Nov 15 • 17M

Couchfish: Reality Check

There is an elephant in the room.

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Yesterday, Bloomberg scored themselves an advance copy of The Travel Foundation’s Envisioning Tourism in 2030 report. While the report hasn’t been released publicly yet, going off what Bloomberg have to say, it makes for a hard reality check.

Not before time.

According to The Travel Foundation’s own prep for the report’s release, they took the Paris Agreement’s goal of halving emissions by 2030 and hitting net zero by 2050 and applied them to the travel industry. Once they took into account a forecast doubling in global tourism size by 2050 (from 2019 levels), they saw current strategies as being “woefully inadequate.”

No shit Sherlock.

The report doesn’t look at the cruise industry, nor the emissions around hotel construction, and this is a shame. Flying though—particularly long haul—came in for a flogging. They write:

“Some limits must also be applied to aviation growth until it is fully able to decarbonise, in particular capping the longest-distance trips to 2019 levels. These made up just 2% of all trips in 2019 but are, by far, the most polluting. If left unchecked, they will quadruple by 2050, accounting for 41% of tourism’s total emissions (up from 19% in 2019) yet still just 4% of all trips.”

Four per cent of trips responsible for 41% of the industry’s total emissions. That is quite the statistic.

On the outskirts of Sinh Ho. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

As I argued in an earlier piece, if a long haul flight is unavoidable, then it should come part and parcel with a longer stay and no domestic flights. This is a point The Travel Foundation’s Jeremy Sampson notes, writing:

“A shift to less flying around during a period of time has the potential to make tourism genuinely more local and a better experience for visitors.”

So what steps are already underway? Bloomberg mentions operators adding in overnight trains, and a Kiwi zipline company that labels its products. These are all positive steps, but in the scheme of things, minuscule.

The story also notes Booking.com is planning to show the carbon emissions for flights and hotels. This is not dissimilar to what Google Flights does, but the question begs, if a flight or hotel is going to score 400% over the average, why are they listing it?

Looks legit.

First and foremost, money. These listings are all commissionable. They make their cut, then kick the can down to consumers. I guess they borrowed BP’s shifting blame handbook from an Amsterdam library.

I have similar concerns around Booking’s “sustainability labelling” which is a greenwashing train wreck. While one could argue it it is better than nothing, I’d argue the opposite. Every time Booking awards a sustainability badge to an undeserving property, they devalue the real efforts of others. I mean, why bother with 100% renewable energy if switching to bamboo straws will get you the same sticker?

Airlines and hotels are easy pickings, but I’d argue another problematic one is tour operators. Why? Because their businesses depend on airlines and hotels for their tours. While some operators are better than others, you don’t need to look far to see they’re just as apt as kicking the can down the road.

No train to Son La, but still, no need to fly. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Founded in 2001, UK operator Responsible Travel describe themselves as an “activist company.” While they have their own tours, they also sell the tours of others on a commission basis. In a step I guess to live up to their name, sometime in 2021, they drew a line in the sand. Founder Justin Francis wrote (you can see the post here on the Internet Archive, as the text is no longer on their website):

“By January 2022, we won’t be selling any holidays that include internal jet flights of less than one hour.”

Heady times—but it wasn’t to last—within a few months if I recall correctly, the above was gone. Today the same page reads:

“We’ll be working closely with our holiday partners to ensure that no itineraries on our site include unnecessary flights.”

Define unnecessary. In the revised post, they try to, writing:

“After long consultations with our member tour operators, including those working with local communities in some of the world’s most remote – and often fragile – places, we realised there are a number of barriers to imposing a complete ban.”

When you keep in mind these member tour listings all exist on the site on a commission basis, it is hard not to see us back at money. Again.

So should have stuck to their guns.

Now I’m willing to contemplate there being some places on earth where a domestic flight is the only practical option. That said, I can’t think of anywhere specific to Southeast Asia that would qualify. There is only one way you can make a domestic flight essential in this part of the world. You need to have an itinerary so time-constrained a domestic flight is the only way to make it work.

Which brings me to Vietnam.

Long and thin, many of the destinations of touristic interest in Vietnam are set along a north south axis. It is a deceptively time-consuming country to travel in, but all is not lost. A train line runs much of the length of the country, with stops either at, or nearby, many of the “highlights.” The train is, by Southeast Asian standards, comfortable, safe, and affordable.

If you go to Responsible Travel’s website and pull up their Vietnam page, you know what the number one trip is? A ten-day trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, with the last leg being a flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City. This trip isn’t buried at the bottom of their collection of 148 trips that touch on the country.

It is the first trip they recommend.

Muong Lay is the perfect spot to get over writing about responsible travel. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

While it isn’t branded as such, the trip is an Intrepid Travel one. The Australian adventure tour company claims to be the world’s largest such company, a leader in sustainable travel, and responsible for some 1,000 trips worldwide.

Aside from the above-mentioned trip, they offer over 20 specific to Vietnam. One of the highest placed tours on their own website is an eight-day tour of Vietnam which includes two domestic flights. Both are under an hour and thirty minutes.

Trying to make sense of this (and other things), I dropped Intrepid an email with a bunch of questions. To my mind, whistle-stop tours are the antithesis of responsible travel, so I was curious how they reconcile their talk with their walk. In a written answer, Karen Zhao, the Global Product Manager for Vietnam, wrote:

“Market demands tell us that customers want 8-10 days to see all that Vietnam has to offer. We need to cater to this market (or we wouldn’t be a commercially viable business).”

Back to money. Again.

The problem isn’t limited to their crazy-short tours. Intrepid’s 15-day “Classic Vietnam” and “Premium Vietnam in Depth” trips each have two domestic flights. Their 20-day “Premium Cambodia & Vietnam in Depth” trip has three domestic flights plus one regional one. All three domestic flights on that last tour are under an hour and a half in length, the Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat one, under an hour.

