Sustainable tourism issues and sustaining tourism in the UK

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I attended an excellent Tourism Alliance briefing session on Sustainable Tourism yesterday, covering a range of topics from assessing the climate vulnerability of the National Trusts’ tourism offer, to sustainable aviation and much else between.  The audience was a mix of industry trade association, NGO, major businesses representatives, together with a few delegates from Government departments.

There was much said about the need to ensure tourism was both environmentally sustainable and seen to be so and a lot good practice was shared.  I don’t intend to dwell on this aspect here and now as you know as much about this already as do.  As you would expect, I used the opportunity the event gave to raise a number of higher, strategic level points, which were not necessarily addressed elsewhere within the day’s discussions.

Firstly I aired my own emerging thoughts around the increasing need to account for aviation’s pre and post flight travel related carbon impacts within their total impact, at least for planning and policy development purposes.

To explain: few of us live by or holiday near to an airport.  It is not uncommon for UK residents to make a longer journey to get to an airport to go on an overseas holiday than they would to take a typical break or holidaying in the UK. A good proportion of that associated travel (particularly, outside London and the SE airports), is currently undertaken by private car or taxi, rather than by public road or rail transport; that is now likely to have to change to as yet some unspecified degree to meet climate change targets.

The UK aviation industry’s lobbying body has just launched their vision of how their industry can achieve net zero by 2050, whilst still accommodating up to a 70% increase in flights.  Logically that could/will also involve a potential 70% increase in associated road and rail travel in the UK? Does the burden of managing the leisure element of that additional road rail travel fall to UK aviation policy, to UK tourism policy as a whole, or by default, as I fear it might, does it fall to and further muddy the already confused “domestic tourism” equation? ( content/uploads/2020/02/SustainableAviation_CarbonLeaflet_20200129.pdf)

We currently have an unquantified but potentially significant proportion of UK’s annual travel attributed to leisure purpose within the DfT road and rail usage figures that is actually being generated, not for the domestic leisure industry’s benefit but by domestic residents heading abroad (and in doing so taking much of the economic benefit with them). If Government are to make hard choices and the public are to make informed decision about their own carbon impacts, then surely, we need to be looking at and talking publicly about the totality of the journeys taken and not just the direct (albeit almost certainly a far more impactful) aviation related component? I would certainly hope that from the development of public policy point of view that this is already the case? I am not in a position to confirm or deny this.

After years of passing interest in the topic I was surprised to learn that for very good practical accounting reasons, the UK aviation impacts are measured on all outbound flights only, regardless of carrier. Flights and their environmental impacts into the UK are all attributed to and will be dealt with by the country the flight depart from.  It is the way all international air movement is measured; so it would be wrong to do it any other way. Nonetheless, it does pose some interesting and potentially complex questions and answers about, the true scale, presentation and the popular public understanding of UK’s aviation impacts.

I refrained from asking anything taxing about this, largely because I am still trying to work out what the possible implications are for a country with significantly more residents fly aboard than overseas visitor flying here. All I can be certain of so far is that it isn’t a matter of making some basic assumptions and a few simple calculations to get to the true scale of UK’s contribution to the world’s aviation’s impacts.

Separately, I raised the current critical role of the private car in transporting by far the largest proportion of domestic visitor, especially to rural and more remote built destination, that are generally less well served by a reliable, regular, sufficient large capacity public transport system.  I raised the concern that Government policy already tended to favoured, “essential” commuting, over the apparently less economically compelling case for discretionary leisure travel (witness Network rail, now deliberately targeting Bank and school holiday periods for major closures).

Consequently, significant swathes of the domestic tourism landscape could be unintentionally deprived of its one essential raw material, should future road transport policies and/or alternative public road and rail transport plans not properly address the mass transportation needs of tourism, and especially those needs beyond that of our largely, already better served major, core Cities. Very much a topic that should fits well with the levelling up agenda but one that could fall between the core planks and competing needs of commuting, business and goods v leisure transportation?

I also had the chance to make the point that in many instances the growing friction around “over tourism” was being driven not simply by the problems associated with too many visitors but also by the unintended socio-economic consequences of new developments in how tourism and tourist demand is being serviced. In particular, new and often unregulated innovations like the sharing economy. For example, the impact of increasing numbers of former residential property being turned over to more lucrative short-term holiday lets, simply because of a new route to market has suddenly made it possible.  All well and good but when local authority and local government suddenly find they have no real authority over, or they can no longer adequately govern the direction and speed of critical socio-economic developments, there is bound to be some push back, not least from apparently disenfranchised locals.

I also dropped a last minute AOB appeal in for the industry as a whole to pay particular attention to the practicalities of delivering a much needed deposit return scheme in high volume, popular destinations, where the usage of single use containers was relatively high and the incentives and opportunities for temporary visitors are very different to that of the resident or regular commuters.  If the chosen scheme fails to fully achieve its key aims in popular destinations, then there could easily be unintended reputational and quality of place issues generated for those destinations involved and more importantly for “tourism” as a whole.  Destinations are increasingly alive to the need to be seen to be taking a lead on what is a bigger scale issue for many of them. To make real progress they need tools that match their somewhat unusual circumstance of higher demand from, higher volumes of generally unfamiliar temporary visitors.

All these points appeared to register.  In particular, that about sustaining the ability of visitors to visit existing, but often socially and economically vulnerable tourism infrastructure, that has limited realistic alternative economic purpose, be that a historic house, a rural area or an established coastal or inland destination town.

At the end meeting the National Trust representatives and I agreed to try and form an industry working group to formulate some joint ideas and strategies on domestic tourism transport policy, with a view to informing our own and Government’s future thinking. The Tourism Alliance joined the conversation and agreed to facilitate this group with the aim of engaging a wider range representative bodies and interest groups.  All in all, a good result.   It is not clear yet when we might first meet but rest assured, I will do everything possible to ensure we now do.

If there are any related topics around the domestic transport policy that you feel I’m not already adequately covering, or if you or colleagues have a particular expertise to offer to the working group, then do please let me know, so I can include your views or get you engaged in the meetings.


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