Grounded flights, dry-docked cruise liners, vacant hotels, empty museums . . . Tourism is one of the sectors that has been most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. And no matter how much we crave travelling, we’re not yet able to board a plane bound for paradise. But what if this interlude was an opportunity to rethink the way we travel?
To reflect on this, to understand the evolution of the tourism sector in the last few decades and where it might be headed in the post-covid world, we’ve interviewed Agnès Weil, Head of Sustainability at Club Med and General Delegate of the Club Med Foundation.
Could you tell us about your professional background? How did you become interested in sustainability?
After earning a degree in statistics, I worked in strategic consulting, before pursuing an MBA at INSEAD. I then joined VVF (Village Vacances Famille), a social organisation that aims at democratizing access to holidays and fostering territorial development through local tourism. In 1999, I joined Club Med and created the Quality department, which later included Health&Safety. And, a couple of years later, in 2005, I proposed the creation of Club Med’s “Sustainability” department, as I saw that it was becoming an increasingly important matter in the business world, but also because I believed that it was consistent with Club Med’s visionary approach to tourism.
Since its creation, in 1950, the company has always been a pioneer in carrying out innovative development initiatives. For example, back in 1977, Club Med built the largest solar panel field in Europe in Club Med Boucaniers, in Martinique. Finally, from a more personal standpoint, I had learnt about climate change and its impacts from the scientists in my close circle; and this had made me want to get more involved in sustainability topics.
How has sustainability in the tourism industry evolved over the past 10 to 15 years?
When it comes to sustainability, the tourism sector has been rather slow to get off to a good start. But in the last decade or so, there’s been a growing awareness around sustainability issues, with a sharp increase in the last two years. This reflects what happened not just in the industry, but in society as a whole. I think this has a lot to do with global warming becoming a more tangible reality over the last few years; we are starting to experience physical effects, such as sea-level rise, extreme weathers and warmer temperatures, decline of biodiversity,… I think many industry players and the general public understand that we are at a turning point and that we need to accelerate the ecological transition.
I often say that tourism is like a “slice of life”, a moment of life, with everything that our modern lives entails: construction, transportation, housing, food, leisure . . .
What are the main obstacles to this transition for travel and tourism operators ?
The main difficulty has to do with the interweaving of many different activities. I often say that tourism is like a “slice of life”, a moment of life, with everything that our modern lives entails: construction, transportation, housing, food, leisure . . . Tourism covers so many fields that, as a travel and tourism operator, we can’t act on our own. We have to work hand-in-hand with all the different actors involved (airlines, suppliers, local communities…) to coordinate our efforts. But ironically, this joint action is also what makes implementing change complex and slow. It’s interesting because the tourism sector is a reflection of what’s happening in the world. It faces the same sustainable development issues as the planet, but on a smaller scale: high population density, limited resources, social discrepancies . . . And both at an industry-level and at a global-level; everyone needs to move in the same direction to trigger lasting change.
Are there signs that show that we are moving in the right direction?
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of exciting and practical sustainable development initiatives in the tourism sector, tackling diverse issues, from food waste to plastic recycling and animal welfare. For instance, at Club Med, we’ve launched our “Bye-Bye Plastic” program in 2018 that aims at eliminating all single-use plastic products (straws, dishes, amenities in rooms, etc.) from our bars, restaurants and rooms by this end of this year. Furthermore, many sustainable tourism certifications have recently flourished (La Clé Verte, Green Globe, ATR, …). And even if these standards have sometimes been poorly known or misunderstood, I think that they are crucial tools to encapsulate a wide diversity of topics and give credibility to our actions.
The tourism sector is a reflection of what’s happening in the world. It faces the same sustainable development issues as the planet, but on a smaller scale: high population density, limited resources, social discrepancies . . .
Would you say that sustainability is at the heart of Club Med’s main strategic decision-making?
Sustainability has definitely gained momentum over the years, becoming an increasingly key factor in businesses’ decision-making. Even though it still isn’t “top-of-mind”, it has infiltrated practically every area of business : strategy, marketing, operations, procurement . . . At Club Med, we have a dozen Sustainability KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) across all activities that are being monitored by the top-management. And we’ve recently gone a step further by linking our financial debt to the achievement of our sustainable development goals. This just shows how integrated sustainability is in Club Med’s strategic decision-making.
What will the challenges of the tourism industry be in the post-covid world?
With the pandemic, tourism sector has shifted from “overtourism” to “undertourism”, experiencing first-hand the devastating effects of both situations. One of the main challenges in the post-covid world will be to find a balance between these two extremes. Part of this is making sure that economies are not exclusively reliant on tourism. We need to ensure that countries and regions have a more resilient socio-economic fabric, based on tourism but also on other traditional activities (agriculture, manufacturing…). Another major challenge has to do with transportation. We are seeing alternatives to air travel (e.j. new train routes) and innovations emerge. Hydrogen-powered planes are promising, yet still in development. So in the meantime, we’ll have to find ways of mitigating the unavoidable impacts of air travel.
With the pandemic, tourism sector has shifted from “overtourism” to “undertourism”, experiencing first-hand the devastating effects of both situations.
How will our travelling habits evolve in the future?
It’s hard to say! But we can emit some hypotheses. First, with the covid crisis, people are starting to realize that they don’t need to travel as frequently and as far as before, and that travelling locally has its own benefits (shorter and cheaper journeys, support to local businesses…). So local tourism might develop further in the future, as well as non-commercial tourism that might be seen as more pleasant and safer than commercial services (crowded hotels, tourist attractions…). Moreover, the remote working boom will probably accelerate the demand for “workations”, holidays that blend leisure and productive time. Club Med has even developed an offer around this concept. Finally, if temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, we might go back to what people used to do in the 1950’s: spend the summer holidays in the mountains and the winter ones near the sea. But ultimately, I don’t think that our desire to travel will disappear. We’ll just have to find a new equilibrium: “travelling less but better”. After the pandemic, we might rediscover the pleasure of fantasizing about a holiday destination. Making travels all the more magical and precious.