How the travel industry is tackling climate change

How the travel industry is tackling climate change

One of the world’s largest hotel chains has installed a cogeneration plant in midtown Manhattan in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. Cruise lines are ridding their engine exhaust of harmful sulfides and powering their ships with innovative biofuels made from fish carcasses.

Tourism companies are teaching both their agents and clients about their role in global warming and how to reduce it while traveling. And popular destinations from California to the Caribbean are investing in infrastructure and education efforts to reduce the carbon they emit.

Because global warming has managed to spare no part of tourism, hotels, cruise lines, tour operators and, of course, travelers are all experiencing the effects of rising temperatures.

But the industry is banding together to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest driver of rising temperatures.

These efforts were inspired in part by the Paris Climate Accord signed in 2015, according to Olivia Ruggles-Brise, director of policy and communications for the World Travel and Tourism Council. Signed by 195 countries, the agreement seeks to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial revolution era levels.

Statistics from the U.N. World Tourism Organization indicate that tourism is responsible for roughly 5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, though other experts suggest the true figure is nearly double.

Janet Redman, climate and energy director at Greenpeace USA, says that reducing this footprint is the most effective way for the industry to fight global warming. “If you cut down on the amount of greenhouse gases you produce, you’re contributing to slowing down global warming,” she said.

How the travel industry is tackling climate change

Many travel brands are finding ways to operate with a low or neutral carbon impact.

The new cogeneration plant at the New York Hilton Midtown is just one way that Hilton, with more than 5,500 hotels globally, is trying to combat the negative effect that climate change is having on the tourism industry.

The company said the 1.75 megawatt plant, powered by cleaner burning natural gas, produces more than 50 percent of the electricity and 35 percent of the steam needed to power the hotel’s nearly 2,000 guest rooms and reduces the property’s carbon footprint by more than 30 percent.

Other Hiltons worldwide are installing energy efficient lighting in guest rooms and public spaces and are also buying smart energy systems for kitchen vents and air-conditioning that turn off automatically when they’re not in use, said Max Verstraete, Hilton’s vice president of corporate responsibility.

“We understand that climate change is a threat to travel and tourism,” he explained. “Trying to counter its effects is a top priority for us as a company.”

Cruise lines are also taking action: all of Royal Caribbean’s ships now have purification systems that remove approximately 98 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from its ship engines’ exhaust. And in October, the brand began a partnership with a wholesale energy provider, Southern Power, to build a wind farm in the Kansas flatlands; beginning in 2020 the company will sell the clean power produced on the farm to offset the emissions its ships burn.

Also, by 2021, the expedition cruise ship line Hurtigruten expects to have at least six ships that will be powered by liquefied biogas — fossil-free, renewable fuel produced from dead fish and other organic waste.

Tour operators working to lower carbon emissions include Intrepid Travel, one of the world’s largest group tour companies. Leigh Barnes, Intrepid’s chief purpose officer, said that the company assesses carbon emissions from every itinerary and offsets them by investing in renewable energy projects such as a wind power plant in Rajasthan, one of the most arid states in India, that helps reduce carbon emissions in the area.

More recently, Intrepid is reducing the number of internal flights within itineraries to cut down on its carbon emissions, including its popular China and Iran trips. For the first time, a few of its 2019 Iran itineraries will have no flights at all; Barnes said that travelers will use overnight trains instead. Redman said that air travel produces far more carbon emissions than train travel.

Then there’s Roar Africa, a specialist in luxury Africa vacations. Their clients receive recyclable glass water bottles from their guides as soon as they land in Africa that they can use throughout their trips. These guides also encourage them to conserve water by reducing their laundry and taking shorter baths and showers. Reducing the amount of energy in pumping water cuts carbon emissions.

Tourist destinations, too, are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One example is Lake Tahoe, Nevada, a prime spot for skiing and snowboarding in the winter and hiking in the summer, which is improving its public transportation system so that visitors will rely less on private vehicles. “We see around 10 million cars coming here a year,” said Tom Lotshaw, public information officer for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. To cut car numbers, the destination is adding new buses, approximately half of which run on compressed natural gas; depending on the season, tourists comprise up to 40 percent of riders, Lotshaw said.

Education and Awareness

Beyond working to reduce carbon emissions, travel networks and travel company owners have begun educating fellow professionals and tourists about what climate change actually is — along with developing programs to support hotels, cruise lines and tour operators working to combat it.

The luxury travel network Virtuoso, which generated $23.7 billion in travel sales last year, for instance, introduced a Sustainable Tourism initiative in 2017 that offers the network’s 17,500 agents regular access to webinars and live sessions on the role global warming plays on tourism. To date, more than 1,500 agents have participated in these, according to Jessica Hall Upchurch, the company’s sustainability ambassador. The training introduces Virtuoso’s agents to how they can plan environmentally friendly trips.

In addition, Upchurch said that Virtuoso agents were encouraged to favor travel brands that were actively reducing carbon emissions. These brands include The Brando, a luxury resort in French Polynesia that runs entirely on renewable energy, including coconut oil and solar power.

On a smaller scale, a growing number of tour operators, such as Roar Africa, are selling trips that exclusively include hotels working toward low-carbon or carbon neutral operations. Deborah Calmeyer, founder of Roar Africa, includes properties such as Segera, a safari camp in Kenya that runs entirely on solar energy, and visits all the properties that she recommends.

“I don’t just go to these places to get a sense of the service or food. I spend time with the conservationists there so that I understand their environmental programs,” she said.

Resilience and New Opportunities

In addition to education and action, the travel industry is devising ways to become resilient to changing climates and along the way, is even discovering new tourism opportunities.

In the case of Africa, Calmeyer said that global warming had made traveling to Botswana in October, normally a pleasant time to visit temperature-wise, more challenging because of uncomfortably hot weather.

Five years ago, the temperatures hovered in the high 80s to low 90s whereas last year, they exceeded 95 degrees. At the same time, the normally rainy month of April has seen less rain the last few years and has become an attractive time to visit. As a result, she sees more business in April than she has in previous years and has several trips booked for April 2019.

Then there’s river cruising: Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor for Cruise Critic, a site that covers the cruise industry, said that cruising on the Rhine and Danube has become more problematic over the last few seasons because of low water levels caused by drought. “Before, sailings would get outright canceled or have extreme disruptions, but the cruise lines have become adept at making last-minute changes that still give passengers the experience that they signed up for,” she said.

Avalon Waterways is an example. Steve Born, chief marketing officer for Avalon’s parent company, Globus, said that several of its Danube itineraries scheduled from July through October were affected by low water levels, but that the company had found ways to adapt to the inconvenience.

When Avalon’s ships couldn’t dock in Budapest this summer and fall, for instance, they docked instead at the nearest passable port in Bratislava, Slovakia. Passengers were bused to Budapest and offered a free one-night hotel stay, meals and excursions as compensation for the disruption. Or, they had the option to stay on board in Bratislava, Born said. This approach of offering free tours, excursions and hotel stays is not unlike what other river cruise lines are doing, according to McDaniel.

The bottom line is that there appears to be hope for travel and tourism to continue to grow in the wake of global warming.

“The travel world isn’t ignoring the severity of climate change,” Redman of Greenpeace said. “Many are even trying to find a way to slow down it down so that tourism can keep thriving.”

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