A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website in the week tourism ministers met in London to discuss climate change…

Thousands of representatives from the world’s tourism industry descended on east London this week to attend the World Travel Market, a giant trade fair held each November in the cavernous ExCel centre in Docklands. As someone who has attended WTM in the two previous years, I can report that it is quite a spectacle. Pretty much every country on the planet – 202 countries this year – sends a delegation to staff a stand in order to try to court the industry’s key decision-makers to persuade them to send as many tourists as possible their way over the next 12 months. It’s like speed dating – but on a grand scale.

For anyone wanting to see where the power lies in what some claim to be the world’s largest industry, they only need to stand on one of the balconies overlooking the main floor and look at how the countries are spaced out. In the centre of the room, boasting stands that have probably cost tens of thousands of pounds to construct, are the industry’s most important destinations – the US, France, the UK, Spain, Dubai etc. On the fringes are those looking, hoping, to join the party. And countries such as Burundi quite literally have little more than a trestle table holding a few leaflets and are positioned far away from the main thoroughfares.

As I walked among the stands last year, listening in and watching deals being struck, I couldn’t help but wonder what WTM would look like in a few decades’ time. Would the same countries be dominating proceedings? Would WTM still even be operating? The trigger for these thoughts was that the Great Issue of Our Age (TM) – climate change – was a concept that had evidently been blocked from entering the hall by security. If one industry has dragged its heels over confronting climate change it is the tourism industry. This is a very strange response given that it, arguably, has the most to lose.

But that was last year. I was pleased to learn earlier this year that up to 100 tourism ministers from across the globe would be meeting at this year’s event to discuss how the tourism industry should address climate change. The UN’s World Tourism Organisation was to meet formally at WTM and discuss how it should approach the forthcoming UN climate summit being held in Bali in December. (Back in October it had drafted the “Davos Declaration“, which sets out the industry’s stance on climate change.) At last, I thought, sleeves are being rolled up. The industry is finally going to work out how to square the fact that it is a significant and fast-growing emitter of greenhouses gases, as well as also being extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Sadly, though, all the reports coming out of WTM this week suggest that while there’s been a lot of talk about the issue, there has been very little commitment to act in any meaningful way. For example, this is what Margaret Hodge, the UK’s tourism minister had to say:

“It is not for the government to deny people the right to travel. Or to deny the industry the right to respond to the demand for travel. It is a difficult task to try to square the circle of the desire to travel and the use of aviation and its growth… The tourism industry fuels around 5% of global CO2 emissions. But for every negative there should be a positive. There is a lot being done by tourism and aviation industries to reduce greenhouse emissions. There are strong grounds for us to be optimistic.”

This is little more than a rubber stamp for the industry’s “business as usual” stance, as far as I can tell. One of the major problems, I feel, is that tourism is so poorly represented, if at all, at cabinet level in most of the world’s governments. For example, Margaret Hodge is hardly what we might call at the heart of government, despite the fact that tourism is acknowledged as the capital city’s second largest industry. Just when the tourism industry needs a big prod by governments to move it in the right direction on this issue – yes, I mean far tighter regulation – it knows it will be treated with kid gloves.

There were some dissenting voices, however. To his credit, the ebullient and high-pitched CNN business travel reporter and anchor Richard Quest stood up and slammed the attendees for their inaction and mealy words:

“How many of you have a car waiting for you? How many have requested your hotel not to change your sheets and towels tonight? How many of you travelled here economy class? The business class seat is the most environmentally unfriendly on the aircraft. It takes more space, has greater weight and higher fuel burn… I have read the Davos Declaration in detail. I am none the wiser about what’s going to be done. I suggest and respectfully submit that more work needs to be done on changing the mindset rather than producing pamphlets of fine-sounding language… Ultimately, we have to change the mindset of the tourist, whether it is the business traveller or the vacationer. We are in this sinking boat together and we need to offer them realistic possibilities and procedures to help bale us out of it.”

Such an intervention is welcome, but I do wonder how long it will take for this industry to shake off this paralysis. Last week, Greenpeace in Spain released some mocked-up images of how some of the countries most popular resorts might look if sea levels rise as some predict. Each year, ski resorts report ever reduced snow levels. And just this week, the world’s small island states met in the Maldives – one of the UK’s most popular “winter sun” destinations – to discuss the impact of climate change.

When will this mighty industry properly face up to this ever-looming challenge?

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