Publications & Reviews

Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet

Book Review: "Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet"

Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet. Environmental, Business and Policy Solutions.

Author: Megan Epler Wood

Routledge, ISBN 978-1-138-21761-4, January 2017, Hardback/Paperback/E-book, 327 pages.

If you were elected to public office and suddenly installed as head of the tourism ministry without previous professional experience of the travel sector (it does happen) and only a vague idea of sustainability, then this densely written book can be your crash course on how the tourism sector works and what exactly it would take – and how difficult it really is - to make it sustainable. But it is an equally useful and thought-provoking work for seasoned and aspiring tourism sustainability professionals, as it includes detailed praise and criticism of a wide range of stakeholders trying, some harder than others, to make tourism greener.

From the very first pages, it is evident that the author has a 360 degree understanding of the sector, not to mention a solid green track record as the founder of The International Ecotourism Society which she led from 1990 to 2002, then becoming a leading ecotourism consultant and educator. The book also benefits – as we are transparently informed – by the timely field research of over two hundred students that the author supervised in Harvard Extension School during the past 6 years. The book offers an extensive review of academic literature and related news and technological developments, while there are very useful endnotes and detailed references in each chapter, along with a detailed chapter summary.

Unlike many academic books, the book is pleasant to read as it avoids jargon and combines academic rigour with journalistic immediacy and activist passion. Its case studies, analysis and proposals, will appeal to a wide audience ranging from sustainable tourism students to high-level policy makers. The author occasionally switches to first person narrative to intimate first-hand professional experience, both positive and negative. The book methodically reviews sustainability progress and lack thereof in various sectors, sub-sectors and operational aspects of the tourism industry trying to pinpoint the skills, investments and tools needed in each case so as to protect irreplaceable, finite natural resources from Tourism development. Numerous, brief but informative case studies are included which indicate that necessary tourism budgets, to create basic sanitation – let alone sustainable destinations - are consistently underestimated by governments and local authorities.

The author probably assumes or hopes that you, unlike most of your tourism industry peers, really believe in the reality and urgency of Climate Change and that (tourism) business-as-usual is not an option. Readers are also expected to share the author’s belief in the ability of the current global (tourism) system to reform so as to combat Climate Change. (“...this volume is calling for reform. Such reform will depend on agreement that new forms of governance and more investment is required to measure and manage tourism’s impacts on the planet” p.301). If you do not believe in the ability of the business/system/capitalism to reform itself through public/private/non-profit/ educational institution cooperation, if you prefer something more radical to reform, or if you assume that smaller businesses are by definition greener and/or more benevolent, then you may feel, wrongly, that this book is biased towards big Tourism, a handful of big, ‘enlightened’, tour operators and hotel chains. On the contrary, the author has an inclusive approach and, in the business of building bridges and alliances, does not want to exclude or dismiss any tool or stakeholder from the outset: for example, critics of carbon offsetting are portrayed as probably “short-sighted” (p.210), market mechanisms for capping airline emissions are presented as hopeful despite a past record of indifference, while rigorous (as opposed to fake), corporate social responsibility is praised as a worthy concept. Along the lines of inclusiveness, we would have loved to also see some discussion of non-mainstream, green alternatives such as tourism cooperatives, worker-management, intentional communities and ecovillages because they also have a part to play, even just as inspiration, as most authentic expressions of greenness. The reader will also generally not find a lot on negative stuff such as human rights abuses by or within tourism (exploitation of undocumented workers, sexual trafficking), gender inequality and pay gaps, and labour rights, with the exception of working conditions in the Cruise sector: the Cruise sector is heavily criticised, and rightly so, by the author in terms of its exploitative and racist labour policies (“the deeper you go in the belly of the ship, the darker the crew” p.236), its abysmal (though still legal, as the author highlights) waste management policies, its tax-avoiding setup with flags of convenience, and its strong-arm, colonial-style tactics against small (and sometimes larger) ports.

