The global tourism industry – which accounted for 10% of GDP and 8% of global emissions in 2019 – is faced with the challenge of ensuring continued growth while working towards net-zero emissions goals. Several stakeholders in emerging markets and further afield offer useful case studies to understand what a decarbonised future for the industry could look like.

The global tourism industry faces numerous challenges when it comes to decarbonisation, as highlighted by a November 2021 report from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme and multinational consulting firm Accenture. In the years prior to the pandemic the sector thrived, recording its 10th consecutive year of growth in 2019, with 1.5bn international tourist arrivals worldwide. Moreover, it contributed more than 10% of global GDP and accounted for around one in 10 jobs.

However, the industry was also responsible for approximately 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For a range of countries – many of which are developing economies – tourism was a principal source of income prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, the effects of border closures and lockdowns have been particularly severe, and many of these countries are looking to reboot tourism as soon as possible.

Global Centre

However, many industry players are arguing that a return to business as normal could ultimately prove damaging and unsustainable. Instead, they argue, the sector should commit to net-zero emissions and adopt more environmentally conscious practices. A leading voice in this debate is the Sustainable Tourism Global Centre, a multinational coalition launched in October 2021 by Saudi Arabia that aims to accelerate the tourism sector’s transition to net-zero emissions. The countries invited to join during the coalition’s first phase are the UK, the US, France, Japan, Germany, Kenya, Jamaica, Morocco, Spain and Saudi Arabia. Harvard University will support the initiative with research and capacity-building, while the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will help to encourage and accelerate action throughout the industry.

The coalition faces an uphill struggle. Of the 250 businesses analysed in the WTTC report, around 42% had defined a climate target, of which 20% were aligned with the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi) guidance. The SBTi is a global body that provides companies with a defined framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. The significance of science-based targets is that they are universal, making it harder for companies to misjudge or misrepresent their sustainability performance. This is especially important as the WTTC report found that the sector applied different approaches to target metrics, deadlines, baselines and emissions-reduction commitments, which makes comparability difficult.

Nevertheless, individual institutions and multilateral initiatives are leading the way in the industry’s decarbonisation. As the hospitality and travel segments of the industry are responsible for the lion’s share of its emissions, they are being targeted for urgent reform.

Aviation Transition 

When it comes to air travel – a major source of emissions – initiatives are in place to help the industry transition to net zero. In 2016 the UN launched its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The scheme is intended to empower carriers to purchase emissions-reduction offsets from other sectors, thereby compensating for any increase in their own emissions. CORSIA’s pilot phase launched on January 1, 2021, with 88 countries participating. The first phase of the programme is voluntary and begins in 2024, followed in 2027 by a mandatory second phase.

The International Air Transport Association’s Aviation Carbon Exchange (ACE) was launched in November 2020 to support these efforts. ACE is a centralised marketplace for CORSIA-compliant emissions units, enabling airlines and other aviation stakeholders to trade carbon emissions credits. At the end of 2021 Qatar Airlines became the first carrier in the world to make a transaction on the ACE platform.

Indeed, Gulf airlines are leading the drive to become carbon neutral. At the 54th Annual General Meeting of Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) – held in Doha in November 2021 – a resolution was signed to reach net zero by 2050. Headquartered in Lebanon, the AACO’s membership comprises 32 airlines based out of 19 countries. In August 2022 the AACO identified incentives that would support sustainable aviation fuel production as key to helping them meet their net-zero goal.

Regional airlines are moving to meet these targets. In November 2021 Emirates and GE Aviation announced they would begin a test flight programme that used 100% sustainable aviation fuel by the end of 2022. The two parties hope that the programme will show that wide-body commercial aircraft using jet fuel from alternative sources can lower carbon emissions, with no operational issues. The following month Kuwait-based Jazeera Airways launched a carbon offset programme that will allow passengers to offset their carbon emissions by supporting projects including those in renewable energy. Customers will be able to opt during the online booking process whether they wish to offset their emissions. The project is being implemented in partnership with CHOOOSE, a Norwegian firm that provides a platform for automated emissions calculations.

Even with these efforts, sector players do not expect the switch to be easy. Tony Douglas, CEO of the UAE’s Etihad Airways, told international press in May 2022 that net zero would be the sector’s “biggest challenge” as the region moves to meet its 2050 goals.

In May 2022 Saudia, the national airline of Saudi Arabia, operated the world’s longest net-positive flight, offsetting nearly 350 tonnes of carbon emissions on a flight from Jeddah to Madrid. According to the airline, this sustainability push would contribute to the generation of wind energy for families in Gujarat, India. “The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 will see 100m visits to Saudi Arabia by the end of the decade,” Ibrahim Koshy, CEO of Saudia, said at a statement at the time. “A cornerstone of that vision is for the Kingdom to be a leader in sustainable and even regenerative tourism.”

Resort Trailblazers 

Various resorts and hotels have already taken significant steps towards decarbonisation. In 2018 the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba became the first resort in the Caribbean – and one of the first in the world – to go carbon neutral. Other resorts have followed suit. In Thailand, the Santiburi resort in Koh Samui was certified as carbon neutral in 2019 by the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organisation and VG reen. Going forwards, it is anticipated that a growing number of resorts will put carbon neutrality front and centre.

Saudi Arabia Takes the Lead

A forthcoming example is Saudi Arabia’s flagship The Red Sea Project. Expected to be fully operational by 2030, in April 2021 the project secured $3.8bn through the first ever riyal-denominated green finance credit facility. The first phase of the resort is set for completion in 2024, with the first three hotels expected to open their doors in early 2023. Once complete, The Red Sea Project will offer 50 hotels with 8000 rooms and 1300 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites. The government will cap visitors at 1m tourists a year, in line with sustainability concerns.

Sustainable tourism is also central to Trojena, a new site being developed as part of the Kingdom’s $500bn NEOM giga-project. Set for completion in 2026, the project will offer year-round outdoor sport and ecotourism facilities. It will feature mountains, a lake and an advanced-technology observatory with 57 sq km of the 1400-sq-km site developed. Both Trojena and OXAGON, the latter of which is a centre for advanced and clean industries, will be supported by sustainable energy and water systems, with the ultimate goal of connecting all residents and industries affiliated with the NEOM project to 100% renewable sources of energy.