© ATTA / Rupert Shanks - AW Japan

A New Year's Message from Shannon Stowell

1 January 2023

About a decade ago, I was asked to moderate a sustainability session at a high-profile travel industry gathering. Robert Redford – the star of the event – spoke before a packed room right before our session. He gave quite a moving talk, and even hit some of the points our panel would be addressing next. I hurriedly texted the event organizers, begging them to ask Mr. Redford to stay to join our panel. But, he had to catch a plane. One of the panelists was a tourism minister who had not once responded to any of the pre-event emails. I didn’t know if he even had a clue about the subject. As we transitioned to our session, literally 90% of the audience left, leaving us with a cavernous room with about 100 people scattered like leaves around the auditorium.  

Needless to say, the panel was a bit lackluster.  As I left the stage, the organizer came up to me and said, “Well, congratulations on running the least worst sustainability session we’ve ever had. Honestly, people just don’t really care about the subject.” 

It was deflating, to say the least. Fast forward to today and it’s heartening to see how much has changed. Many key players in the global travel industry acknowledge there is a climate emergency and have finally begun taking action – from pledges and declarations to sustainability standards for operators. We are finally past the “WHY?” and have moved on to the “HOW?”, and at our Adventure Travel World Summit in Lugano, Switzerland this past October, the general conversation became about “WHEN?”.  At last, real action is being taken by many travel companies and destinations, and everyone must now have a concrete answer when asked what they are doing to make the world a better place. 

This shift will (and does) open the industry to a real risk of greenwashing. I just saw a panel on sustainability at a major travel event, and the speakers were from a big cruise company, a huge all-inclusive resort, and a low-cost airline. On one hand, this was troubling to see since their business models are inherently problematic for sustainability.  But on the other hand, we all have to start somewhere, so it was good to see that they are trying. 

It does seem there’s a real shift overall. The most highly rated talk at the 2022 Summit by Jean-Claude Razel, a rafting operator and professor, came down to this call to action: “Stop developing travel based on travelers' demands, and start developing what the destination needs!”  This is a real shift which ATTA applauds; the customer should not be king. That business-as-usual mindset brought with it the strain and exploitation of overtourism, ignored effects of climate change, and paid little attention to the many invisible burdens of tourism on fragile locales and destinations. 

We’re facing yet another unprecedented (tired of that word yet?) trend where for the first time, the global tourism economy is expected to grow despite the recession that is rolling in. At USTOA in Austin, TX a few weeks ago, travel economists revealed compelling data from both operators and travelers showing that they intend to travel regardless of economic predictions. Booking numbers for 2023 from many companies confirm this, and I heard from a retailer of adventure travel clothing that travel gear is blowing off the shelves here in the United States, further underlining the trend.

As an industry, we’ve gone from an existential crisis to an identity crisis. While still in the throes of the COVID-19 hangover, we’re simultaneously very close to sprinting back to 2019 tourism numbers. I fear that all the talk and intentions to do better may get quietly set aside while companies focus on filling the financial holes within their organizations.

We heard from members of our community at the Summit – both in person and through WhatsApp groups following the event – that there is an urgency to standardize more sustainability processes. I find that collective desire very heartening. Expect ATTA to play a role in helping to shepherd this, while not reducing our efforts and commitment to Tomorrow’s Air, Neutral Together and the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund in 2023. 

Whoever you are and whatever part of the industry you have a role in, I encourage you to pause and reflect, make room for big dreams and huge innovations, and imagine what as an industry and community we could do to affect change if we really take it seriously. Many reports in the near past suggest customers want more sustainable options but are not necessarily willing to pay for it. While it appears this trend is headed in the right direction, consider making sustainability a requirement, not an option.

Build for what you know is right. You, on the ground, can and should build for the better of the people and places that rely on responsible tourism. Don’t only develop based on what the customer wants. Let’s show them even greater possibilities, and use tourism to effect real change. If the majority of travel companies only offered sustainable options, the entire industry has the potential to become a global leader in demonstrating the power of collective will. I recently asked the head of a large travel operation, “When do you think it will be common for travel companies to include a climate surcharge with a travel purchase?”  His response was, “Never.”  Let’s prove this common assumption wrong. 

From all of us at the ATTA to all of you, our community and colleagues, we wish you a prosperous and hopeful new year. May it bring rest, reflection, and joyful times together with those who you love. Let’s enter 2023 with all the energy needed to continue to make travel a force for excellence.