Travel operators on green alert

Flying one passenger from the UK to Sydney produces more carbon dioxide emissions than that person running a car for a whole year. It is statistics such as this that are pressuring the holiday industry to offer “greener” travel.

As the concept of responsible tourism gains popularity, some mainstream operators are adopting more environmentally friendly policies. Companies specialising in “eco-tourism” are now established players, but the trips they offer have a specialised appeal.

Environmental policies could become a point of difference for tour operators trying to offer more cultural activities as part of packages to differentiate themselves. First Choice Holidays, which owns tour company Exodus, has adopted a raft of green measures such as one-engine taxiing and “gliding” in neutral when landing. Customers are also asked to make a small donation to charity The Travel Foundation, which helps protect tourist destinations. The charity, set up in 2003, has unveiled a promotional film that claims sustainable tourism policies can add value to travel products.

But Dermot Blastland, managing director of First Choice Holidays’ mainstream sector and a trustee of The Travel Foundation, says his company is wary of “wrapping itself in the green flag”. He explains that First Choice is not making a “song and dance” about its stance, but hopes its practices will be adopted across the industry.

“Apart from having cutting-edge destinations, it is a question of us being expected to behave in a responsible way,” he says. “It’s not only that we are pumping out less carbon dioxide, we are also saving money.”

Blastland likens the issue to that of health and safety, which came to the fore in the late 1980s. Operators are united in demanding certain standards from their suppliers over swimming-pool safety, for instance, and he suggests a similar joint effort will happen on the environment. Bodies such as The Travel Foundation will be able to single out good and bad companies, and their stamp of approval may be important to holidaymakers in the future.

Yet First Choice research shows consumers are not overly concerned with green issues at present. Only a quarter of people are worried about the impact of tourism on the environment of their destination. Just one in five felt it was important that their visit should benefit local communities.

“When people go on holiday they don’t want to worry about saving the world,” says Blastland. “But I don’t think that means they don’t care at all.” He says that green issues can be a decisive factor in consumers choosing mainstream holidays, but only when all other factors are equal.

Andrew Sillitoe, director of tourism development and natural resource management company Jorth Consult, says sustainability is a niche concern. “It’s like organic food at the supermarket,” he says. “They have a small stall but most people still buy non-organic.” He adds that price is still the key issue for most people and although a growing number do seek eco-tourism destinations, they remain in a minority.

ABTA head of corporate affairs Keith Betton says that if tourists’ experiences were improved by environmentally sound packages, green issues would be a bigger point of difference. “More companies are adopting greener work practices, but I’m not yet convinced of the benefits,” he says.

It remains to be seen whether brands can use environmental integrity as a profitable marketing tool.

Jonathan Harwood

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