This Monday – April 22, is Earth Day. It’s the 49th anniversary of the event, first celebrated in 1970. And this year, the theme is “Protect our Species”.
What should those of us who work in tourism do?
On one level, this is an easy question to answer. Just look at the species on the Earth Day site. Bees – put a hive on your hotel roof. Giraffes, Elephants, Great Apes – promote and offer ethically run safaris providing communities with alternative livelihoods and financing the protection of the habitat these creatures need. Coral Reefs – run coral replanting activities at hotels and in our destinations. Trees and Plants – support rewilding initiatives. Reforest our destinations. I’ve written numerous times about how and why tourism should do all of these.
At this level, Earth Day 2019 provides an opportunity for tourism to communicate what it can do. But most of the world’s tourism doesn’t happen in places with elephants and coral reefs, let alone great apes and tigers. We also need to use this opportunity to connect us to the natural world near where we live – and to stimulate the wonder and love that will inspire people to preserve what we are rapidly destroying. The challenge is not to inspire people to find exotic elephants amazing. It is to get them fascinated by endangered curlews and Macedonian Grayling butterflies and Lakeside Daisies.
As we connect our guests to nature nearby, we can help people understand the wider significance of our actions. Sticking a beehive on the roof our hotel is a good gesture, but considering WWF’s 2017 report said 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss is a result of meat consumption, drastically reducing the amount of meat you serve will have a much more meaningful impact. Providing a wide range of exciting vegetarian menu dishes can help people discover how a plant-based diet can be enjoyable all year round.
This Monday may be Earth Day, but the truly significant environmental event happening right now started this time last week, with the global week(s) of actions happening in the name of the Extinction Rebellion. Hotels and other tour companies have spent many years running Earth Day-themed events – dimming the lights in the restaurant, cleaning up the beach etc. But in the last few days and weeks, Extinction Rebellion, along with the School Climate Strikes, has changed the narrative. We are staring extinction in the face, and we are going to need more than an Earth Day-themed cocktail with a biodegradable straw.
Consider two stories that show how the story is changing. The first is from the business news website Bloomberg, reporting on the growth of the anti-flying movement in Sweden. Bloomberg reports that Swedavia AB, which operates 10 Swedish airports including the ones outside Stockholm and Gothenburg, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months. Last year, Sweden had its weakest overall growth in passenger numbers in a decade. Consider this quote from the article, and remember that it is from business-friendly Bloomberg: “Unless society — and airlines — address climate change, the world as we know it may cease to exist.”
The second article is “How to win: lessons from the Zad” from a very different site, Open Democracy. The article tells the story of a 50-year long protest in the forests outside Paris, a protest as long as the entire history of Earth Day. It tells a story of stamina and collaboration amongst communities and activists, leading eventually to success. And the story is about a successful campaign to stop another airport being built.
Two very different stories, on two very different sites, but both reflecting the same shift. As I wrote at the beginning of this year, protest against the major causes of climate change is growing, and aviation is a key target.
Activists are mobilising. This week’s protests will be cleared away. But the groups behind them will not. The Zad group campaigned against one airport project for 50 years. Extinction Rebellion has seen 30,000 people sign up in the last week.
Next year will be Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. But perhaps more tellingly, considering that in 2018 the UN told us we had 12 years to radically change, it will mean we have 10 years left. Can you imagine your hotel, travel company, or destination in 10 years time, and what it would take to be playing a regenerative role towards a sustainable world?
Can we build a restorative tourism, rather than just tinkering round the edges? Can we provide people with the space and time to explore the world nearby, and where success isn’t defined by GDP but by growth in our wellbeing and other species? Or will we be just another extractive industry, a vehicle for the consumption of distant people’s lives and lands dressed up as the latest authentic experience?
These are the sort of questions that Extinction Rebellion demands we ask ourselves. Earth Day is a good day to start.
The categories for the WTM World Responsible Tourism Awards are:
- Best for Wildlife & Nature Conservation
- Best for Reducing Carbon & Other Greenhouse Gases
- Best for Transparent Reporting
- Best for Reducing Plastic Waste
- Best for Coping with Success, dealing with Overtourism
- Best for Benefiting Local People