Transforming Travel

"Transforming Travel - Realising the potential of sustainable tourism"

Author: Jeremy Smith

CABI, ISBN 978-1-786-39419-4, Paperback, 124 pages, December 2017

A detailed survey of good practices in the hotel and some other sub-sectors of the Travel industry with an “instead-of-cursing-the-darkness-light-up-a-candle” attitude. The author, a leading travel and environment journalist, explains from the outset that this concise publication is not meant to be “a book exposing the ills of tourism”. What it is is uplifting and pleasant to read, avoiding jargon and a rigid academic presentation, without sacrificing accurate details and footnotes or a basic analysis of underlying issues. It includes direct, thought-provoking direct questions (e.g. Can hotels become water neutral?) and provides answers based on facts rather than endless theories. Academic readers may, of course, take issue with some of the sources, which apart from valuable first-hand experiences and a thorough literature review, unavoidably include company press releases. As a green ideas guide and tool book for tourism administrators, decision-makers, green tourism entrepreneurs and eco-friendly hotel managers (especially in large chains with long arms and big pockets where anything is possible) the book succeeds 100%. Equally so for conscious, responsible travellers. It serves as a useful record of green tourism progress (and indirectly of lack thereof) so far, a detailed picture documenting “what”, rather than a movie explaining “why”.

The author, a former editor of The Ecologist, points out that the environmental impact of tourism is “150% greater than the industry tends to acknowledge” and that the industry and in particular its vocal, powerful big business tourism associations, overplays its contribution, by including the supply chain, and then underplays its emissions, by suddenly forgetting the supply chain. He also points out the dissonance between the Green Movement and the Tourism sector, and this book makes a consistent effort to bridge this dissonance. Whether it succeeds depends on the reader’s position in either the green movement or the tourism industry.

Most assessments of the role of Tourism, from quick copy-paste blog posts to click-bait newspaper articles, to seminal academic treatises, range from Tourism as the Devil to Tourism as the Messiah with little in between. This, finally, is a book in between, with down to earth examples of best practices. Overwhelming scientific consensus on human-induced Climate Change has made environmentalism mainstream but in so doing it has divided the Greens. The Green Right, finally enjoying the limelight, enthusiastically argues that Capitalism can become Green while the Green Left, suspicious of the motives of suddenly socially & environmentally responsible corporations, argues that by definition, Capitalism cannot reform itself. Depending on your political point of view, of course, and your assessment of the role and inherent nature of Tourism either as a catalyst for change or as the great Satan/exploiter/polluter, and your particular job and position in the travel industry (or at its receiving end as a local complaining of so-called ‘overtourism’), you may find this concise volume realistic, optimistic or overoptimistic, inspiring or bordering on propagating greenwashing, focusing on practical or magic techno-solutions and implying that green capitalism that has found all the answers, it just has to apply them. The choice is yours! The author has clearly done his share, giving you facts and ideas, plenty of them. It’s your turn to check the information against your notes, experiences and convictions. Moreover, there is a twist in the end, please read on!

The proposed “transformation” in the title of the book, does not take the form of radical (radical as in radical green/ radical left), social and structural change in the tourism sector(s). The transformation on offer is a rather a common-sense reform, a win-win for all, including any CSR (and now GDPR) aware leading or aspiring tourism multinational, the proverbial camel going through the eye of the needle: for example, we read – o tempora o mores - that the chief sustainability officer for IKEA is a supporter of “radical change”.

If you are pro-sustainable-business and otherwise an agnostic in terms of political systems (Deng Xiao Pings’ “it does not matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”), you will be overwhelmed after reading how many things are already technically feasible but are not yet happening, isolated best cases aside – because for every great green company presented here, there are bound to be hundreds of not-so-great brown or grey companies. Some examples are both counter-intuitive and provocatively inspiring: We have heard of Hotels (and hotel guests) stealing water from the local community, but the author chooses to present the one example of a hotel giving water to the community! Why not?

Some readers may wonder half-way through the book: is it the role of Tourism, i.e. the hotel, of the tour operator, of private entreprise, small or big to forget profit-making, their raison d'être, and undergo all this transformation out of their benevolence and wisdom, or condemned, by nature of their business, to do so Atlas-style? Is it realistic for us to expect them to (be able to) do so? Don’t we really need democratically accountable governments and movements to press them/force them to do so, rather than merciful moguls semi-accountable to semi-mogul shareholders? A relevant industry opinion quoted in the book is: “In the absence of real and lasting government action, businesses increasingly have a moral imperative to adopt a restorative approach to put more back more into society than they take out” or at least this is what a director of a real estate and investment management company thinks. So there you have it: discovery of moral businesses makes immoral politicians obsolete (as Sid Meier would put it). But the truth is, that in a fairer global system no community should have to depend on anyone’s benevolence, let alone that of a multinational hotel chain, and the quickest way to move towards this fairer global system is not really to become dependent on such a chain (“we have nothing to lose but our chains”?). On the other hand, few people would associate Tourism, which – let’s face it, has, fairly or not, a reputation of political conservatism and servility, with radical change. That said there is a vibrant tourism worker movement, which is unionised especially in big hotel chains.

