Charles Phillips is an independent researcher and consultant focusing on sustainable development in the Middle East. He specializes in climate change policy and the emerging tourism, heritage, and culture sectors in Saudi Arabia.
As tourism numbers begin to return to pre-pandemic levels, the UN has urged investment in clean and sustainable tourism and says that a major global rethink of the sector is needed. Although the challenge is formidable, a promising trend is emerging within the industry as it begins to embrace innovative solutions to reduce emissions, minimize environmental footprints, and enhance tourism’s positive impact on local communities, all while continuing to yield economic gains.
These developments follow the launch of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism at the 2021 COP26 climate summit in which signatories — including major international companies and tourism boards — committed to supporting global goals to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions before 2050.
Travel and tourism accounts for about 10% of global GDP and for one in ten jobs worldwide.1 Yet the sector is also responsible for 8–11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many of us travel and are continuing to do so post-pandemic. 1.47 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded worldwide in 2019, and projections by the UN World Tourism Organization indicate that numbers are likely to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.2 Other projections further ahead to 2050 indicate that the tourism market may double in size by that date in terms of trips, revenue, and guest nights. This increase would be driven by a growing global population combined with rising incomes.3
The challenges facing the sector are symbolic of the need to transform the entire global economy and adopt a new sustainable development model. This comes at a time when UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on countries to bring their decarbonization plans forward by a decade and act much more urgently against climate change. This was in response to the March 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that warned there is now very little chance of keeping the global temperature rise at 1.5 C, as called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and that this threshold is likely to be breached in the 2030s.
At the same time, consumer demand is on the rise for a more sustainable tourism experience. As public awareness on climate change and environmental issues grows ever greater, we can expect consumption patterns to shift. It is clear that tourism now needs to adopt a sustainable model to ensure both its survival and its compatibility with the global sustainability agenda.
As described by the UN, sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves harmonizing three core elements: economic development, social inclusion, and environmental protection.
Secretary-General Guterres has hailed tourism’s ability to drive sustainable development. Sustainable tourism has been included in Goals 8, 12, and 14 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Yet there are numerous elements of tourism that, if mismanaged, can be unsustainable and damaging to the environment and local communities.
Sustainable tourism is not just about the visitor and their experience. It is also about improving the livelihoods of host communities, creating decent jobs, promoting positive cultural exchanges and interactions between people, protecting heritage sites and local environments, respecting wildlife, and neutralizing the carbon emissions caused by travel and tourism. In essence, sustainable tourism is about taking into account the full impact of your trip.
As attention on the topic has picked up in recent years, several new reports have been released outlining future pathways for the tourism industry in a more sustainable world. In November 2021, the World Travel & Tourism Council released “A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism”, which details what net-zero journeys could look like for sub-sectors of the tourism industry. In March 2023, The Travel Foundation, a sustainable tourism NGO, released “Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond” to help policymakers and the tourism industry understand what a 1.5 C-compatible, decarbonized — yet much larger — tourism industry could look like.
One of the biggest challenges for sustainable tourism is air travel, which is currently the most environmentally damaging impact of tourism. Air travel is responsible for around 2–3% of global CO2 emissions, releasing around one billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019 alone. A number of new technologies aimed at decarbonizing the sector are now receiving increasing attention, and in 2022, 184 countries agreed on a ‘net-zero by 2050’ target for the aviation industry.
New technologies include sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), more efficient engines that consume less fuel, lighter aircraft, hydrogen powered planes, and battery powered aircraft. Many of these innovations were on display at the June 2023 Paris Air Show.
SAFs are expected to make the biggest contribution towards reaching net zero, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s leading trade body, estimating these fuels could account for 65% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050. SAFs include both biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons (also known as e-fuels). The latter involves extracting hydrogen molecules from water using renewable electricity and combining this with captured carbon from industry power stations, or directly from the air.
Batteries could be used in smaller aircraft and for short distance flights, but the current generation of batteries are too heavy for long-haul flights. Hydrogen planes could make a dent although liquid hydrogen fuel takes up four times as much space as traditional jet fuel (kerosene), so planes would need to be redesigned with larger fuel storage systems in addition to installing new airport refuelling infrastructure. SAFs, on the other hand, can be used in existing engines. This is why they are known as ‘drop-in’ fuels.
A major hurdle facing the aviation industry is the compatibility between pathways to reaching net-zero emissions and the expected massive growth in air passenger travel in the coming decades. The industry recorded 4.5 billion passenger journeys in 2019 across 42 million flights, and numbers are expected to return to these levels in 2024. By 2040, IATA expects passenger numbers to reach up to 8 billion and possibly 10 billion by 2050. This is in part due to rising demand from the emerging middle class in developing economies, especially in Asia.
Outlining a possible pathway for the sector, the International Energy Agency’s 1.5 C-compatible “Net Zero by 2050” scenario factors in the expected growth in air travel, forecasting around 85 million flights per year in 20504. However, in the scenario, the sector’s overall emissions are dramatically reduced due to a switch to SAF, a shift to high‐speed rail for local and many regional flights, reining in the expansion of long‐haul business and leisure flights, and using technologies that take CO2 directly out of the atmosphere to capture emissions from a small amount of traditional jet fuel still in use.
Resorts can employ various strategies to become more sustainable. Important areas to consider include how they are powered, the resources they consume, and what they do about the waste they produce. Measures can range from enhancing the energy efficiency of buildings to transitioning to renewable energy sources, to procuring food from sustainable supply chains, to adopting a zero waste to landfill model.
An interesting example is Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Project, a new luxury coastal tourism resort set to open later this year. The megaproject is focused on regenerative tourism, with a goal to boost biodiversity at the site by 30% by the year 2040. To counter ‘overtourism’ — a problem all too common in destinations such as Venice, Italy and Croatian city Dubrovnik — the resort has capped visitor numbers to a maximum of one million visitors per year. The site is also expected to be powered by 100% renewable energy, and 50% of the personnel trained by the project’s developers will come from areas surrounding the destination.
Given that business as usual is no longer an option, we are likely to see an expansion of low carbon and net-zero tourism options moving forward and several new trends emerge. We may see less long-distance travel and more local travel due to the rising cost of emissions-intensive activities. With the increased adoption of SAFs, which are currently significantly more expensive to produce than kerosene, flying is likely to become costlier, and emissions-intensive activities are likely to be taxed more. When it comes to future tourism planning, including national and local tourism strategies, emissions from travel to and from destinations will need to start being fully accounted for, rather than continuing to be externalized.
We may also see a shift to slow travel and quality travel, similar to the shift away from fast fashion. This move would involve tourists visiting fewer places on a trip and enjoying them to the fullest. Overall, significant investments and regulatory incentives will be needed to accelerate the transition to low-impact, positive tourism. Planning with sustainability squarely in mind can enable future tourism to maintain its significant contribution to socioeconomic development, while also operating in an increasingly decarbonizing world.
1 World Travel & Tourism Council, “A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism,” https://wttc.org/Portals/0/Documents/Reports/2021/WTTC_Net_Zero_Roadmap.pdf
2 WTCC, “A Net Zero Roadmap”.
3 Peeters, P., Papp, B., 2023. Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond. The changing shape of tourism in a decarbonising world. The Travel Foundation.
4 International Energy Agency. Net Zero by 2050. A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector