Fewer holidays abroad may be good news for the planet, but might be bad news for us, says Giles Gibbons

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet. Nearly 700 million people a year were travelling abroad at the start of this decade and an estimated 1.6 billion will do so by the end of the next, according to the Travel Foundation.

That means big social and environmental impacts. Think of all those flights, all that building development on unspoilt vistas, all that water usage from limited sources. So an economic downturn should mean less of all of this and therefore be a good thing all round?

Wrong. It’s certainly true that the environmental footprint of many parts of the industry is likely to shrink. Just look at what we are seeing in the airline industry. According to International Air Transport Association, which represents the airline industry, passenger growth slowed to just 1.6% in 2008. The figure is dramatically down on the 7.4% growth of 2007 and is a decline that is expected by many to continue.

And in our survey this month of concerned consumers – those who factor ethical concerns into purchasing decisions – 64% said they intended to take more domestic holidays as a result of social and environmental concerns. With less money in their pockets, many consumers will be thinking twice about taking that holiday abroad.

Community impact

However, there are two sides to this coin. And perhaps more worrying, certainly in the immediate term, is what will happen to many people around the world who depend on tourism to survive. As the world’s economy moves into recession, the social impacts of a decline in tourism will quickly come into focus for many. Fewer tourists will mean fewer guests to look after at hotels, fewer meals to serve at restaurants, fewer people to entertain at tourist attractions, and fewer people buying those souvenirs from local markets. With tourism touching so many different parts of everyday life in so many countries, most individuals and communities will witness these changes somewhere along the line.

Without the jobs and economic stimulus tourism provides, many communities may be forced to turn to other activities to make ends meet, and these may lead to activities that have impacts far worse for the environment and society. Just think about it – local communities that were once working with safari operators to conserve their land for wildlife may be forced to return to farming and hunting to survive. Or worse, they may have nothing to turn to at all. This may be a small example, but you get the point.

By focusing on the impacts of the tourism industry we miss one of the real social impacts of the holiday – the impact on you. It is important not to underestimate the social role of the holiday for the people taking it. For most of us, having the time to relax, to spend time with our families and generally take a break from work is vital. Consumer research shows that two top reasons for going on holiday are to relax and to spend more time with families. Adding in the fact that we are well into a global recession, getting away from the stress of making ends meet is likely to be crucial in the coming months.

Having a break may help keep your sanity, but it can also be about broadening your horizons: in this month’s survey, 70% of concerned consumers said it was important to experience cultures in other countries.

Admittedly, these are soft issues that are difficult to measure. But just because they are difficult to measure and are not always front of mind should not mean we do not give fair consideration to them when thinking about our next holiday.

So the next time you worry about whether to take a holiday or not, don’t just think about the environmental impact. Don’t even just think about the social benefit you might be giving the world. How about starting to think about the social benefit the world might be giving you.

Giles Gibbons is founder and chief executive of Good Business.

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