Sustainability in Travel 2021: Quantifying Tourism Emissions for Destinations

by Varsha Arora + Skift Team - Jun 2021

Skift Research Take

Tourism is often assumed to be a ‘low Impact and non-consumptive development option,’ primarily because to date greenhouse gas emissions from tourism at a destination level are largely unaccounted for. Destinations have started taking sustainability seriously with growing media pressure and traveler awareness, but have a long way to go to make significant reductions in emissions long-term.

Report Overview

In the past few years, the problems surrounding tourism have intensified at major destinations around the world. The number of tourists was growing at a fast pace until 2019. In line with this, greenhouse gas emissions from tourism have also increased.

In 2019, tourism contributed about 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There are growing pressures on the tourism industry to reduce this. In this report we investigate the status of carbon reporting in the tourism industry. Skift research interviewed three senior industry professionals to understand the status quo of data collection and assimilation with respect to carbon emissions. 

Skift Research also attempted to quantify domestic and international tourism emissions for select destinations based on publicly available data. The results are startling, with tourism emissions contributing as much as 20-30% of total emissions in countries like Thailand, Switzerland, and United Arab Emirates.  

This, along with the fact that there is no standard and transparent carbon reporting being done, leaves us worried that the industry as a whole is lacking momentum to reduce carbon emissions.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • The global carbon footprint of tourism
  • Carbon emissions attributable to different parts of the tourism value chain
  • The status of carbon reporting in the tourism industry
  • Composition of direct and indirect emissions
  • Tourism emissions of 25 countries
  • How much CO2 domestic and international tourists emit as compared to an average inhabitant

Executives Interviewed

  • Ayako Ezaki, Managing Partner, TrainingAid
  • Jeremy Sampson, CEO, Travel Foundation UK
  • Ya-Yen Sun, Senior Lecturer - Sustainability at The University of Queensland, Australia

Executive Summary

COVID-19 brought the global travel and tourism industry to a standstill. Governments across the world announced lockdowns, travel restrictions and border closures to prevent the spread of the virus. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 96% of global tourist destinations were impacted by travel restrictions and lockdown measures in 2020. 

However, the travel and tourism industry is resilient to demand and supply shocks, as evidenced in the past when the industry was rattled by 9/11 (2001), the SARS outbreak (2002), and the Global Financial Crisis (2008). 

Recovery has started in earnest in many parts of the world now, but as mentioned in Skift Research’s Global Travel Outlook 2021, full recovery is expected to be slow, depending on the rate at which the virus is contained globally, it is expected to recover between 2023 or 2024. 

This report is set in the pre-pandemic timeframe (when the travel and tourism industry was growing at a fast pace) with a forward-looking vision. We discuss the subject of sustainability in tourism presupposing that this will become a crucial factor when the industry recovers from the pandemic. 

Through this report we highlight the fact that to date there is no standard guideline for countries to report emissions from tourism and that the focus has only been on measuring the economic impact of tourism. 

Furthermore, to calculate the on-shore tourism emissions – emissions from tourists once they are in the destination without including the intercity or intercountry transport emissions, we use the per capita emissions of an average inhabitant in the destination along with other tourism related data, and relevant macroeconomic indicators, to come up with a ‘Tourist Emission Factor’, which signifies the degree to which tourist emissions are higher or lower than inhabitant emissions.

We found that in absolute terms, countries with significant domestic tourism, for example, China, U.S. and India have high CO2 emissions from tourism. In addition, international tourists visiting emerging economies emit more than the inhabitants on a per capita basis, while the opposite trend is seen in advanced economies. An international tourist visiting India tends to emit 5 times more CO2 as compared to an average inhabitant while an international tourist visiting the U.S. emits the same as the inhabitant.

Overall, our analysis highlights that there is an urgent need for a tourism carbon inventory at a country level so that areas for improvement can be identified and all stakeholders can efficiently work towards the common goal of decarbonizing the sector. The report also brings out the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reduce emissions in tourism. Every country has its own unique set of characteristics and should strategize accordingly. 


Rapid Growth of Tourism in Pre-Pandemic Times

The past few decades have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of tourists globally. Pre COVID-19, international tourist arrivals had reached 1.5 billion in 2019, up from 0.7 billion in 2000; an increase of more than 100%.

Through the pandemic, international arrivals plummeted down by 73% to 0.4 billion in 2020. UNWTO predicts an optimistic  65% increase in international arrivals for 2021 compared to the historic lows of 2020. UNWTO expects a full recovery by 2023 or 2024. 