The book is refreshingly written in the first person and contains autobiographical elements, first-hand travel experiences, that are much more enlightening and inspiring than press releases and quotes from industry personalities. As the book does not present case-studies in a classic fashion, one after the other, but embeds elements thereof in different sectors and themes of green action, it is easier to read, but we do not get a full idea of who and why are undertaking these green initiatives and their motives – are they genuine, or forced by some conditions, protests, laws etc. Are these initiatives representative of all their actions, or are they perhaps hyped-up examples in just one of their properties, for PR reasons?

The author has high hopes for the commercialised (genetically-modified?) bits of the so-called “sharing economy” and praises Airbnb for “a model that relies on people trusting total strangers to stay in their most valuable and loved possession, often while they are not there”. But, a cynic would ask, why would people trust a total stranger? Is it their inherent good nature, or are they rather forced by unemployment and high property taxes? Whatever the real reason, let us hope that some of the more ‘responsible’ Airbnb competitors such as Trustroots, Bewelcome and Fairbnb.coop, which the author mentions, will give them a good run for their money.

The author also recognises the continuing relevance of Ecotourism, both conceptual and practical in this reviewer’s opinion, despite the subsequent flood of adjectival tourisms: Jeremy Smith acknowledges: “Ecotourism came first. And is still the term that gets by far the most results on a search engine”. Mercifully, he does not argue in favour of the christening of yet another tourism, ‘Transformative Tourism’, although there is already a book on this topic by the same publishing house!

There is an extended discussion of Carbon Offsets but the author appears undecided: “Offsetting epitomizes the contradiction and confusion at the heart of tourism’s sustainability efforts”. He argues Hotels and other travel companies should use them but only to supplement their efforts “to reduce core emissions, never instead of doing so”. Other keywords and notable ideas in the long chapter on hotels are Zero water, zero waste hotels, hotels growing their own food, and last, but not least: “why hotels should stop treating their staff like externalities”. The short answer provided is: Low pay is the reason for high staff turnover, people quitting their jobs. Jobs in the UK tourism are paid half than in retail. Hotel wages are steady with 68% of hospitality workers in London paid less than the London Living Wage even though room prices are steadily increasing. However, the “Why” is missing. Why do these luxury hotels keep on exploiting their workers even though they quit? Because they can, because this how they make profits, and because they can find cheaper ones.

Gender injustice (referred to as “gender imbalances”) is covered in three short paragraphs on page 46. The book came out shortly before the emergence of the Me Too movement, and hopefully, subsequent editions will expand on this crucial front of much-needed transformation. We read that “many big hotel chains have excellent diversity strategies in place, with Marriott recognised as one of the 100 Best Workplaces for Women”. As this is a book on positives, there is no mention of course of industrial action against worker rights and many times human rights abuses by major hotel chains including award-winning pseudo-green ones, or their perfectly legal exploitation of interns. Worker’s Self-management gets an indirect, brief reference as a good practice, with Soria Moria in Cambodia where employees own 51% of the shares and the management is thinking of also handing them the rest in the long-run. There are of course more examples with 100% ownership, such as the iconic, worker-occupied then worker-run Hotel Bauen of Buenos Aires.

The Chapter on “Transforming Travel Experiences (Chapter 3) is the most inspiring of the book but unfortunately very short, just a third of the chapter on hotels. It deals with poverty tours (reality tours/solidarity tours) and voluntourism in South Africa, India, Australia and the UK and the dilemmas they pose. It also includes a brilliant point: “In a world of 7 billion people, 1 billion international travellers” (or even less as many are taking repeat journeys) “this means 85% of the world did not take an international holiday in 2015”. So so-called “Overtourism” (or Hypertourism ? as in hype, hysteria and so on) is, in reality, an "Undertourism": “if we truly believe that tourism can be transformative, then we are obliged to do what we can to spread its benefits way beyond a highly mobile elite, and make it accessible to as wide a number of people as possible”. Indeed, and only elitists and misanthropes could disagree with the author on this.

