Like many people working in tourism, I tuned into COP26 to watch the official launch of the Glasgow Declaration as it was live-streamed.
Behind closed doors, I’ve heard colleagues say that the last thing the tourism industry needs is yet another declaration, pledge, certification, or coalition. The indication is that there are so many things to be involved in and committed to that each one loses value as more join their ranks. Do organizations feel so pressured to keep up with their competitors that they sign up and sign on to everything — even if the ability to put these practices into play and fulfill these obligations falls short?
Watching the Glasgow Declaration panel at COP26 and then tuning into the conference call that followed it later that day, I had a fleeting thought about whether this moment was even significant. Were my naysaying colleagues right? Is the Glasgow Declaration “just another pledge?”
But then I took a moment to reflect on the fact that, just a couple years ago, the tourism industry barely dared to speak the words “climate change.” Yes, some individual companies — such as Natural Habitat Adventures and Intrepid Travel, which have been carbon neutral since 2007 and 2010, respectively — have embraced aggressive environmental initiatives for many years. But, the practice wasn’t widespread until recently.
In early 2020, I joined an introductory call about Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. On the call, co-founder Jeremy Smith shared a story about the destruction of Guludo Beach Lodge in Mozambique by Cyclone Kenneth in April 2019. Many years ago, Smith visited the lodge, which won numerous awards for its responsible tourism model and social impact. Within minutes, an unprecedented weather event washed it all away.
I’ve since heard Smith tell this story several times, and each time I’m struck by how fast change can happen — and how this disaster served as a spark to help set Tourism Declares into motion.
The Glasgow Declaration’s creation is certainly not an equal comparison to the quick destruction of a cyclone. However, it’s noteworthy that, in only a couple short years, climate conversations in tourism have gone from backroom murmurings and small pockets of distressed people to the presentation of the Glasgow Declaration on the ultimate international stage. That’s a big deal because it clearly shows that major shifts in how we think, how we operate, and what we prioritize can happen impressively fast.
The voices and actions of a few people or organizations can serve as a catalyst — and that’s also why “just another pledge” is significant. Not all organizations that sign on will not meet its stated goals. Some will barely make any progress at curbing their environmental impact — if any at all.
Yet every single small thing that does happen — every itinerary tweak, every tree planted, every flight cut out, every conversation — matters.
Very few organizations can meet all the expectations of every pledge, declaration, and certification they commit to, but it’s not the totality of any one of these that matters. These initiatives create awareness, seed ideas, surface shared challenges and questions, create space for collaborations, incubate solutions, and celebrate achievements. They melt the boundaries between what we learn about and do at work, and what we can apply and share with others after hours. They normalize talking about and working toward meaningful action that supports a more responsible, sustainable, and climate-focused model for tourism and in the world at large.
“Positive impact” doesn’t have to be monumental; it just needs to be moving in the right direction — at both the organizational level and in our individual lives. The movement from awareness to action is as small as encouraging travelers to pick up litter on a trail they’re hiking anyway and picking up litter in our own neighborhoods when we’re out for an evening walk. It’s hopping on a train instead of a short flight for an industry event and when we take a weekend holiday with our families.
Do we need large-scale systemic changes that shatter the status quo? Absolutely
And, does it matter when one action leads to another action leads to another action, building climate-positive momentum from the ground up? Yes. Yes, it does.
When I joined my first call for Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency in its early days, there was a small group of concerned and committed people in the virtual room. Less than two years later, that movement has flourished, reached thousands of people at hundreds of organizations, encouraged countless people to make small changes in their daily lives, provided the framework for the Glasgow Declaration, and been featured in the New York Times.
These are the drops in the bucket that can have a ripple effect and create critical mass. They are the whispered wishes of the future that have the potential to play out in the most powerful, positive way in the global spotlight.