Exhibit 1: International tourist arrivals grew grew rapidly before COVID-19

Up to 2019, the industry dynamics turned Tourism into a key driver for socio-economic progress in nations worldwide. During 2010-2019, growth in international tourist arrivals outpaced the global economy. In 2019, international arrivals grew by 4% while global GDP increased by 3%. 

Once the industry recovers from the pandemic, expectedly by 2024, experts expect the growth pace to reach 2019 level or even surpass it. 

Until 2019, the massive increase in tourist numbers can be attributed to robust global economic growth, technological advances in the industry, new business models, affordable travel costs, visa facilitation, and a growing middle class in emerging economies. 

Economic development in emerging economies has given a major push to travel and tourism. International arrivals in emerging economies accounted for approximately 50% of the total international arrivals in 2019. 

As compared to 2018, international arrivals in advanced economies increased by 2% in 2019 while international arrivals in emerging economies increased by 6% over the same period. Emerging economies, in fact, are crawling up to become top source markets for the developed economies.

International travel is, of course, only one aspect of tourism. In many countries, domestic tourism outweighs international tourism in terms of volume and revenue generated. In 2019, domestic travel spend represented 75% of the total tourism spend globally. 

In line with the growth in the number of tourists, expenditure on domestic and international tourism also grew rapidly. Over 2009-2019, both domestic and international tourism expenditure increased at an average of 5% annually.

Exhibit 2: Tourism expenditure increased from 2009–2019 

The Benefits and Disadvantages of Tourism 

Undoubtedly, tourism can provide many benefits. It is a driver of economic growth and has stimulated investment in destinations leading to their transformative development.

World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reports that the Travel & Tourism sector contributed 10.4% (USD 9,170 billion) to global GDP in 2019. 

According to UNWTO, tourism as an industry is helping the redistribution of wealth across countries. During 1998-2018, the number of destinations earning USD 1 billion or more in international tourism increased 2x.  

Exhibit 3: Tourism has promoted redistribution of wealth across countries

In addition, tourism is a major source of employment. Prior to the pandemic, travel & tourism (including its direct, indirect and induced impacts) accounted for 1 in 4 of all new jobs created across the world. In 2019, tourism generated 334 million jobs, which is approximately 11% of all jobs. 

Given the economic and social upside of tourism and the rapid increase in the number of tourists, a flourishing industry is of paramount importance to nations worldwide. However, even with these benefits, tourism can also be a source of problems, especially if it is not managed well. 

Tourism is highly carbon intensive and is a growing contributor to climate change, with CO2 emissions being mainly generated through transport and the operation of tourism facilities such as hotels and similar establishments. We will elaborate on this point later in the report. 

Pollution of land and water from poor treatment of waste by tourism businesses, and from the activities of tourists, can be a problem in some areas. Maya Bay in Thailand is a case-in-point where pollution from litter and boats has destroyed more than 80% of the coral around the area.

Tourism can put pressure on natural resources in destinations and encourages over-consumption. This is particularly damaging in spots where resources like food and water are already scarce. Research shows that tourists in hotels typically use three to eight times more water than the local population.

Tourism tends to be concentrated in only a few cities in most of the countries. The main sights are overrun by tourists making local people feel that their city has been taken over. This has been the common theme of most of the protests in the EU region in recent years. 

For example, The Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC) forecasts show that coastal areas can expect double the number of international visitors by 2030 if nothing is done. The growth in the rest of the country is expected to remain relatively low. 

Tourism development leads to rises in real estate demand which dramatically increase building costs and land values. This often means that local people will be forced to move away from the area where tourism is located.  

A case-in-point is Venice, where 50,000 people reside today compared to 150,000 in the 1970s. The population in the lagoon city is shrinking by 1,000 each year, half of which can be attributed to  soaring housing costs and a lack of job opportunities.

Tourism can be a vulnerable and unstable source of income, as it is often very sensitive to actual or perceived changes in the environmental and social conditions of destinations. The most relevant example is the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry. WTTC reported that nearly 62 million jobs were lost in 2020, representing a drop of 19% as compared to 2019. 

Local Backlash Against Tourism

In the past few years, the problems surrounding tourism have intensified at major destinations around the world. These problems have now become tangible enough for local communities to protest against and governments to act on. 

The Agoda Sustainable Travel Trends Survey launched in June 2021 revealed that travellers globally have listed overtourism, pollution of beaches and waterways, deforestation and energy inefficiencies as their main concerns of the impact of tourism on the environment.

