Tourism, Climate Change (and why I feel like a fraud)

Tourism, Climate Change (and why I feel like a fraud)

Most people I know suffer from imposter syndrome. Most of us believe that any second now, we’ll be found out as frauds, hypocrites, or simply as completely out of our depth. I worry about this on a daily basis, often several times between meals. It doesn’t seem to go away with age or experience. I’ve found the only thing that really softens the blow is discovering that I am not alone. Discovering those I respect share this vulnerability helps put things in perspective.

The main focus for my relentless doubts are to do with my own personal efforts (or lack of) to live sustainably. My working life is spent writing and talking about what I believe our industry needs to do to lessen its negative impacts and improve its positive ones. But while I bang on about best practice and regenerative solutions, my own daily existence continually falls far short of this zero carbon vision. Although I try to take the train across Europe as much as possible, I still occasionally fly. I eat some meat. Buy products wrapped in plastic. Shop with Amazon. Get in Ubers. And so on.

And this makes me a hypocrite. I am no Greta Thunberg.

Obviously I can, and should do more. After all, it’s easy to talk about agendas and issues. It’s easy enough to share stories of other people’s inspirational projects, or to gather together and repackage statistics. But it is much harder to acknowledge or address my own inadequacies. To be honest, this is about the scariest article I have ever written.

So why am I doing it now? Because I think – I hope – that I am very far from being alone in suffering this strain of imposter syndrome. I think that – faced with the scale of the environmental crisis – most of us worry that we are probably not doing enough. And this doubt eats away at us. And then we hear ‘experts’ or read ‘writers’ talking about the incredible things that other people are doing and we think about how far away that is from our own actions. We assume that spokespeople for sustainability have to be martyrs, messiahs, or holier than thou pedants.

So we stay silent. We feel ‘eco guilt’. We resign ourselves to ‘not being like them’. Far from inspiring change, I worry that only focusing on solutions and heroes creates inertia.

This is what else I worry about.

One – Personal actions do matter. According to research I have read on one of my many doubting days – the personal environmental actions of the spokesperson significantly influence how their words affect us. So when Greta Thunberg speaks, her words are effective precisely because she has crossed the Atlantic on a sailing boat. On the other hand, when the Flemish environment minister said earlier this week that she was going to ‘Plane Pool’ to the COP25 climate conference in Madrid, she was ridiculed for hypocrisy.

Two – We shouldn’t over-emphasise the significance of individual life choices. Most of what we do – recycling, shopping locally, changing light bulbs, not having towels washed every day at hotels – has a negligible impact compared to the wider societal changes necessary. And yet this is more often than not what the media focuses on rather than the corporate structures that are the real culprits. Look at how many ‘10/20/30 tips to be a sustainable tourist’ get churned out.

“Steeped in a culture telling us to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, as self-reliant instead of interdependent,” writes Martin Lukacs, “is it any wonder we deal with a systemic issue by turning in droves to ineffectual, individual efforts?

Three – Social change comes as a result of pressure from individuals. The more of us that demand change, whether on protest marches, through our voting choices, or even through how we choose to spend our money, the more likely that change will come. So our individual actions, cumulatively, really do matter. Individual action versus wider societal change is not an either/or. As psychologist Matthew Adams writes: ‘The women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, for example, were built on countless individual “choices” but not “behaviour and lifestyles changes” of the kind we associate with checklists.’

Four – The over-focus on the individual lies at the root of our problems. Many of us live in increasingly atomised, individualistic lives. Selfie culture. Salvation through shopping. The all pervasive idea that happiness is the same as success. These myths all fuel the anxiety and competition that consumerism demands, and that has drained our planet of its lifeblood. Our holidays should be an escape from this; yet increasingly they are the epitome of it.

Five – Much personal action is virtue signalling. Whenever I give a talk on stage, I take my own reusable water bottle with me. Mostly because I am glad to have a lot of water in case my mouth dries up. However, I am only too aware that I am making a little gesture against the disposable plastic cups that us speakers are so often given. But I worry that I am also – however minutely – creating a barrier between me and much of my audience. As I stand there for 45 minutes sharing statistics and case studies, sipping from my reusable water bottle, am I connecting with the people listening, or reinforcing a divide?