The author is overall not in favour of outright privatisation of tourism resources: “As income inequality continues to grow worldwide and resources become less available to a growing percentage of the poor, privatisation is proving to be a perilous and flawed solution for deciding upon a common future. (p. 64)”. Yet, elsewhere Epler Wood recognises that “private reserves are one the the most effective tools for achieving conservation and the protection of natural areas”(p.93). We infer that the author is probably in favour of a combination of public-private partnerships. The author also praises Elinor Ostrom's Economic theory of the Commons (communities successfully managing shared wealth) and presents the Monteverde, Costa Rica, case study as a successful case of shared wealth management (p.65). Other relevant case studies include a community-managed waterfall in Thenmala, Kerala, India and the jointly owned (community & private) Peru’s Tambopata Lodge (Ese Eja People & Rainforest Expeditions) and Ecuador’s Kapawi Lodge (Achuar People & Conodros Company). She also rightly points out that local communities are easily & soon displaced by tourism development “locals sell quickly” as they opt for short-term cash benefits over long-term potential opportunities due to lack of alternative options, information and knowledge.

Therefore readers of all green hues, even if they have objections and reservations about market-based, capitalist tools and recipes, will agree that this book is very informative and contains an accurate and realistic assessment of the situation. Most readers will agree that “Business as usual” i.e. externalising the social and environmental costs of tourism (spending huge amounts on marketing tourism destinations and a pittance to building public tourism infrastructure to enable sustainable management of waste, and energy use as the author rightly points out) is no longer an acceptable option. This realisation, however, does not usually bring action - there are various “green gaps” ranging from policy decisions to consumer decisions and spending. (Which also begs the question what will a tourism professional do after reading and agreeing with this book?)

The book sets out to make the case that since Tourism is ideal to combat poverty it is also ideal for donor financing to “foster economic development” (p.316) but we lack the proper metrics to measure progress in terms of greater inclusiveness and lower environmental impact: “Net contribution of tourism to conservation is still unknown (p.93). The author's central idea, repeated with reference to different travel sectors, is that the COP 21 Paris Agreement has finally (N.B. the Kyoto treaty did not cover Travel, the Paris agreement still does not cover Cruise industry and maritime carbon emissions) created the possibility of serious funding for sustainability (“Finance will be key to achieving these goals with US 100 bn to be mobilized by 2025”. p.302) and now there is a unique window of opportunity (perhaps short in the light of the new US administration) as well as an urgent need for public-private cooperation with the assistance of local prestigious educational institutions operating as a global consortium, and international cooperation, so as to create meaningful environmental impact indices, statistics, the latest GIS tools, honest certification systems with teeth, and realistic, enforceable legislation, as well as a new generation of skilled, tourism sustainability professionals at every level, nook and corner of the industry. Some readers will probably wonder how easy the above combination is, especially with a climate agnostic US administration that currently threatens to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, something which would probably cancel a huge chunk of available funding.

Rightly sceptical of corporate and NGO self-praise of the past, the author appears to place as much emphasis on “reporting” according to global environmental standards as on being eco-friendly: “While (US, small niche tour operators, the dominant business model) manage what often appears to be a socially and environmentally responsible model of operations and work on a scale where real relationships with local suppliers can help them to monitor their impacts...few companies seek to report according to globally accepted standards.” (p. 216).

The book names (and sometimes shames) names and perhaps already attempts to build or indicate possible alliances. The author recommends that a ‘dual’ governance system must be established by UNWTO and tourism ministries, and one by UNEP and other, environment ministries to maintain checks-and-balances, while a “Carbon Neutral Destination Program” planning unit could be developed within Environment Ministries. It is unclear, though, if the author, who is not unfamiliar with founding international organisations, believes that the new governance she calls for (“These agreements set the stage for both new forms of governance for sustainable tourism and new forms of accounting” p.303) should also take the shape of a new organisation that spearheads and oversees this titanic effort and the transparent administration of funds; one notes some ambiguous references in the text compared to some more enthusiastic references to other players.

Some characteristic excerpts:

“Only a few NGOs have had the capacity to raise these important issues on a consistent basis using validated research projects, such as Tourism Concern and the Center for Responsible Travel, but their efforts while beneficial are generally sorely underfunded” (p. 272).

GSTC: “The destinations that made an original commitment to assessing themselves according to GSTC criteria are unlikely to be subject to any further accountability” (p.273). “There appears to be a process here that effectively leaves tourism ministries free to tout sustainability as a goal for their governments without clear assessments or clear measures to pursue policies” (p.273). “Efforts to create more uniformity and consistency in reporting via certification are hindered by a lack of specificity in such systems as the GSTC which was established to harmonise tourism sustainability platforms” (p.114).

