The big question for people in the travel industry today is how to reconcile the contradiction: How to maximize the advantages of travel, primarily for employment and the economy, without paying the environmental price

Moshe Gilad Apr 23, 2023

אינדונזיה חוף ים פסולת
Tourists and local residents disembark a boat coming from nearby Nusa Penida island as plastic trash pollutes the beach in Sanur, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia in 2018. Credit: Johannes P. Christo/Reuters

An Israeli wanting to feast their eyes upon a sequoia – the world’s largest tree – must first fly 15 hours to California, then rent a car and stay in a hotel. Although this traveler loves nature and cares deeply about the planet, they will inevitably be polluting it by making this journey.

Julia Simpson, who heads the World Travel & Tourism Council, is acutely aware of this contradiction we must all contend with. By and large, travelers who go on nature excursions care about the environment and wish to protect our planet. However, planes, ships, hotels, vehicles and restaurants all cause their share of environmental damage.

The big question for people in the travel industry today is how to reconcile this contradiction: How to maximize the advantages of travel, primarily for employment and the economy, without paying the environmental price? How to encourage people to travel without causing environmental harm – or at least to minimize the damage? And where do feelings of guilt enter the equation?

In many ways, the future of the entire field of travel hinges on the answer to this question. After all, if tourists feel bad, they are liable to forgo their next trip.

Simpson’s organization represents privately owned tourism businesses around the world. Members include large hotel chains, small hotels and guesthouses, airlines, cruise companies, rental car firms, travel agents and other private bodies that are dedicated to tourism. Their activity is meant to resolve the conflict, dispel the guilt, prove that things can be done differently so we can all happily keep on traveling.

שמורת טבע חיות הודו
Tourists ride on elephants past deer at the Kaziranga national park, east of Gauhati, India, in 2013. The wildlife reserve provides refuge to more than 2,200 endangered Indian one-horned rhinoceros, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Credit: Anupam Nath / AP

This year, the organization is focusing on three main areas: improving hotels’ ability to reduce their environmental impact to the minimum; providing a road map that allows travelers to reduce their carbon footprint; and safeguarding wildlife and biodiversity through its Nature Positive Travel & Tourism program.

At the start of our conversation, Simpson asks if I am aware that a 10th of the world’s jobs are somehow connected to tourism. These range from airline pilots, waiters, hotel managers, bus drivers, guesthouse owners and many others. “The power and scope of this workforce must be appreciated, particularly in developing economies,” she says.

Simpson is familiar with Israel’s tourism industry, which was worth $7.3 billion in 2019. Each tourist spent an average of 5,700 shekels ($1,560) here. Tourism creates 78,000 jobs in Israel, with some 40,000 locals employed by hotels and other jobs including tour guides, drivers, employees at national heritage sites and museums, and restaurants catering to tourists. Tourism also creates many jobs outside the major cities and for many people without a bachelor’s degree.

ג'וליה סימפסון
Julia Simpson. Heads the World Travel & Tourism Council. Credit: LEZLI + ROSE

The growth in Israel has been rapid, Simpson says. “Our primary goal is to explain to small and independent hotels, who don’t belong to a big chain, how they can operate in an environmentally friendly way. As it is, their guests are also going to raise their awareness about this issue. As things stand, tourists will boycott places that don’t protect the environment. Young travelers are very demanding where this is concerned. Anyone who is involved in tourism and wants to survive needs to be at the forefront of the environmental issue.

“From our point of view as an organization, we see that the big hotel chains and the leading airlines have a tremendous awareness of sustainability issues. They vie with each other over who can do more. The problem is more the smaller companies, the local hotels, with those who say: ‘What importance and influence do I have?’ These are the ones we’re trying to reach. They need to change their way of thinking and to understand that if they don’t concern themselves with environmental aspects in reducing the harm caused by travelers, they won’t survive in the future economic competition.”

Twelve criteria

The tourism council proposes 12 vital actions for hotels that wish to practice sustainability. The first four involve precisely measuring and consistently reducing electricity and water consumption, reducing the quantity of waste and measuring and reducing the amounts of carbon dioxide produced.

The next six cover longer use of linens and towels, using environmentally friendly detergents, expanding the use of plant-based products, halting the use of plasticware, stopping the use of plastic bottles and recycling.

People sit between debris and rubbish washed ashore at Kuta Beach on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali in February
.Credit: Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP

The final two goals involve creating utility for the community and reducing inequality.

One key to the process, says Simpson, is guests’ environmental awareness. She urges everyone who stays at a hotel to pay attention to certain environmental details: You can request that the towels not be changed every day; question the use of single-use plasticware; ask why vast quantities of food are wasted on massive breakfast buffets, and so on.

Can a small country like Israel really make a difference?

“Of course it can. Whoever is involved in tourism needs to understand: Guests will boycott you if you don’t protect the environment. Therefore, the answer is not about how much influence I have or how much influence a small country has, but about understanding that there is no alternative.”

At present, Simpson and her team are focusing on wildlife: She cites figures from wildlife preservation organizations indicating that one in four known species is in danger of extinction. Over the past 50 years, the wildlife population has plummeted by two-thirds. In light of these troubling statistics, the council’s experts wrote a special report on ways to promote wildlife preservation in connection with tourist activity.

In the preface to Nature Positive Tourism report, the authors write: “You don’t need to feel guilty about planning your next trip. Instead, make yourself aware of the ways to make your next trip nature positive.” These are their five travel commandments:

לאס וגאס בריכה מלון
Hotel swimming pool in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Oleg Anisimov/Shutterstock

Five travel commandments

  • Leave nothing behind – “Aim to leave an area in the exact same state as it was prior to your visit. … Bear in mind that a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute, so while you’re travelling you should aim to minimise, if not totally eradicate, your use of single-use plastics.”
  • When in a locality, think local – seek out local producers of food and drink, buy souvenirs from local artisans. Walk or use public transportation when possible.
  • Keep it clean – volunteer for local clean-up activities on beaches or in national parks.
  • It’s okay to pay to see animals, so long as they’re okay – “Ensure that if you’re going to pay to observe animals, everything about the place you visit should be ethical. Commit to going on excursions that are aiding and support the conservation of animals and wildlife and are not negatively impacting the biodiversity of the region.”
  • Choose companies and accommodation mindfully – “Choose companies that are committed to responsible travel and our planet.”