This week, tens of thousands of exhibitors and delegates from around the world will congregate at London's ExCeL centre for one of the biggest dates in the tourism calendar. They come to World Travel Market to plan, predict and put their money towards how we’ll be travelling tomorrow. After three days there, you usually feel like you’re the one who needs a vacation.
The trade show has run an annual responsible tourism programme for 20 years, with interviews, panels and debates exploring how to do all this holiday business more sustainably. When I first attended in 2007, seeking stories for a book on responsible travel, the challenge was finding someone to write about. In the early years, the responsible tourism community was a close group of a few exceptional individuals and companies working passionately on different issues. But back then, their inspiring stories were just that — exceptions.
Over the years, the popularity and presence of this kind of tourism has proliferated. Sometimes it’s called sustainable travel. And increasingly people are attaching — and mostly misusing — the term regenerative. What was once hard to find is now hard to miss. In 2023, the halls at ExCeL will be filled with companies, destinations and individuals sharing stories of using tourism to support their communities and inspire their guests.
Most of our climate impacts are caused by how we travel and how far we go
It also means much more now than the remote lodges and eco-friendly safaris that used to define the sector. There are still many inspiring examples of these, but today responsibly minded travellers can discover another side of London with the formerly homeless people who work as guides for Unseen Tours. Or stay in Vienna’s refugee-run Magdas Hotel. And these days, some of the most inspiring initiatives are coming directly from the places we visit — or ‘destinations’ as the industry calls them — making Glasgow and Gothenburg, Valencia and Vancouver Island the places to be.
Before we all pack away our worries and jet off to a private tropical hideaway, however, let’s not be under the impression that tourism as a whole has become sustainable. The industry is so fast-growing that its ever-larger overall footprint outweighs any individual increases in energy efficiency or ethical behaviour. Plus, the kudos coming from associating your business with the halo of responsibility means that even the most repressive regimes like to claim they are supporters of sustainable tourism. Greenwash is everywhere. Stay alert.
If we want a more sustainable time away from home, we need to choose the least polluting forms of transport
To find the good people offering great holidays, we must look past the lazy labels and branding and remember a few basic truths. Most of our climate impacts are caused by how we travel and how far we go. If we want a more sustainable time away from home, we need to choose the least polluting forms of transport. Thankfully, one thing that has changed is that it is now perfectly feasible and much more fun to journey stress-free and with few emissions by train from London to Barcelona or Berlin on the same day, and increasingly farther still as night trains open up more of Europe to explore.
In a world of interconnected polycrises, the best in responsible tourism no longer focuses only on single issues. It joins the dots. It connects us with people who care for accessibility and inclusivity, climate and wellbeing. When we spend our time and money strengthening these connections and discovering the world through their eyes, we support people truly working for a better world. And we get more memorable holidays.
On Wednesday November 8, at World Travel Market, Jeremy Smith will be interviewing Cat Jones, CEO of flight-free travel pioneer Byway, about the future of travel