The timeline below shows some key events that have highlighted the dark side of tourism. 

Exhibit 4: The disadvantages of tourism have intensified in the past few years

One positive side of the pandemic is, , when tourist numbers declined rapidly, more organizations started to see how the disappearance of tourists quickly improved local ecosystems and began to put a more sustainable return of tourism on agenda. 

Tourism Declares Climate Emergency (TDCE) is an initiative started in 2019 that supports tourism businesses, organizations, and individuals in declaring a climate emergency and taking action to reduce their carbon emissions. Ayako Ezaki, Managing Partner, Training Aid, told Skift Research that during the past one year, the TDCE initiative experienced a rise in travel organizations’ participation. At present, TDCE has engaged 279 tourism organizations who have committed to publishing a Climate Action Plan within 12 months. 

Ayako also mentioned that within the last 12 months, Global Sustainable Tourism Council  (GSTC), which develops criteria and global standards for sustainable travel and tourism as well as provides international accreditation for sustainable tourism certification bodies, has witnessed an increase in Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) becoming its members. 

Sustainability in Tourism

Continued growth in tourism seems inevitable, however, at the same time all of the negative aspects discussed above underline the need for tourism to be carefully planned and managed across the value chain, for it to grow sustainably. 

Sustainable tourism, as defined by UNWTO, is one that establishes a harmonic balance between the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development. It attempts to minimize the negative impact on the environment and local culture, so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generating income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems.

The dependency of tourism on the health of the destination makes it all the more important for the industry to proliferate cohesively. 

Urgent Need to Focus on the Environmental Dimension of Sustainability 

Although focusing on all aspects of sustainability is crucial, at present, focusing on the environmental dimension is pertinent. 

Each destination has a different set of characteristics and hence, rapid growth of tourism impacts different destinations differently. A study by Paul Peeters, Breda University of Applied Sciences,  conducted in 2018, examined 41 destinations to determine the extent of 18 potential impacts of tourism. 

Exhibit 5: Environmental impact of tourism requires immediate attention

Perhaps unsurprisingly, environmental impacts were those most often identified as being present in rural and coastal destinations, while socio-cultural impacts were most common in urban destinations. 

Congestion associated with infrastructure, and overcrowding at attractions (both falling in the category of environmental impacts), were the only impacts occurring across the four different destination types, demonstrating that this is a common issue for destinations under pressure. 

Moreover, according to the Global Footprint Network, the window of opportunity to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures is closing. The date of Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, has moved up two months over the past 20 years, reaching 29 July 2021, the earliest date ever. 

The tourism sector is highly vulnerable to climate change and at the same time contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). If the negative impact of tourism on the environment is not fixed, it will not only impact the success of the tourism industry but threaten human survival fundamentally. 

The Carbon Footprint of Tourism

Tourism is often assumed to be a ‘low Impact and non-consumptive development option’ which has made countries invest in rapid and large-scale tourism development projects.

As global economic development progressed in the past, especially among high-income countries and regions experiencing rapid economic growth, consumers’ demand for travel has grown much faster than their consumption of other products and services. Driven by the desire for exotic travel experiences and an increasing reliance on aviation and luxury amenities, affluence has turned tourism into a carbon-intensive consumption category. 

A research study published in May 2018, in the journal Nature Climate Change, suggests that between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint increased from 3.9 to 4.5 gigatons CO2e (CO2e includes CO2, as well as the other predominant GHGs which have warming potential), accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making the sector a bigger polluter than the construction industry. 

In addition, the study found that from an economic-environmental perspective, tourism bears a very high environmental cost to destinations. A dollar of tourism earnings produces a carbon footprint 25% higher than emissions produced through a dollar of earnings across all other sectors. This means that attracting more tourists bears a higher opportunity cost to the environment than developing other potential sectors.

The main driver for the growth of global tourism carbon footprint is primarily due to a strong increase in tourism consumption, at an annual 7% during the study period, which outpaced all carbon intensity reductions through technology development (-2.7% annually). Since, the number of tourists has continued to increase between 2013–2019, with limited decarbonization of tourism operations, the carbon footprint of tourism would have increased further.  

If we extrapolate the results of the Nature Climate Change study and align it against the global GHG emissions data, we can estimate that tourism would have accounted for approximately 11% of the global GHG emissions in 2019, which translates into a 38% increase in actual terms. 

Exhibit 6: Tourism emissions have grown in line with international tourist arrivals

Understanding Tourism Emissions

Clearly, tourism is not ‘smoke-free’, but it is hard to measure and account for all emissions,  as the industry is highly fragmented with multiple stakeholders involved. 

Tourism emissions include the carbon emitted directly during tourism activities (for example, combustion of fuel in the mode of transport used to reach the destination, use of resources in hotels) as well as the carbon embodied indirectly in the commodities purchased by tourists (for example, food and shopping). 

The image below shows the difference between direct and indirect emissions from tourist activities in an elementary way. 

Exhibit 7: The difference between direct and indirect tourism emissions

The tourism carbon footprint  should be evaluated using methods that cover both the direct and indirect emissions of tourism-related goods and services.

The Nature Climate Change’s research study is the first to assess the entire life-cycle of the tourist and takes into account all the supply chain emissions from food, clothing, transport, hospitality and other industries included in the tourist value chain. According to the report, transport and shopping are the most significant contributors in the tourism value chain. The pie chart below shows the different activities that contribute to tourism’s total carbon footprint. 

Exhibit 8: Transport and retail contribute to majority of global tourism emissions

Drilling down further, amongst the modes of transport, air and road are the highest emitters. Also, all food related categories (agriculture, food & beverage) combined account for 18% of the emissions from tourism. 

Each country has a different mix of indirect and direct emissions depending on the level of tourist activity, the emission intensity of various tourism related activities, availability of modes of transport & entertainment options and tourist preferences in the country.  

To put this in perspective, below is the split of direct and indirect emissions from tourism in Taiwan shared by Ya-Yen Sun, Senior Lecturer teaching Sustainability at The University of Queensland, Australia, who is also the author of the Nature Climate Change research we have discussed in above sections, from her recent study, during a discussion with Skift Research. 

For land and air transportation, which are energy intensive, the CO2e is mainly emitted in the direct effect stage (>60%). On the other hand, the core tourism consumption, including food & beverages, entertainment, and accommodation emit half their carbon emissions during the direct effect stage. 

Travel service and car rental services are energy efficient, supporting fewer carbon emissions per dollar sales at the front end. Thus, in comparison, their indirect and imported products lead to a larger proportion of GHG (>90%). This provides a good example as to why tourism consumption is not as clean as it is generally perceived to be.

Exhibit 9: Direct and indirect emission mix

Carbon Reporting in Tourism

An important – in fact necessary and fundamental – requirement to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism, lies in the capability to measure greenhouse gas emissions in a consistent and transparent manner so that areas for improvement can be identified and all stakeholders can efficiently work towards the common goal of decarbonizing the sector. 

At the same time, a common understanding of emission levels helps to determine which stage of the fight against climate change we are in, as well as establish the right level of commitment and goals for each player.

However, The World Travel and Tourism Council notes that the travel and tourism sector lags behind in environmental reporting compared with other sectors and remains somewhat silent on climate change issues. 

In fact, at least 15% of global tourism-related emissions are currently under no binding reduction target as emissions of international aviation and bunker shipping are excluded from the Paris Agreement, which is an international accord adopted by nearly every nation in 2015, committing to cut their climate pollution in an effort to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels

Focus on Economic, not environmental, measurement

Jeremy Sampson, CEO, Travel Foundation, UK, during a discussion with Skift Research, noted: “Our industry has been focused on reporting economic viability for a really long time. It lacks understanding of the holistic impact of tourism on communities and the environment.”

In his recent report, The Invisible Burden of Tourism, Sampson describes that when a tourist travels to a destination there are costs associated with each activity he participates in. For example, the airline ticket cost includes airport taxes, the cost of the flight’s fuel, and the cost of recycling waste water. 

All these costs should be taken into account to define the holistic impact of tourism on a destination. Below is a summary of costs that are left unaccounted showing that GHG emissions from tourism related activities are typically unaccounted for in estimating the impact of tourism. 

Exhibit 10: GHG emissions from tourism are typically unaccounted for at a national level

Another relevant example is the Tourism Satellite Account (TSA) Framework, developed by UNWTO in 2008 to foster international comparability. It is a standard global statistical framework for the ‘economic’ measurement of tourism. There is no mention of any environmental or social factor in TSA accounts of destinations.

