"Most travel writing is really just PR... If a tourism board flies a newspaper journalist out to a destination, puts them up in a couple of hotels, shows them the sights, they expect a favourable piece in return. So does the newspaper, who wants the tourism board (or airline, or hotel chain) to take out adverts in the months to come. So the writer, who wants to carry on with this comfortable arrangement, delivers."
Jeremy Smith (Web, Twitter) is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (CABI, 2018). The book calls on the travel industry to move away from an incrementalist approach to sustainability towards delivering transformative positive impact through embedding the principles of the circular economy at its core. Jeremy is the editor of Travindy, the travel industry news site dedicated to sustainable tourism. He also writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market and the monthly newsletter on sustainable tourism for the World Travel and Tourism Council. He provides communications consultancy and services to companies and organisations working towards sustainable tourism - recent clients include The Travel Foundation, Visit Finland, PATA and various independent hotels, lodges and tour companies. He co-wrote (with Richard Hammond of Greentraveller) "Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to See the World" which was Rough Guides' only book dedicated to responsible tourism. Before that he was editor of The Ecologist, then the world's longest-running environmental magazine.
ECOCLUB.com: What first attracted you to this sector and career and what keeps you going?
Jeremy Smith: I had been working at an environmental magazine for 6 years, and needed a change. I’ve always loved travelling, yet at the magazine, the editorial position had always been very critical about tourism, including what was then mostly known as ecotourism. When I left I got the chance to write a travel guide for Rough Guides about the best in sustainable tourism around the world, which meant travelling for a year seeing for myself what were said to be some of the most inspiring places around. I realised then that there were a lot of great stories to be told, but also that there was a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding, and it seemed to me that I could work to help address this. What keeps me going? The upbeat answer is that I get to work at something I believe in, with people who inspire me. The less optimistic one is that the message hasn’t got through, so I have to keep pushing.
ECOCLUB.com: You stated that the environmental magazine's editorial position had always been very critical about tourism and ecotourism. Do you feel that this disconnect between the green movement and ecotourism / sustainable tourism persists and if so, why?
Jeremy Smith: Yes I do feel it persists. Why? The main reason that I see is because tourism does not take its environmental costs seriously. It is good at promoting the positives it does but turns a blind eye to the impact that flying in particular has. And therefore, because most people working in the environmental sector think of these underplayed aviation impacts (and the excesses of mass tourism, all-inclusive resorts, cruise ships, Disneyfication etc.) when they think of tourism, so they dismiss the industry as a whole and don't look beyond those to look at the localised positive impacts that responsible tourism initiatives conducted at an appropriate and sensitive scale can have. This could be habitat protection, species conservation, supporting the preservation of local and indigenous food economies etc. Because when you remove the flight cost and turn away from the packaged sterility, there are some wonderful environmentally laudable initiatives taking place in tourism. Engaging with people through their travel experiences, through helping them discover new cultures, providing the chance to enjoy nature, to escape from consumption etc - all of these could offer excellent ways for the environmental movement to inspire people to support its aims. Rather than seeing environmentalists as people who are out to spoil their fun, tourists might appreciate how dedicated, tireless environmental action preserves the essential components of vast amounts of the tourist experience. Without this conservation work etc, we'd have dirty beaches, bleached coral reefs, no lions and elephants.
ECOCLUB.com: Every now and then a major new tourism buzzword arises, the latest seems to be “Overtourism”. Do you consider it as a genuine socio-political and environmental concern or rather, the extreme reaction of small but vocal minorities? Does it have a straightforward solution in terms of tweaking prices and opening hours and dispersing traffic flows or is the situation already out of control and more drastic measures are needed in some popular destinations?
Jeremy Smith: Overtourism is both very simple and very complex. First the simple answer. As the global economy grows, and as the global population grows, it follows that more people gain some level of disposable income. For all sorts of reasons, one of their first desires is to take a break from work and see somewhere new. Not surprisingly, people are attracted to the most iconic (and overpromoted) places, and so they get overcrowded. Add artificially cheap flights into the mix and you have a recipe for more people going to a limited number of places. Not surprisingly, this upsets the people who live there who now find themselves overrun with tourists for extended periods of the year. The more complex answer concerns society at large, and the tourism industry in particular, both of which have a simplistic and nuance-free focus on economic growth as the solution for everything. Of course, gaining a certain increase in income makes for a better quality of life. But over a certain point, the benefits stop growing, while the costs increase. Look at it another way - there comes a point in most people’s income level at which they would choose to have more time not working rather than more money.
