I’ve been trying to answer this question lately, and it was one of the things that pulled me into the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference that has been running in Vancouver this week. Well, that and Anna Pollock.
In an industry characterized by a boggling degree of blah blah blah , Pollock is a real sparkplug. She heads up The Icarus Foundation , a non-profit that is working to make Canada a climate-friendly destination. The group published a report earlier this year that tried to get a handle on the staggeringly huge challenges facing the travel sector. Pollock pulled data from that report in a lunchtime keynote yesterday, and threw out a few challenges and nuggets, including:
- To come even close to meeting a 30 percent reduction of carbon before 2020, the tourism industry must somehow head off the release of 2.2 billion tons of equivalent CO2. She called this “one hell of a weigh-loss program.” Indeed. I’m afraid it simply means parking jets, folks.
- So anyway, the industry needs to do this even as global international arrivals and departures crest the 1 billion mark. And more airplanes. “In 2007, there are 19,000 airplanes in the sky,” she says. “But by 2027, we are talking about 35,800 airplanes. That means more airports, more freeways, more parking lots, more aiport hotels, more kiosks, more hamburger stands.”
- We are moving from an industrial age to a networked age. “We have a swarm model — complex adaptive systems, small simple agents with limited intelligence, local decision-making capability, and a communication path to nearby peers that can outperform a large centralized processor. It is robust and flexible.”
- Enough, already, with all the nomenclature, it’s a distraction. Ecotourism, sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, authentic tourism, aboriginal culinary tourism etc etc. “We are so busy looking inward and trying to define what makes us separate that we are not uniting and solving the big issues.”
- Simplify the Message. “Guests don’t want to know if the place meets 1,0001 criteria. They are on vacation. Use plain language, like ‘good tourism’ or ‘tourism cares.’”
- Incentivize: “The destination that makes the brave decision to only market ‘green’ suppliers will win in the next five years. Encourage every guest to embrace an ecological mindset.”
- Stop Building: “See the value in non-development,” Pollock urged. “Start to see the opportunities where not developing a piece of pristine land will pay you more than developing it. I can see a time where you will be paid to become stewards, but only if you show leadership now.”
- Slow Down: “Stop trying to do too much too quickly. ‘Slow travel’ is going to see some of the fastest growth ever seen,” she said, noting the irony.
- Engage the Locals.
- When Appropriate, Go Virtual: “Some people will choose to experience places in a virtual way,” Pollock said. “This community should not see that—or telepresence—as a threat. It may be our biggest ally.”
Also, I hadn’t seen this YouTube visualization of global aircraft arrivals and departures over a 24 hour period. Pollock briefly threw this up on the screen. There are a couple of these simulations out there, but this one is just fascinating to watch:
I am convinced that the jet age will inevitably begin winding down in the coming decades. It’s hard to imagine, but passenger aviation will return to the days where it was a rare experience, the purview of the affluent. Setting aside peak oil, I could imagine air travel becoming a socially taboo behavior as the “relocalization” trend pushes ever-deeper into mainstream consumer behavior. Frequent flier cards could eventually become anachronisms, like slide rules.
High-end video conferencing will solve some of this. Imagine a new category of business that provides very-high-quality and secure telepresence services to companies, a kind of virtual conference room and post-meeting “bar” for socializing and networking, available by the hour, for less than it costs to fly.
But all that won’t deal with the carbon-age hangover that is the personal relationships we maintain all over the globe, with family and friends. These people will still want to visit each other for many decades to come, and even after high-speed rail networks finally, inevitably spiderweb across North America, there is still that damn ocean in the way for many. Remember, you can’t hug over Skype.