Ya-Yen Sun noted: “Basically, we know how much tourism contributes to a country’s GDP, but we do not know the quantum of emissions released because of tourism.” According to Sun, there are three inputs required to quantify carbon emissions at a destination level: Tourism expenditure, which is directly available from TSAs and is available for over 60 countries; Input-Output Tables specifying the economic linkages in the tourism value chain and are available for most countries; and energy data to convert expenditure data to emissions, available for most countries. 

According to Dr. Sun, the TSA framework is based on the input-output model and the parameters defined in TSA can easily be used to quantify carbon emissions for at least 60 destinations, which mostly include all top destinations. In fact, Sun thinks that it will prove to be a very cost effective method of calculating emissions at national level. It is difficult to understand why countries or global tourism organizations are not doing it already. 

Interestingly, when approached, global organizations like UNWTO and WTTC did not seem ‘interested’ in publishing emissions data at country level, Sun expressed. 

Destination Management without accounting for Carbon Emissions

Lately, destinations are shifting their focus from destination promotion to destination management, claiming to adopt a more sustainable approach to grow tourism. 

The destination management guidelines published by UNWTO and The European Commission, two of the global and credible organizations in the tourism sector, acknowledge the importance of reporting tourism emissions in limited capacity.  

The guidelines provide general sustainability principles but offer no detailed instructions on data collection and assimilation for calculating tourism’s carbon footprint. 

Sun noted that: “Currently there is no official guideline in publishing national tourism carbon emissions and I feel UNWTO should take leadership in this.”

The Industry is Evolving

Industry leaders believe that things are changing in the industry now. With rising traveller awareness and increasing media pressure, a growing number of travel and tourism companies are recognising the benefits of measuring and reporting GHG emissions. 

Jeremy Sampson from Travel Foundation mentioned that there is good intention amongst stakeholders, but the lack of knowledge makes it difficult to implement decarbonization measures.

In 2019, large mainstream companies approached Travel Foundation, driven by questions from consumers, especially from the younger generation, to request guidance on suitable sustainability frameworks and practices. 

Ya-Yen Sun, who works very closely with tourism boards of various countries, said that countries like New Zealand, Scotland and Norway have actively started quantifying emissions from tourism and tying their tourism strategy to it.  

In 2019, New Zealand became the first country to publish a continual account of tourism emissions. 

Need for Global Guidelines

There is a clear paucity of a centralised/global carbon reporting framework for tourism and given the complexities of the tourism value chain. Efforts are being made at individual level. 

However, time is of essence here. Global tourism organizations must collaborate with the tourism boards to come up with a standardized framework for carbon reporting to support sustainable tourism growth in the near future. 

An Attempt to Quantify Tourism Emissions

Given the lack of standardized measurement of tourism emissions, Skift Research has attempted to quantify domestic and international tourism emissions for select countries based on publicly available data. 

Country Coverage

For the current version, we focus on tourism emissions from 25 countries, altogether accounting for approximately 80% of global travel and tourism GDP and government spending on travel and tourism service. 

The analysis presented in this report includes both on-shore and off-shore components of tourism.  

On-Shore Emissions

The on-shore component includes emissions from tourists once they are in the destination. The intercity or intercountry transport emissions are not included. 

The emissions are calculated by correlating inhabitant emissions and tourist emissions. The inhabitant emissions are determined by dividing countries’ production-based emissions – that is, emissions produced within a country’s boundaries without accounting for how goods are traded across the world – by the population of the country. 

Inclusion of production-based emissions at a per capita level takes care of both direct and indirect emissions in the tourism value chain. Hence, this analysis is comprehensive to that end. 

The factor, by which the tourist emissions are higher or lower than inhabitant emissions, is referred to as the ‘Tourist Emission Factor’. Basically, 

The Tourist Emission Factor is calculated using two approaches:

Income Approach

In the income approach it is assumed that the ratio of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita per day of a country and tourist spend per day, will be the ratio of inhabitant’s and tourist’s emissions. 

The factor is calculated separately for domestic and international tourists.  

Expenditure Approach

In the expenditure approach it is assumed that the ratio of household expenditure per capita per day of a country and tourist spend per day, will be the ratio of inhabitant’s and tourist’s emissions. 

Household expenditure is the amount of final consumption expenditure made by resident households to meet their everyday needs, such as food, clothing, house rent, energy, transport, durable goods, health costs, leisure, and miscellaneous services.

The factor is calculated separately for domestic and international tourists.  

I-E Average Approach 

In theory, we believe that the expenditure approach is more appropriate as what locals consume and consequently emit is more closely in line with what tourists consume and emit, than their income. However, the caveat of using this approach is the fact that for advanced economies, household expenditure per capita is much lower than income per capita – in many cases close to a 1:2 ratio, and for emerging economies, expenditure per capita is often higher than income per capita. So when the expenditure approach is used to calculate the tourism emission factor,  the factor for international tourists becomes very high for economically developed countries, resulting in higher emissions attributable to tourism for those with high volumes of international tourists. Take Switzerland, for instance. The country’s income per capita is 2.6 times of household expenditure per capita and it has a very high number of international arrivals. Using the expenditure approach, the tourism emissions would account for 32% of the country’s total emissions.

To moderate the extreme results of the expenditure approach, we took an average of the tourism emission factors derived from the income and expenditure approach to calculate the on-shore emissions.  

It is important to note that some countries, innately, have high CO2 emissions per capita which amplifies the tourist emissions on a per capita basis. For example, in per capita terms, oil-producing nations feature some of the highest destination-based footprints per capita because of the industry and service mix present in the country. To put this into perspective, an international tourist travelling to the UAE emits 3x more CO2 in the country as opposed to the tourist travelling to India. Similarly, a domestic tourist in Saudi Arabia emits 2x more CO2 than a domestic tourist in France (refer Exhibit 13).  

Once the emission factor is determined, on-shore emissions for the year are calculated as shown below:

Off-Shore Emissions

As highlighted in the above sections, transport accounts for 49% of the emissions from tourism and is hence the biggest carbon emitter in the value chain. 

As shown in Exhibit 11, the modes of transport of air and car are estimated to have CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer of similar magnitude. The same holds true for rail and ferry, but at a lower level. Other modes of road transport like bus and motorcycle have comparatively lower CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer. 

The emission intensity cannot be considered as a proxy to the volume of emissions. Despite lower intensity road transport accounts for 75% of overall emissions from transport while aviation accounts for 12%. 

The CO2 emissions factor of cars is expected to decrease as expedited uptake of vehicle electrification and fuel efficiency improvements continue while aircrafts’ average CO2 emission factor is expected to surpass that of cars by 2030 owing to the lack of rapid technological advancement and complacency of the stakeholders (See our Sustainability in Travel 2021: Environmental Performance of the Six Largest Airlines report for our analysis of the airlines industry).

Exhibit 11: Emissions by mode of transport

Since emissions from transport represent a huge chunk of tourism emissions, we have taken it into account under the off-shore emissions component to make our analysis holistic. Although, the inclusion is partial as only emissions from air transport are taken into account. Emissions from other modes of transport cannot be easily estimated using publicly available data. 

Total tourism emissions of a country are determined by adding the on-shore and off-shore emissions. To reiterate, the total tourism emissions calculated using this method do not include emissions from all modes of inter-city/inter-country transport. 

Timeframe and Sources

The timeframe for this analysis is 2019. Assumptions have been made for parameters for which 2019 data was not available. 

Countries for which data was not available on the primary sources listed above, data from credible government websites has been taken into account. 

Skift Research Findings

International tourists visiting emerging economies emit more than the inhabitants on a per capita basis while the opposite trend is seen in advanced economies

Average international tourist emission factor for countries with low GNI per capita/emerging economies is 3, meaning that international travelers to these countries emit more than three times as much as a local. The international emission factor is the highest in countries like Thailand, India, Indonesia and Philippines.

In such countries the GNI per capita and hence, the household expenditure per capita is much lower than the international tourist spend per day, translating into higher per capita international tourist emissions as compared to an average inhabitant’s emissions. The reverse happens in advanced economies like the U.S., Canada and France, where the international tourist emission factor is less than 1. 

For example, foreigners visiting countries like Thailand tend to spend lavishly on luxurious amenities, using more resources than an average inhabitant. The household expenditure per capita per day in Thailand is $13 while an international tourist spends around $206 in a day. 

In the U.S., the household expenditure per capita per day is $121 while an international tourist spends around $99 in a day. 

As per the stats provided by our data partner STR, out of the total number of hotels in the U.S., only 20% fall in the luxury, upper upscale and upscale categories while 40% of hotels in Thailand fall in this category. Considering this as a proxy to the tourist expenditure trend, it is clear that tourists prefer to spend more on luxury in cheaper countries like Thailand, and less in expensive countries like the U.S., justifying the difference in their emission factors. As discussed in our report Sustainability in Travel 2021: Emissions Benchmark of Six Global Hotel Companies, luxury hotels have higher emissions per room than midscale or economy hotels. 

