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Is another tourism possible?

Labels promising sustainable tourism have multiplied in recent years. However, they do not always fulfill their mission, according to you. Why ?

The question of sustainable tourism appeared in the 1990s, in international conferences. I remember that in 1989, the president of the Canary Islands said that we were entering a new era. But in reality, nothing or almost nothing has changed, and urbanization has been galloping. In many cases, sustainable tourism has only been used as a display effect to create new places in protected environments, such as the Russian winter sports resort of Rosa Khutor (which hosted the ski events of the Sochi Winter Olympics), in the heart of a national park.

For many places and companies, “sustainable tourism” is a simple marketing argument, which is not accompanied by constraints or achievements. As such, we should mention the island of Sir Bani Yas, in Abu Dhabi, crowned the best sustainable destination in the world in 2019. However, it is located in one of the most artificial tourist areas on the planet, and access is done by plane or by boat after a 3.5 hour drive from the international airport. In addition, it offers 4×4 safaris, has three resorts in a place that has no water and produces no agricultural produce. This says a lot about the misuse of the “sustainable tourism” label. This kind of development – such as the construction of a ski slope in Dubai for example – reveals the strategy of the United Arab Emirates to prepare for the post-oil era. But these are not sustainable activities!

Faced with all these issues, what measures do you suggest?

I first propose a symbolic measure, in order to show that we are entering a new era where everything is no longer permitted: the tourist sanctuary of Antarctica. The flow of tourists there is still low, and there are no local populations who depend on tourism for a living. Most travelers come from the northern hemisphere, so the emission of greenhouse gases to come to this continent is considerable. I do not claim that this sanctuarization can solve the problem in its entirety. But it seems desirable to me that a part of the planet which is still more or less preserved remains sheltered from human activities. More generally, tourist destinations should not hesitate to limit their reception capacity, while making better use of it.

What about measures concerning aviation, the first sector responsible for tourism greenhouse gas emissions?

The first measure would be to eliminate air routes for which there are land-based substitutes with low CO2 emissions – this was, incidentally, one of the proposals of the Citizen’s Climate Convention.

We also need to tax aviation fuel. Today in France, it is exempt from all taxes, and has been since 1944, under the Chicago Convention. Even as states have the option of taxing fuel for domestic flights. It would seem normal to me that air fuels should be taxed at the same level as ground fuels. In May 2019, a report by the European Commission estimated that a tax of 33 cents per liter of fuel would contribute to a 1% drop in CO2 emissions from the aviation sector.

It would also be good to tax frequent travelers more, with the introduction of a progressive tax on the flights of regular tourists. Everyone would be entitled to one untaxed flight per year, after which an increasingly higher tax would apply to additional flights. It would also be a question of discouraging very long-distance tourism, of penalizing short stays served by long journeys (for example weekends in New York for Europeans), in particular by modulating the price according to the number of nights separating the outward from the return.

After the pandemic, do you believe in the sustainable transformation of tourism?

I see two contradictory movements: on the one hand, the legitimate desire for access to tourism by the new middle classes which are developing in China, India, etc., and which will contribute to further increasing the number of trips. On the other hand, a growing need to finally bring tourism into the ecological transition, which requires big changes. Some are ongoing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the case of business tourism, the most penalized. Companies have understood that there was a source of savings there (one billion dollars for Amazon in 2021…) thanks to the development of videoconferencing. It is also an opportunity to better respect decarbonization objectives.

In addition, the pandemic and confinements have made it possible to discover nearby places. It’s the catchphrase of the moment: traveling slowly to nearby, unfrequented spaces.

Finally, there is a change in mentality. For example, the “shame of flying” (“flygskam” in Swedish), which appeared in Sweden in 2018. A survey by the Union of Swiss Banks conducted in 2019 showed that 21% of respondents claimed to have already decided to reduce their air travel over the past year. Is it a lasting movement that will spread outside of Western Europe, the United States and Canada? It is too early to tell. But since its beginnings, tourism has been a series of inventions by the tourists themselves. When I say that new practices adapted to these environmental constraints will arise among the younger generations, I am quite sure of myself.


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