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A new global tourism coalition, announced at COP26, aims to drive a more sustainable future for the industry

Parisa Hashempour   

A new global tourism coalition, announced at COP26, aims to drive a more sustainable future for the industry
  • Ministers and organizations came together at COP26 to discuss climate change and tourism.
  • The discussion was aligned with the launch of a new global travel and tourism coalition.

The global tourism industry, responsible for 8% of the world's carbon footprint, could be getting a rebranding. At COP26, speakers from around the world came together to celebrate the launch of a new coalition through the Sustainable Tourism Center (STGC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. At the summit, they discussed how to transform the travel sector into an industry spearheading the way for a more sustainable future.

From depleting local resources to creating pollution and waste problems, there are plenty of reasons the travel industry has, in the past, been identified as a major obstacle to mitigating the effects of climate change. But today, that could be set to change.

As Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico, put it in a COP26 panel discussion announcing the coalition: "Tourism represents a real challenge for climate change." But it also "represents one of the greatest opportunities for human development." Before the pandemic, one in 10 families were dependent upon tourism for their income; women and those in middle and low-income countries more than others. Transforming the industry, he and other attendees agreed, could prove essential to ensuring not just environmental sustainability, but also the sustainability of local economies in a modernizing world.

"Tourism is a vital driver for the economy," said Saudi Arabia's Tourism Minister, Ahmed Al Khateeb. "We want to protect nature and support communities." Launched off the backend of the kingdom's Green Initiative, the Saudi Arabian government hopes the center will be a global hub, supporting international governments, travelers, and the private sector in adapting to challenges posed by climate change.

Saudi Arabia is set to be amongst the worst hit by climate change, with conditions in some areas likely becoming unlivable for humans within 80 years. However, the kingdom is reliant on fossil fuels and remains the largest oil exporter in the world. To adapt, foreign investment is needed, and the STGC hopes to attract just that.

Currently, other countries involved in the first phase of the coalition include the United Kingdom, United States, France, Japan, Germany, Kenya, Jamaica, Morocco, and Spain. Organizations such as SYSTEMIQ, The World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, and Harvard University are also involved in the process.

It's early days. But as Jeremy Oppenheim, Senior Partner at SYSTEMIQ said, "My hope is that this center transforms travel brands and industry and acts as a flywheel for solutions and practical actions - but we need to make this something everyone can join in on." Dubbing the tourism sector the "perfect industry for showing how we need to decarbonize and grow at the same time," he nonetheless highlighted a real concern at the summit: Action, not only agendas, is needed to enact real change.

In some places, that change is already in action. "In Kenya, 90% of our energy is green energy and by 2030 we want to be net-zero," said Secretary of Tourism for Kenya Najib Balala, another panelist. "Today, I'd also like to announce publicly that by 2030 all of our [wildlife] parks will be green." Electric cars will be used to transport tourists around the parks, and "if they're not electric, they won't be allowed."

However, there are many hurdles yet to overcome. And change will largely rely on technological innovations, many of which still need funding. "From 2035, when sustainable aviation fuels are available at scale, our emissions will decline," said Virginia Messina, senior vice president of advocacy and communications for the World Travel & Tourism Council. It is when sustainable fuel practices and operations are developed, that this industry can make the greatest leaps toward net-zero.

Funding this, and other innovations, will be tough. Panelist John W.H. Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, says that to be successful, we must think beyond national boundaries for investment. "It's a huge sector, but there are nodes like hotel brands and cruise ships; if you get a few of those to be the first movers to go green, especially if you drive a green premium, others will follow."

This green premium - making climate-friendly options cheaper - is essential for the sector. Of the 40 million businesses in tourism, 80% are small and medium-sized companies, according to Oppenheim. They are travel agencies, restaurants or hotels, without the budget for research and development.

The sector must combine small and large-scale projects, cutting across industries, with affordable and attractive green alternatives. It must also appeal to consumers. As Oppenheim said: "I'd love a tourist to say, 'I know how to make good choices, and I can plan my holidays in ways that will enable me to build a better world.'"


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