Yet economic growth - and the way it is measured through GDP - doesn’t really measure the full societal and environmental costs of simply adding more money, and adding more people. A flight may cost a certain amount of money. GDP goes up. That tourist who arrives on that flight may spend money. GDP goes up. But where does that money go? If they are staying in an internationally owned hotel then it may well be that most of the money goes to foreign shareholders and investors. The destination doesn’t actually benefit that much. What about the impact of that tourist on the local environment and infrastructure? Who pays for that? And who pays for the climate change that is exacerbated by their flight? The more one tries to answer these questions with any degree of nuance, the more complex it becomes. Because in order to address the flaws in designing a society on a growth model which externalises most of the costs, you have to explore what it might look like if we were to re-internalise those costs, and how one might go about doing that.
Furthermore, I consider the overtourism we are seeing right now as just a first hairline crack. Around 1 - 1.3 billion or so people have ever travelled internationally. That’s about 15% of the global population. Are we going to deny a trip to Venice to 85% of the world?
As I see it all this means that current discussions about the solution being ‘managing growth’ miss the point. Managing will only work if what it means at its heart is limiting and truly factoring the costs in, using polluter pays principles.
Beyond that, the solutions are multifaceted, and seen individually may seem somewhat limited.
1. Impose limits and quotas to protect places.
2. Use communication and other incentives to encourage people to do something different. Seeing the Mona Lisa is a miserable experience due to the crowds. But what does it say about the motivations for much of tourism if the painting people will queue the longest to see is the one painting that they know what it looks like? This isn’t about discovery or wonder, it’s about bragging rights when you get back home.
3. Remove environmentally damaging subsidies, and factor in the carbon price. I just typed in ‘flight from London to Barcelona’ in a search engine, and it told me I could get one for £27. That’s just over twice the price of a one-day travelcard to use the underground and buses around London. So rather than learning about the town I live in, becoming more connected and building a meaningful sense of place, I am incentivised to whizz off to ‘do’ Barcelona for a weekend.
4. Redesign tax systems to be redistributive so that people who have never travelled are more able to enjoy its benefits, while those that can afford to travel loads are not rewarded for so doing but rather incrementally made to pay more. Look at airline loyalty schemes. The more frequently I fly, the cheaper it becomes. This is subsidising multiple flights for wealthier people at the expense of everyone else. This should be reversed. We should pay a Frequent Flyer Tax that is used to subsidise the first trips of those less able to afford them (This is not my idea, but the New Economics Foundation’s). All this is why I have written my book - to try to tie all these strands together. And even at 40,000 words, I could have written twice as much.
ECOCLUB.com: Overtourism is perhaps the flip side of another buzzword and trend, the so-called “Sharing Economy”. Hailed as something alternative in its free of charge, Couchsurfing days and forms, it is now a big business through Airbnb and lesser-known platforms. Critics blame all sorts of accusations against this pseudo-sharing economy including tax evasion, unfair competition towards hoteliers and displacement of traditional inhabitants through rental rate hikes. and is now producing billions in Airbnb mode. (Similar accusations exist against Uber another sharing economy champion). Do you feel this is a temporary phenomenon and if not, what could be the long-term effects? More grassroots tourism, greater tax evasion or complete gentrification of historic cities?
Jeremy Smith: I definitely do not see the sharing economy as a temporary phenomenon. I see it as one of the ways that society might just possibly avert ecological collapse. When I say this I mean the sharing economy in its truest form - building an economy based on trust, on maximising the use of resources, and of designing waste out of the system. Seen this way, the sharing economy is part of the circular economy, and how this relates to tourism is the central theme of my book.
The companies you mention have been brilliant at seizing the opportunity to grow these business models and use them for their own gain. Meanwhile, society is using legal structures designed to regulate previous forms of ownership and business to try to control them. We need new forms of legislation to manage them correctly. Because at its heart I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of people sharing empty spaces in their homes, or giving lifts to strangers and making some money out of it. And there are companies out there - Fairbnb, BlaBlacar etc - that are using these same sharing economy approaches, but doing it with a view to promoting social justice. There are problems that mean people are manipulating and abusing the system. And this needs fixing. But I have stayed in Airbnbs across the world that are exactly what it was originally set up as - people renting out spare rooms in their homes and providing them with a healthy supplementary income while also facilitating meetings between strangers. More importantly I think some of the work Airbnb does to support social justice is inspiring - there’s the free bewelcome platform it has set up to support people wanting to host refugees; the work it has done with women’s co-operatives like SEWA in India, and the community development it has done in townships in South Africa, for example.
