Talking Point: Tourism net impact. Can you change it?

Can hotels help tourists reduce their net impact?

Can hotels help tourists reduce their net impact?

Green Hotelier Talking Point

Green Hotelier’s Talking Point for May looks at negative and positive impacts of tourism. Here, Mike Read asks how can guests improve their net impact during their travels, and he thinks he’s found the solution.

How can a tourist decide which holiday has the greatest net positive or negative impact: three weeks in a three-star half-board hotel in the Caribbean, two weeks in an all-inclusive five-star hotel in Spain, or a week self-catering in Cyprus?

We all know that tourism can bring great benefits, and local economic benefits are sometimes suggested to be more than sufficient recompense for environmental and social costs, but are we really in a position to say when, where or even if this is true? Is there really a practical way to make that value-judgement?

Attempts have been made to measure whether benefits outweigh damage in tourism, but none resulted in a practical tool the tourism industry, or anyone else, can use. Certification schemes have begun to assess the sustainability of holiday accommodation, but the various components which are generally excluded from such schemes - e.g. flight-related emissions, holiday duration, indirect water use, and leakage of benefits - are likely to be more important than the components included.

A consumer environmental ranking system is common in products from fridges to houses, but has yet to be devised for holidays; tourism products are arguably way behind in such developments. But a recently published research paper presents a prototype system for holiday products. This prototype has been designed for flight-based holidays, but could be used and adapted for any kind of holiday. The new system calculates an index score or a $-value, per person per holiday, making this a useful real-world tool for tour operators, hoteliers and individual holidaymakers trying to reduce their footprints.

The biggest impacts - positive and negative - of an overseas holiday were assessed and the top five are:

  • greenhouse gas emissions from flights,
  • water consumption,
  • employment,
  • contributions to the local economy by hotels and tourists, and
  • resource consumption and waste.

Methods were devised to assess and weight the scale of these impacts, based on real-world data or reasonable estimates. The research went on to trial the tool and analyse the outputs. The results, although preliminary, make interesting reading.

In its present form the tool suggests that many current outbound holiday products have a net negative impact, but there are steps that can be taken to significantly improve this situation.

According to the research these are the top five ways to tip the balance of a holiday in favour of a net positive impact.

1. Choosing a shorter-haul or flight-free holiday.
This one is perhaps pretty obvious, but it is interesting that even a single long-haul holiday return flight can exceed what would be an individual’s annual sustainable carbon allowance.

2. Choosing a hotel where there is less leakage from the local economy.
There has been much debate about ‘leakage’ of benefits away from destinations, where the cash generated by tourism largely bypasses local communities. Estimates vary between about 40% and 80%.

3. Choosing a hotel with significantly less non-recycled waste per guest-night.
Averaged over an extended period the amount of solid waste a hotel throws away is a good indicator for the resources it and its guests consume, other than for food and beverages. So the less waste to landfill, the less negative the impact not just of waste disposal but of resource consumption as well.

4. Choosing significantly fewer, but longer, holidays.
The longer spent at your destination, the greater percentage of the total holiday cost goes to local economic benefits, and the less the overall transport cost per day of the stay. So a two week holiday is greener than two, one-week holidays.

5. Increasing daily discretionary spend.
This could be one way to counter the impacts that can be associated with the trend to all-inclusive holiday packages, simply by spending more in local shops and restaurants and local excursions.

Hotels can do their bit – in surprising ways – to make themselves a more sustainable option for guests.

From a hotel’s perspective, the real keys to making a significant contribution to sustainability could be attracting more guests who do not have to fly to stay, choosing local suppliers, reducing consumption (waste prevention), encouraging longer stays, and encouraging guests to get out and about in the local community. By engaging guests on these issues – particularly on waste reduction and community programmes – hotels can help to improve tourists’ impact as they make small changes over their lifetime.

Mike Read

Mike Read


A lot to think about.

For more information visit Mike Read Associates and see: Read, M.I. (2013) Socio-economic and environmental cost–benefit analysis for tourism products — A prototype tool to make holidays more sustainable. Tourism Management Perspectives, Volume 8, 10/2013, pp 114–125.

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