Eco-tourism 'myth' slammed by experts

Sustainable tourism will only work if applied to the mass market

Ruth Holroyd, group head of sustainability at The Thomas Cook Group, was speaking at World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi
Ruth Holroyd, group head of sustainability at The Thomas Cook Group, was speaking at World Green Tourism Abu Dhabi

The concept of eco-tourism as a niche travel sector has been slammed by responsible tourism experts desperate to refocus the industry’s approach to sustainable travel.

Ruth Holroyd, group head of sustainability at The Thomas Cook Group, challenged traditional perceptions of sustainable tourism at December’s World Green Tourism conference in Abu Dhabi.

She questioned whether an eco lodge, gentle on the environment but accessible only to a limited wealthy few likely to arrive on scheduled flights, was really more sustainable than a large but low impact hotel for the mass market, who would be travelling with limited budgets on charter flights and coaches.

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“Why should sustainable tourism only be for small groups of more wealthy people?” asked Holroyd.

“Others are entitled to it as well and in fact it is the mass form of sustainable travel that will really make a difference to destinations,” she asserted.

“Mass tourism done well can be sustainable as long as it’s done in conjunction and collaboration with customers, hoteliers and destination governments. This is what is actually needed to create a sustainable industry and the sooner that that’s accepted then the faster the change can actually happen,” Holroyd said.

In November, Thomas Cook announced a new group wide vision for sustainable futures entitled ‘Travel the world without costing the earth’.

Targets include a 20% reduction in electricity used across the entire group and 12% improvement in efficiency across its airlines. Ultimately, Thomas Cook wants every holiday it sells to be sustainable.

Professor Harold Goodwin, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, said Thomas Cook’s adoption of sustainability as part of its mainstream strategy was “really where we need to be going globally”.

Small-scale initiatives — referred to by Goodwin as cul-de-sacs and by-ways — should be confined to the past as tour operates look to mainstream sustainable options.

“Eco-tourism was a cul-de-sac, it was a mistake. It was about saying ‘we’ll green the tourism industry by focusing on 1 or 2% of it’. I still hear people today saying that eco tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry — it is these sort of awful myths that actually frustrate change,” stated Goodwin.

“There is no doubt in my mind that progress can only be made by dealing with big companies and mainstreaming significant change towards sustainability,” he asserted.

Going forward, Goodwin said success would depend on the progress made against set targets and how far these companies were held accountable for delivering on them.

“It’s not about what’s next, it’s about the progress against set targets — against which the salaries of people like Ruth are being judged,” Goodwin concluded.

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