ECOCLUB.com: Groucho Marx famously quipped that he would never join a club that would have him as a Member. One imagines what he would say about all those ecolabels generously offering silver, gold and platinum recognition. Are they worth having? Are travellers even paying attention? Among the tourism ecolabels, you have come across, which ones in your view are the most honest/credible as well as financially sustainable?
Jeremy Smith: There are travellers - I am one of them - who use some of the schemes to help find places to go - for example, I like Fair Trade Tourism in South Africa. But we remain in an extreme minority. And I certainly wouldn’t exclude places that didn’t have a certification or assume that just because they do have them they are right for me. I think the real benefit of certification schemes comes as an internal compass for companies looking to improve their operations against a set of agreed benchmarks. And then to use them to assess potential partners and suppliers. Most of all though, what I would like the tourism industry to do as regards certification is to look beyond its own exclusively tourism industry focussed measures to those that work across multiple sectors. In particular, I am referring to B Corp and the Economy for the Common Good. Why? Several reasons. First, because the industry likes to promote itself as being hugely networked and influential over other sectors. When it promotes itself as being responsible for 10% of GDP, it reaches this figure through factoring in all the indirect and induced impacts on other sectors that tourism considers itself responsible for. So let’s look to those certification metrics that assess other sectors as well to better understand how we interact and to learn from one another. Second, the majority of tourism certification focusses on measuring efficiencies, and mostly on reducing negative environmental costs. In the end, though, due to increased material costs, greater legislation, or shifting social norms, intelligent companies will become more efficient simply because it makes increasing business sense. The argument for efficiency is easy. But how do we measure the influence and significance of companies that have designed the way they work so as to look beyond their own core operations and to see how they can impact positively on the wider world? This is what B Corp and The Economy for the Common Good seek to measure. I think the golds and silvers of the certification world should be awarded not to those who pollute the least (but still pollute), but to those who create the most positive impact through how they act.
ECOCLUB.com: Has the mainstream travel sector become meaningfully greener or rather more greenwashed in the years that you have been covering the sector as a journalist? Can it become greener and cheaper and keep growing at the same time? Is the phenomenon of greenhushing a response to largely indifferent consumers showing signs of Sustainability/Responsibility-fatigue?
Jeremy Smith: Some things have improved, most hasn’t. Every good move towards say, stopping elephant riding, is dwarfed by the escalation in resource use. We have a long way to go, and mostly we are just going in the wrong direction. We might be going more slowly due to increased efficiency, but we are still heading the wrong way. Greenhushing is an odd one. I think part of it is fatigue, as you suggest. But from my experience of working with companies who are trying to develop responsible tourism, and helping them find their stories and share them, mostly I think it is because people find it a difficult process. Companies often simply don’t know how - or where or when - to tell their stories so as to connect to guest expectations, or motivate staff, or engage with other stakeholders. And sometimes they don’t even realise that something they are doing might offer the material from which to tell a story. So they just don’t do it. ‘Hushing’ suggests that people are actively suppressing their stories. I think more often they just don’t know how to tell them.
ECOCLUB.com: Tourism and leisure include some of the most labour-intensive economic sub-sectors. Do you fear that automatisation (thinking of robots as receptionists/information officers/check-in staff/security staff/waiters/flight attendants/cleaners/porters/chauffeurs) wreak havoc in terms of far higher youth, immigrant and women unemployment? What will all those unemployed people do, become tourism guides, Airbnb hosts or Uber drivers?
Jeremy Smith: Great question. I haven’t looked at it so much the way you have, in terms of unemployment in this industry, although I agree that unless we come up with an approach to tackling it, the risk of unrest is huge. Also, I doubt they will all become guides. Of course, skilled storytelling guides will find roles, but increasingly guides will also be automated, delivered through our phones, through location-enabled apps and augmented reality, just as they are when I go to a gallery. But of course, it won’t be just tourism that it affects. What really interests me is what the impact will be of vast numbers of the population suddenly being either out of work or - as I suspect will be more common - working less, maybe through job shares or the provision of universal income for example. Much of the world is going to have a lot more free time in the future. But not a lot more disposable income to spend on it. If tourism is the industry designed to fill up free time, then how will it respond? When people have a small amount of holiday time each year, and a lot of disposable income, the thought of an expensive holiday in faraway places might appeal. But what happens when those factors are reversed? WIll the result be more people travelling more slowly, going for longer, or holidaying nearer home to make the money go further?
