As restrictions loosen up and the travel industry slowly recovers from the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now faced with another pressing crisis and that is the climate emergency. We are in the most decisive decade of human history— code red as science and environmental experts would say. We are running out of records to break, and we have less than a decade to prevent irreversible damage to the planet.
One of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis is the travel industry. According to a study published in the Natural Climate Change Journal in 2018, the travel and tourism sector accounted for about 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2009 to 2013. Given this startling revelation, let me talk about the big elephant in the room and pose these nagging questions: Do we pursue the restart of travel, or do we de-market tourism to give our planet a fighting chance? Should we suppress our wanderlust in favor of the environment or should we teach ourselves to pursue transformative and regenerative travel that helps rather than destroys our planet? How do we move the Philippine travel industry forward at a time of great uncertainty? Could there possibly be a fair and reasonable compromise that benefits both the people’s propensity to travel and the health of our ailing planet?
The travel industry is one that is closest to my heart. I spent a considerable amount of time in the past decade encouraging people, especially Filipinos, to explore the unparalleled beauty and charm of our archipelagic country. I even named my travel and tours business, Las Islas, or The Islands. But more than promoting our country’s nature destinations and thousands of islands, it’s the economic multiplier effect from the creation of jobs for the locals that gave me a sense of fulfillment from doing it.
But what happens when tourism takes a toll on our nature destinations and leads to the depletion of our resources? If tourism owes everything to nature, shouldn’t we be doing our best to prevent its deterioration? Tourism is intrinsically linked to climate change. In fact, the travel industry will cease to exist if there will no longer be destinations to visit because they’ve been eradicated by climate change.
Travel as we know it has completely changed and we are not going back to the way it was and even if we can, we should not. Deciding whether or not to promote leisure travel at a time of climate emergency is a moral dilemma for both tourists and travel operators alike. Hence, in a time of anthropogenic climate change, there is an urgent need for the travel industry to shift to low-carbon tourism to reduce its carbon footprint of the travel industry. What is the concept of low-carbon tourism, you ask? It is the kind of travel that contributes the least impact on the planet whether by prioritizing the health of the environment or by offering carbon-offsetting programs. As the world opens up again, we really cannot tell people to stop traveling, but what we can do is teach them how to travel responsibly and ethically.
The Philippine tourism industry’s pathway to recovery should be anchored on the principles of low-carbon tourism. Stakeholders from across the tourism value chain need to unlearn old habits and embrace new tourism business practices hinged on sustainability to give our planet a strong fighting chance. We need a paradigm shift in the way we promote and practice tourism. For instance, we should veer away from promoting a tourism destination without respecting its carrying capacity. A carbon footprint auditing system should be in place within tourism organizations. I would even go as far as suggesting that all tourism business owners should have a sustainable development program that includes their 2030-2050 plans of action toward becoming a net-zero or low-carbon organization.
What the Department of Tourism did to rehabilitate the world-famous island of Boracay back in 2018 is proof that prioritizing the planet over profit is possible. I was just on this island a few weeks ago and it was evident how much the island has recuperated after its closure. There were no single-use plastics in establishments like straws. Instead, I saw restaurants and resorts use paper or edible straws made from rice or tapioca. There were segregation waste bins strategically located along the white beach. People still flock to this island in spite of these rules, which only goes to show that tourists aren’t completely mindless towards the environment. They just need to be guided. I know this to be true based on my experiences as a tour operator. I witnessed first-hand how tourists willingly followed the rules on our company’s traveler’s manifesto or eco pledge. They also understood why we had to ban the use of Styrofoam and single-use plastic on our tours.
If Boracay Island can do it, so can the other destinations in the Philippines. Climate Reality Founder Al Gore would always say in his presentations that political will is a renewable resource. With enough cooperation between the public and the private sector, we can pave the way to a more resilient and low-carbon travel industry. It’s time for all active stakeholders to walk the talk on sustainable tourism. Let us envision and work towards creating a Philippine tourism industry that values the health of the earth too, after all, it is the only one we have.