Exhibit 12: Domestic and international tourist emission factor

Domestic visitors in European countries seem to emit more than the inhabitants on a per capita basis

Domestic visitors in the United Kingdom and European countries like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland seem to emit more than an average inhabitant. 

The common theme across these countries is that they have a high percentage of same-day visitors. Since the same-day visitors have not been accounted for in our study, the skewed domestic tourist numbers drive up the average domestic tourists daily spend and hence the emission factor. 

The domestic emission factor for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Philippines, and Turkey are also above average. 

Exhibit 13: Tourist emissions on per capita basis

In absolute terms, countries with significant domestic tourism have high CO2 emissions from tourism 

Overall, domestic emissions account for 70% of the total tourist emissions (including both on-shore and off-shore emissions) for the selected 25 countries. 

China tops the carbon footprint ranking, followed by the U.S., India, and Germany in terms of absolute emissions, primarily because they have a very large domestic travel market. 

Exhibit 14: Domestic and international tourist emissions

Off-shore emission contribution for home countries of big aviation hubs is substantial 

Off-shore emissions for countries like the UAE, the Netherlands, France, the U.S., and Canada, which are big tourist markets but also home to major aviation hubs, contribute approximately 40% of total emissions from tourism. 

It is important to mention here that this analysis does not take into account emissions from modes of transport other than aviation. Hence, the percentage contribution of aviation emissions might be lower than what we have presented. 

However, in absolute terms, aviation emissions are comparable with the total on-shore emissions of select countries. For example, as per our analysis, the total on-shore emissions in UAE, in 2019, were 29.9 million tonnes while the aviation emissions were 26.2 million tonnes, almost equal to the on-shore component.  

Exhibit 15: On-shore and off-shore tourist emissions

The bigger goal is to reduce absolute emissions from tourism

We calculated the percentage of emissions attributable to tourism by dividing the absolute tourism emissions by the total emissions of the country and plotted it against the contribution of tourism to the country’s GDP to understand the relationship between the dependency of the country on tourism and tourism emissions. 

Significance of tourism as an industry is different for each country. The countries which derive a substantial amount of their GDP from tourism but have a low percentage of tourism emissions seem to be comparatively more sustainable as compared to its peers with respect to emissions from tourism.

The low and high groups are classified on the basis of the mid-point in the range of travel and tourism GDP contribution and emissions attributable to tourism. For example, tourism emissions percentage goes up to 30% and hence, countries below 15% are categorized as countries in which tourism emissions percentage is low. 

Quadrant 1 in Exhibit 16 consists of countries like Argentina, China, India, Turkey and Mexico, which are highly dependent on tourism (travel and tourism contribution to GDP>11%) but contribution of tourism emissions in these countries is comparatively low (<15% of country’s total emissions).  

Quadrant 2 consists of Australia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Philippines, UAE and Thailand. These countries are also highly dependent on tourism (travel and tourism contribution to GDP>11%) but contribution of tourism emissions in these countries is comparatively high (>15% of country’s total emissions).

Countries in quadrant 3 (Switzerland, UK, France and Norway) appear to be the most unsustainable as their dependence on tourism is low (travel and tourism contribution to GDP<11%) but tourism still ends up representing a big chunk of their overall emissions (>15% of country’s total emissions). 

The remaining nine countries in the analysis fall in quadrant 4 which is characterized by low dependence on tourism (travel and tourism contribution to GDP<11%) and a low percentage of emissions attributable to tourism (<15% of country’s total emissions)

The positioning of countries in the chart is dependent on a number of factors: absolute CO2 emissions at a country level, tourism expenditure in the country, number of tourists, length of stay and macroeconomic factors like the GNI, GDP, and household expenditure of the inhabitants. 

To illustrate this further, Russia has the lowest percentage of tourism emissions (4.5%) despite being an oil-based economy (4th highest emitter at a country level), which translates into high per capita inhabitant CO2 emissions. But, a low number of tourists, low tourism expenditure, and a comparatively underdeveloped air transport system pushes down the tourist emissions. 

If Exhibit 16 is compared with Exhibit 14, it is easily noticeable that the biggest tourism emitters like the U.S., China, and India are a part of quadrant 4 since their overall economies are much larger and therefore tourism forms a smaller part of their GDP and overall emissions.  

Similarly, countries like Switzerland and Norway, the ones with the lowest absolute tourism emissions fall in quadrant 3, the danger zone as per the quadrant analysis. 