ICAO: “Many observers note that ICAO may not have the vision or the leadership capacity to create a system that can work worldwide”. “Some experts in carbon trading argue that “given the proximity of ICAO to the industry it is meant to regulate and its long track record of avoiding climate action it is highly unlikely that it will adequately regulate greenhouse gas emissions from flying” (p.153). Yet, “The international organisation ICAO does outstanding work measuring impacts, working with scientists around the world, and giving unusually candid estimates of how well environmental management procedures are affecting overall outcomes” (p.182).

Airbnb: “could help slow the rapid growth of new hotels and their infrastructure to a degree and take advantage of an enormous stock of housing, apartments and homes that have space for more visitors. And to double the benefits the system puts extra cash into the hands of local people. But even with these benefits, for cities with housing shortages or central cores that are becoming dominated by tourist apartments, regulation will be needed.” (p.60).

The Ecotourism sector, as expected perhaps, is treated favourably: “Ecotourism provides a palpably more gentle and less brutal form of development, compared to the uphill battles local people face against large industrial exploitation, represented by extractive oil, mining and logging” (p.263) “In the hotel industry, ecolodges still set the standard for energy-efficient design” (p.119). “The example set by ecolodges is not just for those interested in the green economy or ecological design”(p.132). A number of well-known Ecolodges are praised as best cases of joint ventures between the private sector and indigenous communities. Ecotourism Australia is presented as a “success story with certified businesses garnering 2% of Australia’s total tourism GDP” (p.209). However, the author points out that with the exception of the highly praised Wilderness Safaris and a handful of others, “most ecotourism operations have failed to emerge beyond small owner-driven enterprises” (p.195). Should they, or is small beautiful? The author offers the case of the Huaorani Ecolodge, a landmark cooperation between ecotourism industry and the Huaorani people which helped preserve over 135,000 hectares of pristine rain forest. But even ‘big’ Huaorani Ecolodge had to close in May 2016 “due to seismic testing in the area by the Chinese oil company Sinopec” (p.263). It seems big in Tourism is still small in Oil terms.

A bit surprising, but welcome as long as it is based on verifiable as opposed to the now fashionable ‘alternative facts’, is the positive account of TUI which “sets the standard”. “Their reports offer a model of tour operator sustainability reporting.” (p.216). The author argues that (and contrary to common wisdom) “only the largest firms in Europe, with revenues exceeding $1.5 bn annually, sought to meet sustainability goals and report on their goals and objectives in a consistent fashion” (p.199) adding that “the dominance of small-scale hotels in the hotel world is one of the most important impediments to achieving a more coordinated environmental reporting strategy on a worldwide basis” (p.111). Of course, coordinated environmental reporting is not identical to genuine environmental sustainability and social responsibility, a giant company may have enough cash to burn so as to just go through the moves and keep shareholders and consumers happy. Pseudo-CSR can (but should not be allowed to) be an alibi for even greater consolidation and concentration in the tourism industry. Antitrust laws are fully compatible with and absolutely necessary in the quest for sustainability. In our view, small, local ownership should not be wiped out by eco-friendly giants, but it must be safeguarded and encouraged – with carrot and stick if necessary – to turn greener.

The book contains some informative diagrams and telling pictures, among which the image of a child in a tourism destination rubbish dump staring the camera is just devastating. We need to keep such images in mind each time we feel tired or disappointed as there is no time to loose.

The power of social media is recognised (on p. 204 “40% of travellers in 2012 stated that social network comments influenced their travel planning”) but it is not given extensive coverage in the book, with the exception of TripAdvisor and its GreenLeader program (p. 205). We would also have wished to find a detailed coverage of OTAs and insight into their sustainability plans, if any, as the author acknowledges their massive dominance in terms of hotel bookings; perhaps this will come in a future edition – or who knows, big OTAs may be not so relevant in a few years, there may be more direct bookings and more sharing & caring economy.

