and is equivalent to 10% of global GDP. It is the 3rd economic sector in the world behind chemicals and fuels, but ahead of the food industry and the automobile industry.

France is the 1st tourist destination with 90 million people (2019), welcoming more than 240,000 people per day! This sector corresponds to nearly 8% of national GDP and generates 2 million jobs.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed how much more important this sector is in some countries such as in Southern Europe. In Croatia, for example, the revenue from international tourism represents more than 20% of the wealth created in a year.

In some countries such as the Caribbean islands, this percentage rises to 90% in Saint Lucia... In India, for every 100 tourists, 172 people have a job.

Because tourism has its share of responsibility in global warming

On a global scale, a study published in 2018 showed that tourism accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. In France, tourism is responsible for 11% of CO2 emissions

The carbon footprint of tourism is generated by everything that is purchased by tourists on their vacation (food, accommodation, shopping), and especially by transportation.

According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), CO2 emissions should be halved by 2030 to stay below the critical threshold of global warming (+1.5°C) before reaching carbon neutrality in 2050.

Tourism has other negative consequences on the environment and biodiversity. According to a report by the WWF association, more than half of the garbage found in the Mediterranean sea is linked to beach tourism.

The discharge of wastewater contributes to the pollution of water and soil. We can cite the example of the Philippine island of Boracay closed in 2018 to tourists because hotels were dumping their wastewater directly into the sea.

In Thailand, the beach of Maya Bay, famous for having been used as a filming location for the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio, was welcoming up to 5,000 people a day. It was recently closed by local authorities to allow a campaign to reintroduce corals.

Iceland has also banned access for several months in 2019 to the Fjadrárgljúfur Canyon.  Made famous by a Justin Bieber video shot a few years earlier, the site was deeply degraded as a result of too many visitors.   

Did you say "overtourism"?

Harmful to biodiversity, tourist activity can also provoke rejection by certain populations, as in Barcelona, Venice and Amsterdam, who deplore the rising cost of living, property prices, noise pollution and crowded beaches.

Because sustainable tourism is more and more in demand

Various studies carried out this year in France and the United States, for example, show that a majority of people want to go on vacation while taking the fight against global warming to heart. Differences can be noted according to age groups on the actions to be carried out in priority, but the desire is there: to participate at one's level in another form of tourism more respectful of nature and the environment. A tourism that allows a true discovery of other cultures and local populations. 

Here are some figures:

  • 61% of French people say they are ready to pay more for local products;
  • 44% are ready to pay more for their entire stay to travel in an environmentally friendly way;
  • 40% are willing to pay more for accommodation and transportation to use a sustainable alternative;
  • 70% of tourists would like to have a more positive impact on the places they visit... and the people they meet ;
  • 85% of respondents regret that online travel platforms do not provide access to specific selections of environmentally friendly and responsible trips.

Travel agencies, who create tailor-made trips, thanks to the detailed knowledge you have of the destinations, take advantage of the links built with your local partners to propose offers in line with this trend.

2/ What are the objectives of sustainable tourism?

Inspired by sustainable development, the UNWTO defines sustainable tourism as "tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, by meeting the needs of visitors, professionals, the environment and host communities". 

Protecting nature

Nature plays an essential role in the attractiveness of certain territories to travelers, but we (travel agents, receptives, local partners, travelers, influencers, for example) must ensure that we minimize our impact on natural resources and biodiversity.   

Promote long-term economic and social development

This means that everyone should benefit from the positive effects of tourism activities. For example, at the destination, working conditions must be decent, salaries fair, jobs stable, and businesses sustainable.

Make travelers meet local populations and discover their cultures

Whether we are talking about immersion trips, slow tourism, agrotourism or solidarity tourism, it is a question of encouraging authenticity, of avoiding that tourists stay away from the local populations. Discovery, astonishment, encounters, change of scenery, itinerancy are to be emphasized.

3/ How to travel responsibly?

