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International tourism body to work with new Saudi sustainability center as it pushes for net zero carbon roadmap

The travel industry is launching a “net zero roadmap”, the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) told Arab News, adding that the organisation will work closely with Saudi Arabia’s new sustainability center in the battle against climate change.

Julia Simpson was speaking on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh last week, and set out the challenges facing an industry devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Simpson praised the aviation and cruise liner industries for the steps they have already taken to reduce their carbon footprints, but argued the technology needed for significant reductions are still “further down the line”.

She also singled out the hotel industry as an area where more can be done to “decarbonize faster”.

Reflecting on the challenges the sector has faced since 2019, Simpson predicts tourism will be a “comeback story” as the world continues to open up after two years of restrictions. 

Discussing environmental issues, Simpson says: “What we’re doing at the WTTC is we’re launching a whole sustainability, net zero roadmap. 

“The net zero roadmap would be the first time we’ve looked at the environmental carbon footprint of all our individual industries within travel and tourism and added it all up and said: ‘What is our contribution and what are our solutions?’ 

“But what I will say is we have some tough industries in terms of carbon in our industry. You know, the cruise liners and aviation, there aren’t actually technical alternatives. There’s hydrogen, there’s electrics, but some of these are further down the line and what those industries are doing in the meantime is incredible.”

“To be honest, when it comes to sustainability and preserving the environment, reducing the carbon footprint, I see that the tourism industry is doing that.”

She added: “But there are other sectors that can decarbonize faster, probably the hotel sector. I can give you my assurance, among all of the 200 CEOs that I talk to, sustainability is top of their agenda. And why is that? Because customers demand it.”

Saudi Arabia is aware of that demand, which led Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to launch the Sustainable Tourism Global Center at the Saudi Green Initiative Forum last week.

Global travel and tourism is responsible for 8 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and the centre aims to work towards zero emissions across the industry.

Simpson reveals that the WTTC plans to “work side-by-side” with the new centre on several research projects.

The travel association will also hold its 22nd Global Summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council in the Kingdom at the end of next year, Simpson announced last week at the Future Investment Initiative.

She said that Saudi “has been instrumental in leading the recovery of a sector which is critical to economies, jobs and livelihoods around the world”.

Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than travel and tourism, but Simpson is confident that “we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

The head of the trade body says the industry has lifted by around 27 percent this year, compared to a 49 percent slump last year when Covid-19 lockdown restrictions closed borders, airports and hotels.

The travel sector represented 10.4 percent of global gross domestic product in 2019, yet this was slashed to 5.4 percent last year, according to WTTC annual data.

Simpson adds that during the height of the pandemic in 2019, global GDP fell by around 3 percent, while the travel industry revenues dipped by almost half.

In the Middle East, tourism as a contribution to GDP fell 51.1 percent to $138 billion last year, but this was a better performance than Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean.

Simpson says: “Our industry has been devastated. It’s been turned inside out. But I’m very, very hopeful that it is going to come back. This will be a comeback story.”

She adds: “People are beginning to travel again because of higher vaccination rates. But there are still around four billion people who have not had any vaccinations at all – the young, those in parts of Africa and Asia. We must not forget about them.”

Her association backs the United Nation Covax plan to distribute millions of doses of free vaccines from rich countries to the developing world.

As you might imagine, Simpson has had plenty of practice travelling the world and speaking to movers and shakers in government and at the top of business.

She spent 14 years at British Airways parent International Airlines Group, leaving as chief of staff before taking up her post at WTTC in August. Before the travel business, she was a strategic communications adviser to then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, responsible for counter-terrorism, home affairs, education and local government.

As the pandemic begins to ease, the travel boss says richer people in the US, Europe and around the world are proving the first ones to board planes and cross-border trains again.

She says: “The wealthy middle class have not had anywhere to spend their money, so there’s pent up demand there. They want to go out.”

But Simpson doubts that the industry bounce back will be uniform.

She says: “The domestic markets have been very, very strong. If people have not been able to travel overseas, they’ve chosen to travel within their own countries. That’s been the number one driver of growth.”

“Secondly, I think that family has been a strong reason to travel. There are a lot of people that have not been able to see their families, and that has driven a lot of international leisure travel.”

But she admits business travel will take longer to return to pre-pandemic levels. Some observers say that the meteoric rise of virtual meeting software such as Zoom and Microsoft’s Teams, means that this sector will never fully recover.

Simpson says: “I love Zoom. I use it. But you cannot do big deals and shake hands on this software.

“If I am an investor and want to invest in the NEOM [£500 billion mega-city] project, I need to come to Saudi and see it and see the country.”

The travel body forecast that business travel will rise by 26 percent this year and reach two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels by 2022, in a report this week. Business travel collapsed by 61 percent in 2020.

Global travel and tourism is on a long-haul journey back to recovery, but Simpson and Saudi Arabia are convinced they can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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