But most importantly it would be great to see a sequel volume that will be totally dedicated to laying out a blueprint in detail for the new tourism sustainability governance, the benchmarks and the new tools so that it could be presented as a concise, actionable proposal to, say, the UNWTO. Otherwise, there is a risk that all this valuable analysis will be ignored.

Finally, among the many interesting points, direct and indirect, of this highly commendable book, we picked the following 20:

1. There is a surprising lack of concern about climate change in the tourism industry while conservative scenarios for tourism anticipate the impacts on resources to more than double by 2050: emissions are forecasted to escalate by 100%-300%, energy consumption by 154%, water consumption by 152%, solid waste disposal by 251%. In the meantime, only 29% of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are developed enough to provide measurable targets, while the SDG mention Sustainable Tourism as an important mechanism for meeting SDG 8 (Work for All).

2. There is overwhelming evidence that governments do not have the training, staff, or budget required to manage the impacts of tourism. Municipalities, in particular, lack the data, expertise and revenue to understand the real costs of providing services to the tourism industry. As a result, many destinations have developed and new ones still develop without adequate sewage treatment and other public services for local residents, undermining their long-term tourism future.

3. Tourism creates economic dependency and economic import & export leakage: for every 100 spent for a vacation tour by a tourist in a developed country, only 5 remains (or reaches) a developing country economy (p.96). But some leakages are in fact necessary linkages, by definition, international tourism needs a global supply chain. Donors, the author believe, should focus on creating locally owned supply chains that link upward to gateway cities.

4. Tax Avoidance matters: how a tourism business is paying tax and to what extent it is being sheltered (by offshore havens and transfer pricing) to the detriment of local needs is a highly overlooked question that needs much more investigation in future (p.97).

5. There is high industry consolidation especially among European Tour Operators, Online Travel Agents (OTAs) and in the Cruise Sector (two companies control 75%)

6. Hotel Brands should specify in detail (and perform relevant checks) that sustainability is part of the franchise agreement. (p.110).

7. Large hotel chains such as Hilton and Accor and tour operators like TUI are already using global systems to gather and manage their data to lower impacts.

8. “Budget hotels are generally more efficient than upscale hotels which use about 25% more energy per room night” (p.117).

9. A third of all tourism expenditures are for food, thus important for hotels to invest in local food value chains.

10. To generate meaningful indices, resource use in hotels should be divided by square footage and consumer use using the metric of Per Room Sold.

11. Governments should provide tax incentives to help subsidise the cost of renewable energy installations and develop net metering policies so that tourism businesses earn funds from the renewable energy they generate (p.120).

12. Waste management cannot be left to local governments alone. Hotels along with national and local governments must embrace the problem together (p.127). Even in eco-friendly Costa Rica, 77% of the pacific beaches are threatened by faecal contamination.

13. Grey water recycling systems are relatively inexpensive and can reduce up to 40% of the water that reaches municipal treatment facilities. Constructed wetland systems are also inexpensive ways (50% cheaper than conventional systems) to treat sewage, as long as there are public charges for hotel water and sewage use.

14. “The digital (sharing) economy has created a market for helping to arrest the rapid growth of hotels worldwide, and this trend is of great significance for slowing the growth of new hotels even if that is not fully recognised as a benefit to society, yet” (p.136).

15. “Few consumers are highly aware that their long-haul travel is one of the most carbon-intensive activities in their lives”.

16. Airport noise has serious health (blood pressure) and cognitive problems especially to children living in areas adjacent to airports (p. 166). Increases in carbon monoxide near airports (near LAX airport) have been statistically linked to increases in daily admissions for asthma problems. (p.175)

17. Many companies and NGOs still choose easy philanthropy over rigorous sustainability policies.

18. The legal status of the cruise industry which operates without oversight in most regions of the world “needs to change”. “Voluntary reporting systems are a temporary fix, they are only scratching the surface and not providing real accountability”.

19. Studies show that there are inadequate statistics to prove that goes under the name of sustainable tourism is indeed sustainable. We need a ‘global pro-poor statistical system’. GIS systems can now be deployed to track indicators at the regional level to create a global data-driven mapping system.

20. A comprehensive plan to develop new graduates is needed, a ‘global educational commission’ could identify educational needs: carbon accounting, life cycle analysis, hydrological monitoring, GIS land planning.