More people globally are travelling to foreign destinations for their holidays, and doing so more times per year. One summer break is no longer the norm: those with a mind to see the world and the budget to spare book four or five short get-aways each year – a trend spreading from Europe to Asia, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. The phrase ‘I need a holiday’ is becoming at once more common and more qualified: with more choice, a proliferation of service providers and greater access to local information, there also comes a more discerning approach. Any ‘dream’ destination will not do: people also want to experience it in a particular way.
The impact of ever more adventurers on the world they want to see spells trouble. Top of the list, there are the carbon emissions of travel and the impact of this upon an already changing climate; global tourist arrivals in 2012 topped one billion, despite a shortfall due, in part, to a spate of (so-called) natural disasters. Related to this, water supplies in areas attractive to sunseekers are becoming ever more fragile – and the expectations of plentiful showers and swimming pools can add extra strain. Tourism can bring much needed funding and the impetus to develop essential infrastructure for water and sanitation, transport and telecommunications, boosting local economies – but there’s also the risk that profit stays in the hands of multinational hospitality providers, if they fail to involve host communities in the provision of goods and services. Not least, there’s the need to ensure local ecosystems aren’t thrown out of kilter by a sudden rise in footfall and demand for resources.
This is the context in which TUI Travel has set out to become the world’s biggest leisure provider, in a way that is sustainable and responsible. I met Johan Lundgren, Deputy Chief Executive of TUI Travel PLC: the man charged with leading the way, backed by a small army of 54,000 employees operating from 31 markets. For Lundgren, good tourism doesn’t mean treading so lightly you don’t leave a mark. It means finding ways to ensure that the destinations, and the lives of local communities, are better off with tourists than without them.
“It’s very easy to be idealistic and ask, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just go on holiday to small cottages, or travel somewhere slowly and stay there for three months?’ – advocating ecotourism in a niche kind of way. But the truth of the matter is, you’re talking about one of the world’s largest industries, where millions and millions go on holiday. And that can be a good thing, if you see tourism as something that [can be] actually good for the destination.”
I prompt him to clarify what he means by ‘good’, and am met by a blast of ambition. “We want to be the industry leader, the spokesperson for the sustainability agenda, and we can only be that if we actually do the actions that are right – if we prove that we are lessening our impact on the environment; that we are enhancing the lives of the people at certain destinations; that we can engage with customers in a way that makes them feel that this is a company that I want to travel with because they are doing the right thing; that we can engage and train our colleagues in the organisations, in a way that they feel ‘Actually, this company I’m working for is the leader in this area…’”
But where does such a journey start? As set out in the Group’s Sustainable Holidays Plan, TUI Travel is beginning (appropriately) with carbon emissions. The Group has set the target of operating Europe’s most fuel-efficient airlines, and saving more than 20,000 tonnes of carbon from its ground operations – including major premises, retail outlets, brochures, hotels and fleets of vehicles – by 2015, against a 2011 baseline.
Another very important thing, Lundgren explains, is what the company does in its destinations: he points out that one of TUI Travel’s core values is responsible leadership. “We have hundreds of local projects with communities to make sure that they see it as better that we’re there than not. If you look at some Caribbean destinations, for instance, there wouldn’t be jobs, there wouldn’t be employment, and there wouldn’t be infrastructure if it wasn’t for tourism. I think we have proved that this industry can provide growth for destinations – for people. We try to stimulate local hotels to buy locally produced food, for example.”
Good intentions, but I wonder how they correlate to the growth of TUI Travel as a business. Of course, marking yourself out as a leader has reputational benefits, but realistically, the majority of people planning their holidays won’t have this in mind. What difference, if any, does a more sustainable holiday make to the actual experience of the average tourist? Does it have any role in another of TUI Travel’s ambitions – in which customers feel that ‘travelling with TUI Travel is better than travelling with everybody else’?
“Definitely, it will enrich the whole holiday experience – partly because people like to see different things. When hotels offer local produce, that’s something people are interested in. And more people are going on sustainable excursions, which bring benefits to the local communities and biodiversity. If you go to Gran Canaria, 20 years ago everybody wanted to see the mountains – that was the fantastic ‘new’ thing. But since, there have been a lot of repeating customers to Gran Canaria, and they have all been on that excursion. So, I think there is an opportunity to create different types of excursions, based around environmentally friendly and communitybased projects that can have an impact.”
When it comes to delivering environmental benefits at scale across TUI Travel, collaboration is both the key and the challenge. No one company, however extensive its scope, can be effective without bringing others along with it. I ask, how is TUI Travel engaging the other service providers who play a part in holidays? Is there a selection process?
“No, we set targets, and then we ask our stakeholders – the airlines, for example – what they can do to help us, and bring people together to share best practice: the good ideas are already out there. Each airline has appointed a fuel conservation manager, so their full-time jobs are engaging with pilots and with stakeholders, to come up with ways of saving money through efficiency. We have a number of similar engagements with our hoteliers: we ask the local management to bring in experts, whether that’s to reduce electricity and air conditioning, or to heat up the pools using solar panels. Setting targets is very important: if you don’t, what are you going to aim for? Yes, we meet resistance, but that’s as it should be. If you don’t, then the target is too low.”
Sometimes, Lundgren admits, the targets are also too high – because awareness of the issues, and the solutions, varies from one place to the next, as does regulation. Some hotel managers may simply not understand why the targets are so important to TUI Travel. If they really don’t get it, the company has the option of not signing the contract – but this isn’t a solution either, says Lundgren: “If we don’t work with them, the hotel will simply sell to someone else. We would rather work with everybody to make sure we hit our targets. We offer further support, in terms of tools, workshops, consultancy and education: 600 hoteliers and other stakeholders trained with us in the years 2011-12. It’s not a ‘go away and do it on your own’ approach!”
This discrepancy in approaches to sustainability, from one source market or destination to the next, puts the need for international targets on carbon emissions into focus. TUI Travel engages with national governments, the EU, and with the travel association ABTA, in efforts to promote regulation. Lundgren would like to see all European countries working to the same standards; he points out that legislation like the Package Travel Directive – which requires the organisers and sellers of package holidays to provide greater protection to purchasers through information, financial protection and repatriation, and contractual liability – has remained unchanged since 1990, despite the advent of game-changers, from low-cost carriers to the internet, to independent players, like Airbnb, who can be reluctant to offer financial protection for customers, says Lundgren.
“We are not doing what some of these independent companies are, by saying that ‘I can provide you with a hotel room, but I can’t find a flight for you, so you’ve got to get yourself to the hotel by this time – and by the way, if it all goes wrong, you’ll have no one to turn to’”, says Lundgren. “That’s not the type of company we are, or that we want to be.”
He believes TUI Travel’s size and brand recognition also comes with “great responsibility, because we also have the ability to influence, from the hoteliers to the airlines. I like to see my role as making sure that that whole chain is working; the weakest link has to be strong enough to make the whole chain hold.”
Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures.
Photo credit: TUI Travel