To achieve these 3 objectives, discuss with your clients which good practices to implement during their travels. Perhaps without realizing it, some of your clients are already doing things that are favorable to the environment on a daily basis (composting, reducing meat consumption, sorting waste, using public transportation and bicycles, etc.).

Before leaving, prepare a "zero waste" suitcase 

Do your clients want to take advantage of their trip to swim in the sea and relax on the beach? Advise them to buy swimsuits made of recycled materials, to buy a sun cream that does not contain chemical compounds such as oxybenzone that are harmful to the oceans.

Tell them to use a water bottle instead of plastic ones, reusable plates and cutlery if picnics are planned. Cloth bags are preferable to plastic bags for shopping.

Before leaving home, remember to unplug electrical appliances. It's good for the planet and for your clients' electric bill.

Should we still use the plane?   

If we compare the carbon footprints of the different modes of transport established a few years ago by the European Environment Agency, air transport is the worst performer. Per passenger and per kilometer, the figures are as follows

Train: 14 g of CO2

Small car: 42 g of CO2

Standard car: 55 g of CO2

Bus: 68 g of CO2

Motorized two-wheeler: 72 g of CO2

Airplane: 285 g of CO2.

On a global scale, airplanes account for about 20% of global carbon emissions from tourism.

But rather than banning the use of airplanes, we should use them less often but travel longer. Take direct flights rather than connecting flights. Advise airlines like Air France that allow passengers to offset their carbon footprint through tree planting campaigns or to participate in local development projects.

Promote the benefits of train travel. If your customers insist on taking the car or because there are no other options, limiting the use of air conditioning and reducing speed are two good practices. An intermediate solution, more easily achievable when your customers plan to travel alone or in pairs, is to propose carpooling websites (Blablacar, Mobicoop).  On site, public transport, bicycles and walking are to be preferred.


Tip: To assess your clients' greenhouse gas emissions, visit the Good Planet website https://www.goodplanet.org/fr/calculateurs-carbone/, Greentripper https://www.greentripper.org/en?CalculatorOnly=1  or Carbon Foot Print https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx 

Find sustainable accommodations

Offer your clients itineraries by selecting accommodations that are certified by labels such as Gîte Panda, Travel Life, Ecolabel, Clef Verte or Green Globe.

Traveling responsibly and with a certain level of comfort is possible. More and more luxury hotels have implemented sustainable development policies : 

https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/13-eco-friendly-hotels-blending-sustainability-luxury ; https://theluxurytravelexpert.com/2021/06/18/sustainable-luxury-hotel/ 

Regardless of the accommodation booked, you can advise your guests to keep their daily habits (for example, limiting water and energy consumption, using towels, avoiding the use of non-packaged soaps).

Another criterion to watch out for in the choice of accommodation can be the composition of the menus. The meat industry represents more than 10% of global warming, but eating chicken is less impactful than beef.

Eat local and organic food

If taking the plane less often or using the train instead of the car can cause reluctance among some travelers, buying and eating local and organic products are among the most popular measures to implement a more responsible and sustainable tourism.

With the help of your local partners, suggest to your customers restaurants, shops, farms that offer seasonal, organic products. These products must come from the surroundings and not from another region or even another country to limit the carbon impact linked to transportation. Customers appreciate these gustatory discoveries, these moments of meeting with the shopkeepers and other restaurant owners.

The economic benefits are also often present. In Corsica, several hotels have changed the composition of their breakfasts by using ecologically designed local products as part of the "Rispettu" program. Result: +30% capture rate.

Promote activities and visits that respect nature and local populations

  • Avoid attractions that feature dolphin shows, elephant rides or activities like jet skiing. Be careful with whale-watching cruises, for example. Some tour operators get too close to the whales, which can sometimes take the baby away from its mother.
  • For your clients who want to give meaning to their trip, offer them to discover permaculture in Brittany, to milk cows and to make fresh cheese in Isère by booking for them on online sites like : 

wecandoo https://wecandoo.fr/ voyageons-autrement, , https://www.voyageons-autrement.com/stage-permaculture-woofing-bretagne or la grange au savoir faire https://lagrangeauxsavoirfaire.fr/.