Chapter 4 “Transforming Places” deals with destination policies such as regulation (tourism business licenses), taxation (green taxes), pedestrian zones, and transportation (green and subsidised options). A notable example is Tallinn, Estonia’s Capital “which has subsidized free public transport for the city’s residents by charging tourists” who use it. A great idea. The chapter also briefly covers the less discussed, but promising concepts and practices of biomimicry and rewilding.

Chapter 5 “Transforming Transport” is rather pessimistic, compared with the rest of the book: “Electric flight requires a 15-fold increase in the energy density of lithium batteries and even if this were possible it wouldn’t happen before 2035”. So, in just 15 short years from now it can be possible, so why dismiss it rather than say, call for massive subsidies to speed up progress? How to pay for these subsidies? Change the international agreements “which prohibit the imposition of tax on fuel sold for international flights”. A succinct point made by the author is that it is a misrepresentation – hypocrisy by airline moguls who have the poor in their hearts one could add – that making aviation pay more would “penalize the poor”: frequent flyers are now subsidized to fly more with discounts and perks, rather than each of their additional flights being taxed at an increasing level. It all boils down to who should pay to reverse Climate Change: the 99% or the 1%, assumed that the reader still believes that the current global model, Capitalism, is viable and just needs green reform.

A very depressing statistic presented is that just 2% of international tourists use the rail networks! The reasons are not discussed in the book, but must have something to do with the fact that rail travel is a lot slower, not competitively priced and privatised rail companies are not properly marketing their, rather lousy, services to tourists. Only a few good independent websites, mentioned by the author, exist that try promote rail travel options but these are not enough. Large holiday booking websites have not yet discovered rail. The real solution would be a massive public investment to create a modern, safe infrastructure for affordable, rapid rail travel, in areas such as Europe, Asia and Eurasia, but also Africa.

On page 87, the author clarifies his view that every tourist should pay to offset their flight. But then he suspects that if this was to happen all the others in the chain (airlines, airports, destinations, tour company) “would pass the price on”. He, therefore, proposes a matching-our-customers-donation model: “Only after I have agreed the price for my flight am I offered the chance to offset it, knowing that the airline will match my contribution”. He explains that this model is “rather like when companies offer to match donations by their staff to charities”. It is hard to share the author's optimism that charity can solve Climate Change. It is more likely that we need to elect governments that will change the rules of the game, rather than rely on the remorses and the hidden benevolence of those who created and benefited from the problem in the first place.

Chapter 6, “Transforming Communication”, is disappointingly spartan (6 pages) given that the author is a leading expert on global green tourism communication. Therein is the rather common observation that mass social media like Facebook and TripAdvisor have totally changed the game of tourism communication (42% of stories shared on FB are about travel experiences, 200 travel photos posted on TripAdvisor every minute) and the promising note that in some cases large websites and tour companies under social media pressure were forced to drop some types of experiences involving cruel animal interactions. But there is nothing on greenwashing, conflicts of interest and ethics of communications. The truth is that there is very little investigative travel journalism in the world, all we get is glorious press release stuff on the one hand, and sweeping condemnation on the other.

The concluding chapter is a surprise. Rather than recap the discussion of each previous chapter, the author now presents contrarian arguments and new data. He admits that due to limitations of space he has not examined all-inclusives and cruise ships – understandably so, as it is hard for an honest commentator to find positive things to say about these two sub-sectors. He also rightly points out that despite the many positive individual cases he has presented, in most cases the tourism industry’s structure is not designed to support a government’s sustainable policies. So, surprisingly, after so many positive discussion, the implied answer to the author’s fundamental question “Can the Mainstream Transform?” seems to be it is a hard call. One key reason being powerful tourism corporations avoiding taxes and unduly influencing government policy. The author also calls for the adoption of new models to measure Tourism, away from GDP/GNP (overstated?) contributions, and on to Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” and the “Economy of Common Good” theory of Christian Felber, endorsed by the state parliament of South Tyrol, an autonomous and erstwhile separatist province of Italy.

At the very end, the five short paragraphs entitled “How can tourism prepare for new work patterns” act as an explosion device/time bomb for the whole book: “Increasing automation means 50% of the world could be unemployed within 30 years”. “This should be seen as a rallying call to tourism since it is above all else the industry designed to fill up the time we have available when we aren’t working”. So the original hypothesis/question if Travel and Tourism can transform themselves explodes into: Can Travel and Tourism provide THE answer for the impending double catastrophe: Climate Change + Massive Unemployment? We would very much like to see this author attempt to answer that question in a companion volume which would expand on some other issues he has expertly but rather briefly covered in this book, hopefully within a framework of ecological political theories and currents which are clearly close to his heart. 

In conclusion, this book is a delicious Vegetarian meze, and we long for the main, Vegan, course!

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