What?

To be fair, Intrepid doesn’t only offer whistle stop tours. In her reply, Zhao listed trips which are “more focused and slower paced and don’t try to cover the entire length of Vietnam.” This is great, and while I personally feel the pace of some of the trips are akin to a military expedition—that’s just me. Whatever rocks your boat. Regardless, offering longer tours or plant-based meals (another point Zhao made) doesn’t negate the damage of the short trips.

The only plant-based menu I want in Vietnam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Intrepid isn’t alone. Mark Ord, co-founder of the far smaller UK operator All Points East echoed a similar line. All Points East offers a smaller range of Vietnam trips, but a number do include domestic flights. [Note: Ord is a personal friend and he has written at length for Travelfish over the years.] Chatting on the phone, Ord told me:

“The market is different to a decade ago. We used to plonk guests in Nan [a semi-remote trekking centre in northern Thailand] for three days, but today guests want short trips and to zap from highlight to highlight.”

In both cases they’re kicking the can down the road. More to the point, if you’re going to state that you’re “recognised as a leader in sustainable travel,” as Intrepid does, then behave like one. Galavanting around the world to accept a pay-to-play sustainability award while offering trips like these, seems, I don’t know, a bit off.

If you’re going to offer an eight-day trip to Vietnam that includes two domestic flights, you are not a sustainable operator. More to the point, if you’re going to sit at COP27 and talk about how you have reviewed your use of short flights on your top 50 trips then email me and say you run high emission trips because you need to make money, well, excuse me for being confused.

One important point here, as the top 50 trips were not listed during the COP27 session (thank God, as it is near interminable), I guess perhaps their Vietnam trips are not among their top 50 trips. That said, Zhao wrote “Most people going to Vietnam on Holiday want to do the standard 8-day trip to Vietnam” so it seems like a safe bet. If not, my bad, and I am more confused than I thought.

Forget climate—I’d like to declare a fashion emergency. Photo: Mark & Tu’s staff.

This isn’t to say, Intrepid doesn’t do plenty of good work—they do. For starters they run the Intrepid Foundation (more on this in a sec), which undeniably does great work. They also underwrite online travel publication Adventure.com, which often has a refreshing take. This stuff matters. It can make people’s lives better. It can work to shape (or better still, shift) consumer attitudes and opinions. It deserves applause.

In January 2020, they declared a “climate emergency” and outlined a seven-point plan. In it they noted a desire to offset 125% of their emissions (the company has been “carbon neutral” since 2010). They also plan to transition their trips to 100% renewable energy by 2030—I’d love to see the small print on that one. While there are issues with carbon offsetting, these steps remain laudable. Another point in their plan, that they will keep empowering women around the world, could perhaps be redirected to their management team.

I mention that last point only because it is a great example of the divergence between their talk and their walk. As I’ve written earlier, sustainable and responsible travel need to be viewed in a holistic manner. If you say you are going to do something, do it—starting with your own organisation.

No more bull please. Stranded with a flat tire on the way to Bac Ha. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I asked All Points East’s Ord why they fly domestic, his reply was instructive.

“Adding an entire day [for a train trip] with no highlights is a bit tricky and having a trip with two overnight train trips would be hard to sell—the market would not bear it. In an ideal world we’d use no domestic flights, but for the tour to be attractive to guests, there needs to be compromise. It boils down to what does the guest want? Do they want to spend nine hours in a bus or 45 minutes in a plane?”

I don’t know that the people who will bear the brunt of climate change—more often than not in the very countries these companies run tours to—would be all that keen on talk around compromise. At what point in this climate emergency is it ok to tell a potential customer that a ten-day tour to Vietnam is climate vandalism?

By all means continue to sell these short tours if you want—but then stop calling yourself a responsible operator.

Why? Because for the consumer who isn’t abreast on the latest in carbon counting or whatever, thanks to these company’s PR and branding, it isn’t a stretch to assume that when one buys from Responsible Travel or Intrepid, they think they’re buying a responsible product.

I have no elephant pics on my laptop, so here is a tasty bowl in Dien Bien instead. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I mention the Intrepid Foundation midway through this piece. Way back in 2010, they funded a report by World Animal Protection titled Wildlife on a Tightrope. The study researched animal welfare in Thailand’s entertainment and tourism sectors. While there was already some shifting away from elephants in tourism, the report’s publication was a watershed moment. Three years later, Intrepid stopped featuring elephant riding in their trips.

The science on flying’s role in global warming is clear. There is no excuse for flying domestically on a tour when there is suitable ground transportation. None. The planet cannot wait three years for more studies and reports and blah blah blah. Intrepid has shifted consumer behaviour before, and they need to do so again. All tour operators—Intrepid, All Points East and the bazillion others—need to remove these domestic flights, now, from their itineraries.

Will this annoy customers? Maybe. Will they adapt? Just as they did with elephant riding, yes. More to the point, they need to.

A last point, in theme with my other posts in this series, there is one tourism demographic who tends by and large, not to use adventure tour companies. You know who they are? Budget and independent travellers.

PS: Yes, I know I have itineraries on Travelfish that suggest domestic flights as an option. These are on my rewrite list!


Other episodes in the Rethinking Tourism series:

  1. National Chocolate Milk Day (World Tourism Day)

  2. Nice Tourism (Sustainable Tourism)

  3. The Benevolent Lie (Responsible Tourism)

  4. The Year Is 2006. The Town Is Luang Prabang (Pro-poor Tourism)

  5. Zoom in to the Red Plastic Chairs (Slow Travel)

  6. The Petro-bourgeoisie (Flying, carbon etcetera)


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