So why I am writing this all here, on an industry blog?

Because I think that my personal dilemma is also our industry’s dilemma. And the more I stand up and talk at events, the more I experience this. Either people like me tell an audience about what amazing things the best in the world are doing, and most of our audience think that the barrier to entry is too high. Or we stand up and tell people about what great work our company is doing, and yet we know in our hearts that it isn’t enough. But still we write the press release.

So we virtue signal by over-promoting initiatives like plastic-free flights or reusable towel schemes, rather than focusing on land rights or frequent flyer levies. We invite journalists on three day press trips to the Maldives to check out an ecolodge. We present pledges made by individual tourists as the solution to overtourism caused by our own business model.  We mislabel efforts to manage this overtourism ‘coping with success’.

We justify our globetrotting on the grounds that it is supposed to make us better people, more sensitive to others. And we wonder why protestors climb on the top of a plane at London City Airport. Or take to the canals, streets, fields or wherever else to resist our relentless expansion.

This is what really worries me. These protests will continue to grow, just as will the number of flights, hotels and tourists filling them. The division – the sense of them and us is going to get worse.

I don’t have anything vaguely resembling a conclusion. Lots more questions. But certainly no answer. Yet I also want to believe that an industry created to facilitate connections, conversations and discoveries is uniquely placed to help.

My hunch – and I could be so totally wrong about this – is that many people in this industry are really struggling to square their own, their company’s or destination’s efforts to be more sustainable with what we know deep down is required.

If my hunch is even vaguely right, then maybe it would help us to admit this a bit more. To stop being so sunny and instead acknowledge that we are feeling the heat. Sure, we need to keep sharing the stories of solutions and heroes, but shouldn’t we find space to help each other open up about our fears too?

After all, this isn’t just the challenge facing tourism. It’s the biggest challenge facing us all. What do we have to do to ensure this planet is liveable for our grandchildren? What works? What doesn’t? How do you cope with the worry and how it makes you feel?

Who knows where this might lead. We might find this is our industry’s role in the years to come. Maybe we can use our international networks to make the abstractions of distant climate change easier to grasp. Or help tourists have ‘authentic’ conversations with the ‘locals’ of the Bahamas, Dominica, Barbuda, Mozambique, Nepal, Kerala, Vanuatu, Venice – everywhere that is really struggling against the climate crisis now. Maybe this would help us learn better how to cope. Perhaps we could ask each other what we need to do.

This is what I worry about. What about you?

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. Thanks Jeremy for sharing this post.. Much detail and cannot agree more with you on all the points. I am a firm believer that the ones that attend all the sustainable tourism talks are the converted – The ones that don’t attend at all are the ones the industry needs to focus on. One point that you have raised is personal actions do matter and I have always believed in this – Gandhi said a great saying “Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
    Taking small steps and actions which are sustainable will make a difference.
    Many thanks
    Abhishek Behl

  2. Hi Jeremy. Thanks for this great article. I have few questions. How is Uber pool more unsustainable than using our own car for commute? And how is Amazon unsustainable? Sometimes we don’t easily get what we need in our neighborhood shop. Isn’t it better to get from amazon rather than driving in our own vehicle to some other city to get it?

  3. Glenn Jampol says:

    Thank you for a well thought out and incisive article articulating what many of us feel daily in the world of tourism and particularly travel. One of the issues that is plaguing our world right now is the resurgence of what i call “tribalism”- the insular and isolating tendency to reject integration- both literally and socially. As a result, we are being exposed exponentially to xenophobia and this desensitizes us to the increasing and alarming mass extinction of cultures, species, water and populations. I believe that ecotourism and authentic experiences in travel are one of the best antidotes to this phenomena: It educates and creates tremendous empathy for this kind of traveler. So my hope and aspiration is that technology will allow for the vast reduction of carbon in transportation and that we will be able to help re-sensitize mankind with the goal of a renewed empathy and understanding of the beauty of our differences through responsible tourism.

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