  • Propose all or part of the itineraries off the beaten track, unusual outdoor activities such as hiking in order to disperse the flow of travelers in space and / or time as envisaged by many regions. For example, the French Basque Country wants to attract tourists to the countryside and not just the coast.  

Tip: https://flockeo.com/  is a very useful website to discover, choose and contact sustainable tourism actors. Another possibility is https://digitalgreentourisme.fr/ to accompany tourism actors towards a more responsible offer.

Allowing access to vacations for all, encouraging local tourism, reducing digital pollution are other examples of tracks to follow to propose more responsible and sustainable travel. Because there is no planet B, it is important for travelers and tourism professionals to be actors in this fight. And you, what have you put in place?

📚 Sources :

1. Sustainable Travel Survey 2021 – Importance & Sentiment to Fight Climate Change When Booking Travel https://thevacationer.com/sustainable-travel-survey-2021/

2. How can we make tourism sustainable ? https://www.ontheluce.com/sustainable-tourism/

3. Sustainable development https://www.unwto.org/fr/sustainable-development

4.Tourisme durable : à quoi ressembleront les vacances de demain ? https://www.geo.fr/voyage/tourisme-durable-a-quoi-ressembleront-les-vacances-de-demain-204348

5. Tourisme Durable https://lesecolohumanistes.fr/tourisme-durable/

6. 6 chiffres pour comprendre la réalité du tourisme durable https://demain.ladn.eu/secteurs/tourisme/6-chiffres-pour-comprendre-la-realite-du-tourisme-durable/

7. Quel est le bilan carbone d’un vol en avion ? https://www.greenly.earth/blog/empreinte-carbone-vol-en-avion

8. Comment agir pour un tourisme plus responsable en France ? https://about.make.org/tourisme-responsable-resultats

9. Le kit des vacances écolos https://www.carenews.com/news/le-kit-des-vacances-ecolos    

10. Tourisme durable : 2 000 propositions ont émergé de la consultation citoyenne https://www.lechotouristique.com/article/tourisme-durable-2-000-propositions-ont-emerge-de-la-consultation-citoyenne

11. « L’Enfer numérique » : la face cachée de nos e-mails https://www.lemonde.fr/emploi/article/2021/09/16/l-enfer-numerique-la-face-cachee-de-nos-e-mails_6094839_1698637.html

12. Pollution numérique : du clic au déclic https://www.qqf.fr/infographie/69/pollution-numerique-du-clic-au-declic

13. Pourquoi le tourisme de montagne est un exemple pour le tourisme positif de demain https://www.tom.travel/2021/09/20/pourquoi-le-tourisme-de-montagne-est-un-exemple-pour-le-tourisme-positif-de-demain/

14. Tourisme durable : en Inde, une ville interdit les bouteilles d’eau en plastique aux touristes https://www.lechotouristique.com/article/en-inde-une-ville-interdit-les-bouteilles-deau-en-plastique

15. Le surtourisme : quel impact sur les villes et sur l’environnement ? https://www.vie-publique.fr/eclairage/24088-le-surtourisme-quel-impact-sur-les-villes-et-sur-lenvironnement#:~:text=Le%20tourisme%20est%20%C3%A0%20l,%C3%A9missions%20de%20GES%20de%20131%25.

16. Quotas, taxes, interdictions... Les mesures de 12 destinations contre le surtourisme https://www.lefigaro.fr/voyages/quotas-taxes-interdictions-les-mesures-de-12-destinations-contre-le-surtourisme-20210731

17. Face au tourisme de masse, le Pays basque veut sortir les visiteurs des sentiers battus https://www.lefigaro.fr/voyages/face-au-tourisme-de-masse-le-pays-basque-veut-sortir-les-visiteurs-des-sentiers-battus-20210928

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