Tourism 2023: Postcards from the future

Tourism 2023 carbon clampdown postcard

You don't have to be an "environmentalist" to start thinking about climate change -- just realistic. The British tourism industry is trying to come to grips with how climate impacts will affect their business, and the products they're selling; the results are fascinating. While in London, we met Vicky Murray from the Forum for the Future, who worked with partners like British Airways, Carnival UK, and Thomas Cook to produce Tourism 2023, a report on possible futures for the British travel and tourism industry. It breaks the possibilities down into four scenarios of the world their customers will be traveling in, and how energy and emissions policy will affect them. According to KPMG research, the tourism sector is one of those least prepared for climate change and among those most commercially exposed to the physical risks it presents. "Climate change will have dramatic impacts on how, where and when (and even if) people travel, and will reshape the industry over time."

Murray, a primary author of the Tourism 2023 report, described how "there were a lot of environmental campaigns that were going on, but not enough work being done in the solutions space." The Forum for the Future works with industries to develop scenarios to help understand the kind of futures they want, and how to get there. She faced initial resistance. "The tourism industry is short term focussed, they couldn't see that it [tourism futures planning] was all about protecting their product." That resistance eventually wore down, and mainstream tourism industry partners started coming on board to participate in the industry-wide futures planning process.

Constructing scenarios

Why think about tourism in 2023? "In 2008, 2023 was 15 years into the future, just far enough to not feel like science fiction and be ignored but further than the 3-5 year time span that people are generally able to think about." The report took 18 months to develop and was put together by a diverse group of futurists and sustainability experts including historians, transportation planners, sustainable accounting professionals, and environmental consultants working with industry partners. "The four scenarios have been constructed to be plausible. They are not meant to predict the most likely outcomes for 2023 nor represent favourable or unfavourable futures. Instead, they offer a set of possible futures and provide a challenge to the industry, each with their own risks and opportunities. They are tools that industry bodies can use to assess current strategies and come up with new ones that will be fit for a range of futures. " The two axes of scenario construction were the two major uncertainties of the future--will the economy, politics, technology and energy costs enable or inhibit travel and whether the sensitivity of consumers to the environmental impacts of their travel make it more attractive or less attractive.

Scenario 1: Boom and Burst

We really enjoyed the use of fictional "postcards sent back home" to give a flavor of life for British tourists under each scenario. For example:

"Dear Mum, Sorry to send you another postcard this year, but this trip really has been eye-opening. You were right, the supermarket did pick a great itinerary for me, but Manila is not how it looked in the video brochure--it's a lot more crowded. Still, I got my teeth done more cheaply than I could have in the UK and now I have tried remote working I see why you think a second home abroad might be fun! See you next week in Brazil! - Love, David"

  • All is well in the world but it's not clear for how long. Technological fixes like the use of algae-based fuels for planes and carbon scrubbers that clean the air as we fly have allowed travel to continue and grow.

  • The spread of broadband has allowed UK citizens to work from anywhere so binge flying is common and many have second homes.

  • The high prices of oil have made low carbon travel alternatives an economic necessity, so all modes of travel are seeing growth. Kazakhstan transit railway opened to link China to Iran and the Caspian sea. Russia has begun work on the world's longest tunnel that will connect to Alaska and accommodate a high speed train line, gas pipelines and fiber optic cables.

  • This travel boom has led to overcrowded destinations and upped the demand for more land to be opened up to the industry. There is now a paved road to Mt. Everest's base camp complete with vending machines.

Scenario 2: Divided Disquiet

Perhaps the worst possible outcome for the tourism industry:

"Dear Mum, I'm sorry I bothered coming here--three hours queuing to get through security, and then there is a power failure at the hotel. I tried to visit the Pyramids, but there were too many people to see much from the observation platform, the temperature is stifling and the entry fee has shot up. Tell Auntie Anna not to bother coming and get online to catch up with Uncle Tim instead. Better go, I have to queue for water again, x Love David."

