Tourist or traveller: Who is the greener globetrotter?

There’s always been something slightly uncool about being called a tourist, with an itinerary, timetable, and list of popular destinations and attractions to visit...

Travellers, on the hand, prefer to wing it. For them it’s about immersing themselves in a cultural experience, far from the well-trodden tourist trail, and with little concern over what time the coach departs.

At a time when faster global travel and sustainability have become inescapably intertwined, which type of travel behaviour is the more eco-friendly? And what of the future, when the even more spontaneous next generation ‘Millennials’ are fulfilling their global wanderlust? Will it bode well for Planet Earth? Mal Fletcher, a social futurist and media commentator who has been researching generational change for more than 25 years, believes that it does.

Millennials, he says, are the first generation to understand global citizenship. And as global thinkers they are also highly attuned to ethical considerations, whether in business, politics, or in relation to the environment.

He says: "They will tend to be more sensitive to issues of sustainability, including in their attitudes to travel, and for this reason, future travellers are more likely to be concerned about green issues than traditional tourists have been.

"Travellers are already more inclined to immerse themselves in local cultures and be more sensitive to issues that will concern local residents. Millennials add to this a keen sense that global access requires global responsibility; that freedom of movement demands ethical behaviour."

This suggests that more structured, organised tourist behaviours are less eco-friendly than those of travellers. But is that really the case? The travel and tourism industry has increasingly come under scrutiny with regards to the environmental impact of air travel. If getting from A to B involves flying, the impact is the same whether the traveller is part of an organised tour or a DIY expedition.

However, Philip Pryce, Head of the Marketing, Events and Tourism department at GSM (Greenwich School of Management) London, argues that in fact the more structured tourist behaviours have less of a negative ecological impact than other forms of travel.

He says: "Tour operators are regulated and guided by certain ethical principles, which individual non-organised travellers are not always concerned with. While some individual travellers are eco-conscious, others are less concerned about their impact on the environment."

Millennials are the first generation to understand global citizenship.

It is also the case that tour companies are more likely to be the focus of pressure groups, to ensure that their operations are eco-friendly, while their structured nature dictates that most activities are completed in groups. “For example,” explains Pryce, “a coach would be required to take an entire tour group to various activities at the destination. On the other hand, individual non-organised travellers may rent several vehicles, causing more harm to the environment.”

Then there is the advent and increasing popularity of eco-tours, with many people choosing this option to minimise the impact of their travel activities on the area they visit, and again, is more likely to happen as part of a group than as a feature of spontaneous or non-organised travel.

But there are ways that individual travellers can explore obscure and emerging travel destinations in an eco friendly way. Over the last 22 years, Classic Tours have arranged for more than 50,000 people to cycle, trek, run, climb mountains and ride horses in all corners of the globe while taking part in a charity challenge event.

Senior manager Sally Bromham says: "Many of the challenges attract travellers who want to get close to the culture of the country they are visiting and explore ‘off the beaten track’ away from the areas frequented by tourists. Not only are the travellers raising funds for UK charities but they often visit and support local projects as well.  Charity challenges are an increasingly popular way to combine travelling with ‘giving something back’ to society in a more ethical way."

But by far the biggest impact on the travel environment, according to James Berkeley, a global expert in the profitable growth and expansion of hospitality businesses, is not the behaviour of customers, but the degree to which those owning and delivering hospitality experiences see sustainability as an investment priority.

He says: "Actions, speak louder than ‘worthy’ corporate press releases. Go to any global hotel industry investment event and contrast attendance at events on heightening and amplifying the priority given to sustainability, versus furthering the company's regional presence or increasing financial leverage in money and growth initiatives."

Berkeley highlights some of the smaller resort brands in locations where tourism and nature sit cheek by jowl - think Maldives, Bahia, and Rift Valley – as being light years ahead of many of the larger players.

Meaningful change will only happen, he says, when the demands placed on top management in hospitality brands by their customers, shareholders, owners, regulators and employees become too loud to escape and have too big an impact on the bottom line.

"We are not there right now," he adds. "Will we ever be? Only selectively."

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