ECOCLUB.com: There is far less talk of tourism & travel boycotts these days, possibly because the list of states violating human rights, under various pretexts, is going up, rather than down, so pointing fingers is becoming more difficult. But what is the effect of the absence of such travel boycotts, of uninterrupted travel to illiberal democracies, autocracies and theocracies? Is it or should it be Neutral according to the ‘leave nothing but footprints – take nothing but photographs’ (unless these are banned too) mantra? Is Tourism actually supporting or slowly undermining illiberal regimes in your view?
Jeremy Smith: First, I disagree that the number of states violating human rights has gone up. All states violate human rights one way or another. And all states have always violated human rights. Most domestic policy and foreign policy has always been constructed through asserting the rights of one group over another. We just have a more all-pervasive media so we know more about it. For years the Burma Campaign called for a travel boycott of Myanmar. Then Aung San Suu Kyi was freed, the country supposedly opened up, the boycott was dropped, and tourism numbers soared. And now we have Suu Kyi in power and the Rohingya crisis. So what impact did the boycott have? I used to support it, but now I just don’t know. I realise that I am too far from the truth of the story to make a fair assessment. Will boycotting tourism to Saudi Arabia improve the rights of women there? Should we stop going to the USA while Trump is in power? What about all the countries in the world - including many tourism-reliant Caribbean countries - where homosexuality is still a crime? What would the impact of any such boycotts be? I understand boycotts of companies - companies make a product. If you object to the way that product is made, or the product itself, go ahead and boycott the company. It’s comparatively clear-cut. But countries, despite what your average destination marketing slogan might imply, are not so simply defined. I suspect boycotts of countries deter those already most concerned about a certain issue from travelling to certain places (that they maybe wouldn’t have gone to anyway because of their views), while those who couldn’t really care carry on regardless. Some boycotts might work. Some probably have unintended negative consequences. I would far rather a concerned tourist went to a country and spent their money visiting a group who was suffering some form of oppression or limited opportunity and supported them through staying in community-run tourism projects, engaging with those with least voice in that society, sharing their stories and learning from one another. To me, that is the epitome of a responsible tourism experience.
ECOCLUB.com: The Internet is the closest the world has come to a globalised, perfectly-competitive market, it has few barriers to entry and tens of new entrants each day have a go at travel blogging and a travel writer/journalist career. What key advice would you offer them?
Jeremy Smith: That’s the hardest question. I love writing about travel and tourism, and I love travelling. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy countless experiences around the world - for free - because I was going to write about them. But although this privilege has given me untold amounts of joy, it also presents a huge dilemma. The relationship between travel writers/bloggers and the tourism industry we write about is structurally problematic. Writers get taken on free trips, given free nights in hotels, and then are expected to write something in return. Of course, no one tells the writer that they can’t write anything critical or negative. They don’t need to. The writer who wants to get a call on the next press trip, or invited to the next hotel, needs to show that their writing has boosted the client’s business. In 1988 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, where they described the way the mass media works as “a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion." Most travel media is this in its purest form. Most travel writing is really just PR. Newspapers have restaurant critics from whom we expect an honest opinion. But the restaurant doesn’t advertise in the paper. If a tourism board flies a newspaper journalist out to a destination, puts them up in a couple of hotels, shows them the sights, they expect a favourable piece in return. So does the newspaper, who wants the tourism board (or airline, or hotel chain) to take out adverts in the months to come. So the writer, who wants to carry on with this comfortable arrangement, delivers. The irony is, that while people criticise the likes of Tripadvisor for having fake reviews, sites like that will also feature more truth, more balance, more honest criticism, than your average newspaper, magazine or travel blog. My advice? If you want to be a travel writer or journalist, find a story you can write that doesn’t involve any of the compromises above. Maybe look locally, in the area where you live, because then you will find stories that you can access for free simply through your proximity. You won’t get the exotic junket out of it, but you’ll get the chance to tell a true story, an original one, about somewhere you have spent long enough to know deeply. It doesn’t have to be negative or positive. Just honest.