“There’s no doubt it’s a tricky time to be in tourism and no-one has the answers to the many questions that keep arising,” says Melbourne-based James Thornton, the chief executive officer of Intrepid Group, an Australian-owned company which markets itself as “the world’s largest adventure company” with a suite of brands in its stable, including Peregrine, Urban Adventures, and Intrepid Travel.
Sure, the obvious immediate answer is limit your travel and support local. But the bigger travel picture is increasingly unavoidable.
“If we don’t act now, there will be no travel in future – no reefs, no beaches, no ski fields worth travelling to,” Thornton says. “Many of our prime tourism spots will be underwater, melted or on fire.”
Last week, Intrepid Group became the first Australian company to sign up to the Tourism Declares Climate Emergency initiative, driven out of the United Kingdom.
The grass roots movement offers like-minded tourism operators a platform to band together and swap strategies on ensuring their tourism practices are as sustainable as possible, short of not travelling at all.
To join, you must agree to continue to cut your tourism company’s carbon emissions and also to advocate for change – including supporting urgent regulatory action to accelerate the transition towards zero carbon air travel.
“What we are essentially saying through this public declaration is that if we don’t have a healthy planet, we don’t have a travel industry,” says Thornton.
“We know the travel industry contributes around eight per cent to total world carbon emissions. And we are agreeing, as signatories, that we want to help contain that figure.”
At the moment, the signatories are pretty much the usual suspects – think organisations like Wilderness Scotland and YellowWood Adventures. Carbon neutral Intrepid also boasts strong green credentials since the company took the carbon neutral path in 2005 after it’s founders read Professor Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers and decided to create a company that took seriously the challenges to the planet posed by travellers.
But there’s no denying, the signatories are sticking their necks out. Intrepid’s website now features their pledge – under a confronting photo of a polar bear perched on melting ice. They have also promised to offset 125 per cent of their emissions by the end of this year, plus set themselves the goal of transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy in their offices by 2025, and on their trips by 2030.
The industry’s catch 22 moment is not lost on academics.
“In many parts of the world, particularly Australia, tourism is built around wilderness and nature-based activities,” says Judith Mair, an Associate Professor in the Tourism Discipline Group at the UQ Business School in Queensland.
“At the same time, tourism – through flights, accommodation, meals, car hire etc – is a significant contributor to carbon emissions. So tourism is both badly hit by climate change – and it’s a contributor.”
Sophisticated Traveller is next out in the Financial Review on Friday February 21, and is a special sustainable travel issue.