Hence, the goal of countries in quadrant 2 and 3 should not be to move southwards to quadrant 1 and 4, but for all countries to reduce their absolute emissions. 

Exhibit 16: Dependence on tourism and emissions attributable to tourism

Game Plan – Change the Meaning of Success

The current emission rate for tourism will not slow down by default. The implications of carbon emissions are apparent and concerted action is required from all stakeholders to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism at a faster pace. 

Establish national tourism carbon footprint inventory

As already highlighted, the first step to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism is to have access to tourism’s carbon footprint inventory in order to identify the emission hotspots in the value chain. 

Link Every Tourism Strategy with Emissions

The next step should be for the governments to link every tourism strategy with emission data. At present, governments’ mindset is primarily driven by economic outcomes. 

Essentially, governments frame their tourism policies to increase tourism expenditure by gauging the impact of tourism on country’s GDP. 

Undoubtedly, countries want to earn from tourism and the number of tourists will only increase but once we have the emissions inventory in place, countries can: 1) Set emission reduction goals for tourism businesses; 2) Assess the level of extra carbon emissions which are required to be compensated through various carbon offsetting schemes. 

For example, the Australian government plans to increase arrivals by 6% per year for the next 15 years (Although as per our analysis Australia ranks amongst top 10 in terms of absolute tourism emissions. Refer Exhibit 14). Once a national account of emissions from tourism is available, the government can calculate the carbon emissions that the increased tourism will contribute and set targets for stakeholders to reduce and offset emissions. 

Similarly, visitor profiling can be done to promote tourism in short-haul source markets and reduce dependency on long-haul markets. 

Hence, the performance indicators of tourism’s growth can be tweaked and redefined to include the carbon footprint dimension. 

Close the Attitude-Behavior Gap 

We have highlighted in the report that there is good intent in travelers, but, with lack of relevant information, guidelines and sustainable options, it becomes difficult for travelers to make environmentally-friendly choices. 

The change has to be driven by the governments and businesses (a top-down approach) to make sustainable options available to the tourists and align their intent with action. 

Sustainability in Tourism in Light of COVID-19

COVID-19 pandemic led to a 7% reduction of GHG emissions globally in 2020. However, the rebound in emissions seen in the aftermath of previous global crises suggests that the way countries stimulate their economies after Covid-19 lockdowns will play a key role in future emissions.

Corinne Le Quere, a Royal Society research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, during a recent media interaction noted that: “The huge impact of Covid-19 lockdowns means a rebound in global emissions is very likely, but what is more difficult to say is exactly what the size of the rebound will be in 2021 – whether it will come back to the 2019 level or perhaps even higher.” 

Before COVID-19, sustainability in tourism as a subject was gaining momentum and becoming a high priority agenda for stakeholders with increasing media pressure and protests against the negative effects of tourism by the consumers. 

However, during COVID-19 and in the aftermath of it the focus of destinations has shifted from sustainability to survival. 

Case-in-point being China. China’s quick economic recovery from COVID-19 presented a narrow but vast opportunity to build an economy which is cleaner, fairer, and safer. Based on a questionnaire survey of 1,160 owners and managers of companies headquartered in 32 regions of China and covering 30 industries conducted in 2020, Chinese companies’ sustainability priorities have shifted towards the social dimension both during COVID-19 and into the post-pandemic phase, regardless of the type of ownership, company size, or market focus. 

As per the survey, all types of companies prioritize the need for economic sustainability in the post-pandemic phase and in relative terms the importance of the environmental dimension has been diminished. Hence, the potential for a post-pandemic environmental rebound effect in China is clear. 

Jeremy Sampson, CEO Travel Foundation, said: “Destinations are in a tough spot as they more than ever want to support their communities/businesses and bring back tourism, but at the same time focusing on long-term is important, and they should try and achieve the optimum balance between all three dimensions of sustainability.”

The change in traveler preferences, like the preference to travel to short-haul domestic destinations reachable by car, and stay at private rental properties instead of crowded hotels and resorts, might be able to aid environmental sustainability, but researchers believe that such trends will be short-lived. 

A number of countries are still struggling with the pandemic, and governments and businesses are strategizing suitable recovery plans. We are yet to see if the policies are biased towards economic recovery, or are well balanced and embrace the environmental dimension of sustainability.

Ya-Yen Sun noted that: “In the post-COVID world, long-haul travel is expected to decrease – that will help in reducing tourism emissions. But eventually, people will want to explore countries far away and we might again move towards mass tourism.”