Tourists are increasingly aware that their travels could be leaving destinations worse off than how they found them. Global tourism can have serious environmental impact, and accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to a 2018 report by the journal Nature Climate Change. It is also one of the fastest-growing emissions sources, with expected annual growth of 4%. However, looking at the agenda for this year’s COP28 UN climate summit in Dubai, you wouldn’t know it.

“There is nobody from the tourism industry among the speakers at the COP,” observed Ajay Prakash, president of the Travel Agents Federation of India, at a global travel agents summit in Granada, Spain, earlier this month. “This is an industry which accounts for 10% of global GDP [gross domestic product]. We are a huge industry, but we haven’t leveraged it. An industry this size ought to have a say in the affairs of the world.”

While there are speakers from the transport sector at this year’s climate summit in Dubai, there are no speakers or significant side events focused on the tourism sector – and the same was true last year at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Year after year, the tourism sector has been outside the room, despite being not only a fairly significant emitter but also a frequent punching bag for politicians and climate activists.

The reason for this dichotomy may be that while it is very much in the spotlight, tourism’s emissions are cross-sectoral and not so easy to tackle. It may be obvious how to reduce emissions in the power sector (switch to renewables) or in construction (switch materials), but tackling emissions from tourism involves creative thinking on many different fronts.

“Travel is a fundamental need and it is not going away,” said Prakash. “The question is how do we manage it. When we talk about sustainability in tourism, it is about sustainability of the human race in the larger context. Tourism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The entire ecosystem around us determines what you can do. In India, travel and tourism accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Construction accounts for over 48%. It is so easy to point the finger at tourism because it is seen as elitist, but tourism is much more than people who spend $2,000 a night on a hotel room.”

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The sector is trying to clean up its act, and travel agents in particular are developing specialised packages for green-minded tourists. One focus has been on reducing overtourism in saturated destinations like Venice and Barcelona, by encouraging visitors to go to more off-the-beaten-track destinations, or to visit at off-peak times. Of the world’s tourists, 80% are going to 10% of the world’s destinations, according to the start-up consultancy Murmuration. So many people flying into the same place degrades local ecosystems and natural defences against the effects of climate change. This in turn is causing worries that these oversaturated cities are going to be particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.

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The UN’s World Tourism Organization and the International Transport Forum concluded in 2019 that 22% of global transport emissions are the result of international and domestic tourism. Overtourism’s worst offender is cruise ship tourism, which in 2016 emitted 24–30 million tonnes (t) of CO₂, with per passenger emissions ranging from 1.2–9t of CO₂ per trip. By comparison, a transatlantic flight emits a little less than one tonne of CO₂ per passenger, according to the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation. That means taking a cruise emits up to nine-times more carbon than flying across the Atlantic.

“After the pandemic, we realised that we have damaged the world,” said Tulio Bernal from the Mexican travel agents association ANAV at the Granada summit. “We have hurt the planet, so we have a great responsibility. We know that the tourism sector is one of the biggest predators at world level. When we travel with big groups we see that these groups cause damage to archaeological sites and natural wonders.”

Bernal stressed that this is where travel agents can provide real added value. “We as travel agents can have an influence on our customers so that they respect the places in the world that they come to. If there is a hotel that is not respecting sustainability… well we don’t need to work with that hotel. I can choose my providers, I can choose an airline and a hotel that is taking care of their carbon footprint.”

As an example, he cited the way that hotels wash sheets and towels, which normally requires a lot of energy and water. There is technology available to do this in a way that uses less energy and water, he said, but many hotels are not implementing it. This is where certification comes in, or rating hotels on sustainability. While there are hundreds of such schemes, such as the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, the lack of a common system has cast doubt on their reliability.

“The easiest thing travellers can do is avoid single-use plastic and use electric transportation whenever possible,” said Prakash. “They can also look at destinations which are not popular and overcrowded, to divert traffic to these places. It's not huge, but it is a start.”

However, he added that while travellers may say they want their tourism to have less climate and environmental impact, in reality the number of people willing to pay a significant amount to lower that impact is limited. “Carbon offsets are a small amount of money, but they are not the answer,” he said. “You destroy something and then make up for it? We need to do research as travel agents to talk about this with our clients. You will find maybe 15% will respond to this initially, but the onus is on us to start that conversation.”

A recent survey by found that 76% of travellers want more sustainable travel options. However, only half such options are within the budget they are willing to spend.

Nicanor Sabula, the CEO of the Eastern and Southern African travel agents association, AESATA, who was also speaking at the summit, cautioned that while it may be in vogue to attack tourism for its environmental and climate impacts, people should keep in mind that many countries depend on it for their survival. “In Africa, tourism is 40% of GDP for some countries. If it lessens, we are talking about real economies being threatened. Our tourism is built around natural resources. As a continent we are keen to ensure that this beauty we have is preserved, but at the same time allow the world to come and experience and enjoy it.”

The tourism industry needs to take a more active role in global climate discussions, Sabula said. Travel agents should be highlighting their potential to advise clients on how to travel more sustainably. “Thirty years ago this industry wasn’t talking about sustainability, that was reserved for scientists, but now, we have a huge role in influencing people’s choices," he said. "We can raise their awareness about the destination they are going to, about the conservation efforts there. We can tell them about the impact they are having on the environment – and we can tell them about how they can mitigate that impact.”