The future of tourism: Q&A with CEO and activist Justin Francis

Following the launch of Responsible Travel’s Future of Tourism manifesto earlier this year, CEO and activist Justin Francis talks about the unprecedented challenges facing the tourism industry — and travellers themselves.

By Justin Francis
Published 12 Aug 2019, 15:00 BST
Tourists outside the Louvre
Tourists outside the Louvre.
Photograph by Getty Images

“The global tourism industry is facing unprecedented challenges. Many destinations around the world are suffering from the effects of overtourism; in May, a mountaineer’s photo of a bottleneck near the summit of Everest went viral — a vivid illustration of the destination’s inability to keep up with demand. In April, meanwhile, Ryanair became the first non-coal company to make the list of Europe’s top 10 polluters, indicating the travel industry’s role in environmental issues can no longer be ignored. And in March, data released by the US Department of Transportation revealed that airlines in the USA lose or damage an astonishing 26 wheelchairs every day, demonstrating how far we still have to go in terms of accessible travel. International tourism has reached a fork in the road — and the pressure is on to avoid any more wrong turns.”

How big a threat is the aviation industry to the environment?
The airline industry is one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with direct emissions from aviation accounting for around 2% of global emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) forecasts a 300-700% increase in international aviation emissions by 2050. At the same time, however, more than 400 new airports are planned or under construction worldwide, and there is over $1 trillion in planned airport capacity expansion. The biggest difference any of us can make is to commit to flying less. Instead of taking three or four short breaks by air every year, consider taking just one longer trip. And investigate whether there are greener, overland options available, especially when it comes to domestic travel.

How can I avoid contributing to the issue of overtourism?
This year has seen a growing backlash against overtourism: in May, staff at the Louvre went on strike in protest at the ever-increasing visitor numbers; Thailand announced its iconic Maya Bay would remain closed until 2021; and British street artist Banksy took a potshot at the cruise industry during the Venice Biennale. The invisible burden of tourism is putting ecosystems, cultural and architectural wonders and communities under impossible strain. If you want to visit destinations that are struggling under the pressures of tourism, avoid going at peak times. Not only will the lack of crowds enhance the experience, you’ll also help ensure the community benefits from out-of-season income. If you’re tied to peak-season travel, consider heading to lesser-known destinations.

Do you have any tips for cutting down on plastic while travelling?
The island of Capri in Italy recently banned all non-biodegradable single-use plastics — a laudable aim, but it can be easy to focus on straws, cotton buds or plastic bags and fail to see the bigger picture, which is that some parts of the world find it immensely difficult, if not impossible, to recycle at all. Minimising your impact is really a matter of forward-planning. Remove any excess plastic packaging from your luggage before setting off, then use the extra space to pack a reusable water bottle, tote bag and cutlery, as well as biodegradable wet wipes. If you’re visiting an environmentally sensitive area, it’s worth asking your tour operator whether there are any volunteer clean-up efforts you can get involved with for a few hours. 

Are accessible travel options getting better?
Around 20% of people in the UK have some form of disability, the majority of which aren’t immediately apparent. While the tourism industry has seen some improvements regarding accessibility in recent years, there is still a great deal of work to be done before travel can be seen as truly accessible for all. If you or someone in your family is affected by accessibility issues, don’t let it hold you back. Accessible travel options are available, and as companies and destinations recognise the value of the ‘purple pound’ (the spending power of disabled households), these will only improve. In an era where social media holds such sway over brands, the customer has never been so powerful — although, of course, increasing accessibility in tourism should not be left solely to those affected by it. It’s on all of us to drive improvement.

Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Earth Collection 

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