This month sees the return of The Big Holiday Beach Clean, the central focus of ABTA’s annual “Make Holidays Greener” campaign, which lasts for the whole of July. I want to see it as an opportunity to reposition such initiatives at the heart of responsible tourism.
Start with the local impact. When members of staff and guests at coastal hotels pick up litter, the beach becomes more attractive. This tells the communities that life, work and play at these beaches year round a great story about the value of tourism industry to their lives. Very visually, very proactively, both the industry and the travellers that visit are saying – we are here to make your world better.
With such potential, beach clean ups are not something that should take place over the course of a month. The tide doesn’t stop on 30 July. Beach clean ups should be at the heart of coastal tourism strategies all year round.
Likewise, TTG wrote recently that the 2015 Big Holiday Beach Clean saw “a total of 108 beaches in 20 countries were cleaned when 68 organisations took part in the programme.” That number should be in the thousands. We need to change attitudes so that as people pick up their stuff to go to the beach, it’s towel, bucket, spade, rubbish bag….
Tourism needs to lead on this. Provide a free litter bag in every room, which guests hand in full when they come back from the beach. Replace it more often than the towels.
Reward the guests that collect the most with free snorkelling trips. Keep track of how much litter is being collected. Take photographs of before and after. Communicate all this to guests, staff, local people.
In other words, put beach clean ups – with their ability to engage people in collective endeavour and their easy to see results – at the heart of your sustainability communications strategy.
Life’s a beach
The real significance of beach clean ups, however, comes not from the easy and immediate local impacts they can deliver, but from the way they help us grasp far more challenging stories of global interconnectedness and the often invisible threats we face on a much greater scale.
It all starts with one unavoidable fact: Plastic never biodegrades. It breaks down into smaller pieces, but never disappears.
This means that on average there are over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floating on every square kilometre of ocean. Almost every single piece was once discarded on land. A report published in the journal Science in February last year found that every year 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans – equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. And the problem is getting worse – by 2025, that figure is to be about 10 bags full of waste plastic per foot of coastline.
Turtles, seals, dolphins, sea birds and other marine animals mistake plastic litter for food, with some areas of ocean now containing six times more microscopic plastic particles than plankton. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fishes.
I can think of no other place where the challenges confronting tourism, and the opportunity to take another route, are clearer than at the beach. The beach represents the epitome of the holiday destination. And it is at the epicentre of the environmental problems we face.
So yes, this July everyone in the industry should welcome the return of The Big Holiday Beach Clean. Only this time we should make sure it stays for good.