  • In this dystopian scenario, the world is a dangerous place to live in, let alone travel. Countries have not taken any action to combat climate change and the business as usual approach has resulted in increased conflict over resources leaving the world divided into "protectionist blocs". Conflict over basic necessities like water and food and extreme and unpredictable weather conditions have caused massive instability. In one incident, the Caribbean islands were battered by a series of storms that wrecked hotels and disrupted food supplies, leading to rioting and trapping British tourists.

  • Tourists are not welcome especially in destinations that are unable to bear the added pressure from tourism. The mayoral candidate of an affected European town promised to limit the number of tourists where as other places have completely banned tourism and are focussed on a post-tourist development model.

  • Having seen the impacts, tourists are now more aware of the social and environmental impacts of their travel and demand more ethical choices.

  • Telepresence technologies for the home are able to beam friends and family right into the living room. People are surprised at their ability to live apart longer without that extra flight thanks to these technologies.

Scenario 3: Price and Privilege

A glimpse into a world trying to live without aviation:

"Dear Mum, You just won't believe it: There has been a heat wave here and they have asked us to stay indoors! There's no way I am doing that though--I have been saving for far too long to let freak weather get in the way of this holiday! The journey down was really easy and the beds were surprisingly comfy -- even great-grandad would get a good night's sleep! The coach stopped at loads of cool hubs on the way. My favourite was an interactive science museum we pulled into on the way out of Madrid. Bit crowded but really cool. Hope the holiday saving account for next year is going well. Love, David"

  • Rising oil prices have ensured that flying is once again only for the rich and famous and the tourism industry is focussed on a small elite that is still able to afford travel. A boat from London to New York is cheaper than flying for the first time since 1969 and people who want to take that special flight have to save for years.

  • Overland travel is the mass market option. Coach hubs have been set up along major routes and compete with each other by offering parklands, meals, rest zones. The roads are where the new tourist destinations like theme parks, gaming zones and museums have pop up.

  • Low carbon holidays are now the norm since they are also the cheapest.

  • Demonstrations and petitions in several cities worldwide over the "right to fly," while "Tourism workers across the Mediterranean region unite in mass protests against poor wages and working conditions as a result of cost pressures."

Scenario 4: Carbon Clampdown

Perhaps the most equitable, if not the most fun:

"Dear Mum, I have finally reached the project in Lithuania and I am really glad I spent the carbon allowance getting here. It's been really fulfilling work with the families and I have learnt more from them than they ever could from me. Did you say you came here once on a Hen weekend? It seems funny that you could just hop on a plane like that. I am sorry you're not able to come see it today but maybe we can fix a trip to Cornwall for the year after next? Lots and lots of love, David."

  • The most promising of the scenarios. The public are clamoring for tough action on environmental issues, tradable carbon quotas are in place.

  • People are making holiday choices that are more ethical while staying within their carbon budget. Carbon labeling is now required for holiday packages and for holiday-makers it is among their top selection criteria.

  • Vacationing locally is on the rise and travel companies offer two week vacations in your own home where they help you discover your city and neighborhood.

  • There is pressure on tourism to be a more ethical business. Leading travel firm goes bust after massive boycott coordinated by social networks over its environmental policy.

Building our own scenarios

Having been tourists the last year, we found ourselves constantly questioning the contradictions of travel. Yes, it made us more aware of the world, opened our ways to different realities and we enjoyed almost every moment of it. But at what cost? Most of us are now able to fly to the most fragile places--if we don't see it, we won't want to save it, but can we ever save it from the tons of carbon already emitted by us in getting there. The more you see, the less there is to see.

We need to adapt to reality; British travel companies are taking these visions of the future, and using them to think about how to prepare for the future. But the clock's already ticking. The full story behind the "Carbon Clampdown" scenario has President Obama rallying the world to take action at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009 -- and we know that certainly didn't happen. The further along we go without large-scale coordinated action to limit catastrophic climate change, the more likely the worst scenarios become. It'll take all of our strength and courage to bring our own best scenarios to life.

Tourism 2023 postcard Egypt

Leave a comment

About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

Enter your email to stay updated!
(unsubscribe anytime)

Recent Entries