Is the Climate Crisis Forcing us to Rethink the Welsh Tourism Industry?

Dr Jeanette Reis and Louise Dixey call for a rethink of the impact of tourism and its role in carbon reduction.

We know that we should reduce our carbon footprint if we want to avoid the worst projected climate change impacts. As COP26 in Glasgow has just come to an end, it is time to consider our roles as tourists and tourism providers in this. 

The Welsh Government has committed to reducing Wales’ carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 – with ambitions to get there sooner. This bold commitment is enshrined in law and sits within a complex economic, social, environmental, technological and political context. Wales is exceptional as a tourism destination in that sustainability is enshrined in law through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and a dedicated Minister of Climate Change places our environment firmly on the political agenda. 

As traditional heavy industries in Wales decline, this presents an opportunity for tourism to flourish and become a firm foundation for our future green economy. 

“What we need to do now is make full use of the tools and resources that are out there, educate and train ourselves, try to put infrastructure in place to support sustainability, and ultimately try to make more sensible choices about where we go on holiday next year.”

The Welcome to Wales Tourism Strategy 2020-2025 – based on this Well-being of Future Generational Act – and the Welsh Government’s Low Carbon Action Plan aim to replace the majority of car journeys with public and active transport, encourage electric vehicles and implement charging points as part of tourism infrastructure. So, we’re not doing too badly, but there is still a long way to go to plug the gap between strategy and active implementation.

According to the Wales Tourism Performance Report, in 2019 (pre-Covid), around 11 million overnight trips to Wales contributed around £6billion to the economy. As domestic tourism steadily increases, we have a real opportunity to make the most of our extensive rural beaches, marine wildlife, canals, mountains, a coastal path, biking trails and castles – offering low carbon tourist activities, as well as urban activities such as sporting events, food and drink, arts and cultural experiences. Not all these activities have low carbon footprints, yet if we avoid long distance travel, they appear to be much more sustainable options.

Internationally the urgency of the need for tourism to decarbonise is being recognised. In 2020 a movement called Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency was founded by leading tourism businesses and at COP26 the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism will set out a commitment to climate action across the tourism industry. The question now is how to get buy-in and how to realise decarbonisation in tourism which has complex supply chains. Scientifically-based carbon measurement methodologies and offsetting are becoming more commonplace within the tourism industry, and while they might sound as though they will resolve many issues, they remain subject to controversy.

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This implementation of carbon reduction measures relies partially on having tools to measure carbon footprints. Wales does not yet have a standardized methodology for assessing carbon footprints in tourism accommodation or travel, but really should. One such tool, used by UK Government for greenhouse gas reporting is called Hotelfootprints. This calculates useful metrics for accommodation providers and guests.The EcoPassenger tool is another useful carbon calculator tool that is easy to use and free to access. This one calculates carbon footprints for different modes of transport. Tools such as these can be very useful but need to be used much more extensively and consistently by tourists and tourism providers. In addition, users need to be aware that all models are simplifications of reality and that a number of assumptions are used. For example, the EcoPassenger tool assumes that 1.5 people are in a car and trains and planes have “normal levels of crowding”. And so the tools are not perfect, but they do provide a starting point for measuring our impacts.

Climate literacy and green skills development can also help with implementation of our sustainable development strategies. A researcher at Cardiff Met has been working with existing and future decision makers – school pupils, teachers, charity workers, small business owners and councillors, to explore climate change education and training in Wales. Creating climate for learning-experiences of education existing and future decision-makers about climate change found that existing climate change education and training provision was disjointed, publicly available information was overly complicated, and there was a lack of facilitation to support development of mitigation and adaptation measures. The research also concluded that climate literacy required investment in long term education and training activities, rather than one-off events. 

In addition, the EU funded Next Tourism Generation Project research has  shown an imperative to address sustainability skills gaps regardless of the type of tourism sector, business size and job level in Wales. An NTG Toolkit for education and industry is currently being piloted that includes open access modules on climate change, sustainable tourism and communicating sustainability. The Toolkit has been welcomed by the industry sector in Wales, although challenges remain in obtaining broad uptake. Taking all of this into account, we can see that there is a clear disparity between high level strategy and ground level implementation.

An unintended consequence of Covid has been that many UK tourists took domestic holidays during 2020 and 2021 and so inadvertently cut back on their travel and accommodation carbon footprints. The latest Tourism Barometer reported that all regions of Wales were busier than usual in 2021 and about half (48%) of accommodation providers have had more customers compared to pre-Covid times. Media reports suggest that the lower costs, easier transport and range of activities available for tourists in Wales will result in continued growth of the sector even when international travel fully resumes. Crucially, this has demonstrated that there is an appetite for domestic tourism, which by its very nature is more sustainable than international tourism. 

As we can see, there are strategies, tools and examples of good practice out there which can be used to support decarbonisation and sustainable tourism and with a growing appetite for Welsh tourism, we don’t need to fly to Glasgow to do our bit! What we need to do now is make full use of the tools and resources that are out there, educate and train ourselves, try to put infrastructure in place to support sustainability, and ultimately try to make more sensible choices about where we go on holiday next year. 


On 30 November and 1 December, the IWA will be hosting a two-day virtual economy summit which will see experts discuss the future of Wales after Covid-19. Register now.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dr Jeanette Reis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Events at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Louise Dixey is Next Tourism Generation Project Development Coordinator at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

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