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Mind the gap: who owns carbon emissions from visitor travel?
18th September 2023
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This is a common question I have been asking in the destinations I have been visiting. It’s perhaps not surprising to reveal that I don’t have an answer – at least not a consistent one.
The question did however lead to some interesting conversations and reflections.

Firstly, it’s probably fair to say that all visitor destinations welcome visitors from different countries. With the largest slice of emissions for the whole visitor journey being in the journey to the destination, those pesky frontiers don’t help. Trans-national agreements such as those through the Alpine Convention (on carbon reduction from transport, mode shift to public transport) are useful, but generally focus on utility journeys and with a (rightful) priority on quality of life for residents in alpine communities – as has been the theme for Slovenia’s current presidency. This doesn’t exclude visitor travel, but doesn’t consider it in ways that then prioritise actions on relevant components for visitor travel carbon reduction; if the right questions are not asked, it’s tricky to find the right answers.

And what does “own” mean? Many organisations and place-based partnerships see carbon reduction as important, but because it is “the right thing to do”, not because they have formal responsibility to do it. As a result, actions are not formally focussed to deliver necessary scale of reductions at required rates, nor are impacts measured. Intentions are certainly welcome, but they aren’t going to make a big dint in emissions.

Many places recognise that this “felt ownership” extends to their visitors. There is a lot of soft evidence that many visitors like to do the right thing and with opportunities in place, are happy – and often keen – to do their bit. We need to understand this better and acknowledge it more confidently: many (most?) will do the right thing if structures and possibilities are provided. The actions of individual visitors are motivated by a mix of values and thinking, and decisions probably made between individuals within groups (that might be different to those of the individuals themselves). In Seefeld, large numbers of visitors were using the dense and frequent bus network – free to staying visitors – and the dense and attractive networks of well-signed bike routes . Accessing the area via the brilliantly thought-out rail station using the frequent, high-quality rail services makes things even better.

Seefeld station – pillar indicating bike route directions, map behind of all bike and walking routes locally, rail departure posters & real-time displays, tourist information, loos, lifts…

Cheek-to-cheek, level-access rail & bus with clear information on where to get connections and real-time information

Indeed, when I asked Elias Walser (Seefeld’s Tourismusverband Managing Director) what his top three improvements would be to travel to and within the Seefeld plateau, he couldn’t really think of anything; I agree with him. In a meeting with various organisations from Austria’s Tirol region, I was teased evidence of good in-destination travel influencing how visitor travel to the destination. Watch this space. To me, this is a good example of “just doing the right thing” working. Seefeld Tourismuverband is not a carbon reduction organisation. None of the impacts are measured, and the majority of visitors still arrive by car; back to the main point… who is responsible for this carbon?

The French Government’s decision to ban internal flights for which there is a reasonable rail alternative has received press of all political flavours. It’s relevant here because it is evidence of someone “owning” carbon and doing something about it.

In visiting – and digging into – twelve varied visitor destinations across Europe, I didn’t find anyone against reducing carbon. Certainly the UK and US culture net zero culture wars don’t seem to have translated into the german speaking parts of the Alps that I was visiting. It is feeling like a fight with a duvet. So who is going to take responsibility?

Subsidy? Investment? Visitor levies? But for what?

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