You might be surprised to hear that I, as the founder of a global ethical travel brand, supported the aims of Friday’s Heathrow drone protesters. I have no sympathy, however, for their methods. It is undeniable that the travel industry, as one of the heaviest carbon emitters in the world, needs to change. Colleagues of mine in the sector know this, too, and whilst it may look like tokenism from the outside, encouraging responsible travel is at the core of many travel companies that are household names today.
As the industry strives to evolve to ensure its own sustainability (both environmentally and commercially), I hope that protesters will give us the time to change. Innocent travellers are already facing a tumultuous period as passengers at Heathrow face a triple threat of drone protests, pilot strikes (if they are flying with British Airways) and Brexit uncertainty. The affordable, slick travel industry that we all take for granted is under threat of losing altitude.
The action at Heathrow airport is the latest in a string of acts of civil disobedience across the UK in recent months led by Extinction Rebellion and other eco protestors. Things seem to be getting more serious and disruptive, with a limited protest in London developing into grid lock across the city, and now a threat to the capital’s largest airport (which was prevented by pre-emptive police action).
As eco-warriors become more militant and their concerns become more acute, we will all need to work out how to build a consensus with them, many of whom share common values with all of us, and probably enjoy hitting a beautiful beach too. The most concerning aspect of this latest wave of protests is the demographic and socio-economic profile of the protestors. Since Extinction Rebellion came to prominence earlier this year, their members and supporters have been revealed to come from a broad cross-section of society. These are not career protesters, or those excluded from society who have nothing to lose.
Many of them seem to be otherwise middle of the road, upstanding members of society. This should not distract us from the danger to our future social fabric if these underlying issues are not resolved. As climate change effects become more apparent at home and abroad, and it forces more of us to rethink our lifestyles, this may lead to civil conflict beyond the niche activist circles which it is currently limited to.
Many are surprised at how much of the travel industry is supportive of progress on environmental issues. Activists will say that not enough is being done. One of the problems however with aggressive - or even violent - activism is that it creates an “us and them” mentality, to the point that anyone who isn’t trying to illegally disrupt one of the world’s busiest airports is seen as completely indifferent to the level of carbon emissions in the world’s transport infrastructure.
This is simply not true. As a global travel company driven by ethical foundations, I want to make sure that my customers are fully aware of the environmental impact of their choices. Our ethics and sustainability are not an afterthought or a PR exercise: on the contrary, they are an integral part of our business and how we differentiate ourselves from larger competitors.
With almost all our travellers being astute and socially-aware Muslims, we have encouraged them to think about the label of “Halal-friendly” travel in deeper terms than just the food their hotel serves or the family-friendly activities their resort provides. It is about the social, economic and environmental impact of their trip, and what it means for the destination they are visiting and the broader influence they can have.
As well as being ethical and in line with the personal priorities of me and my team, this makes commercial sense: travellers want to feel good about their trips, and that includes knowing that their travel is sustainable. The “come-down” after the holiday of a lifetime is bad enough without then feeling guilty about taking so much from the trip and giving nothing back.
I believe we are entering a new phase in the development of global travel. When I was growing up, international long-haul travel was seen as a luxury. I’m still as excited boarding an aircraft today as I was 30 years ago. From the mid-1990s, low-cost carriers created a generation of travellers who grew to see global travel as a right, not the privilege it should always be.
We must remind ourselves how unimaginable it would have been just a generation ago for someone to travel from Western Europe to North Africa, the Middle East or Turkey for the price of their weekly supermarket shop. This trend is set to continue with the current crop of long-haul low cost carriers making, for example, travel from Sydney to Singapore ever easier and convenient. If we want to preserve a world for future generations to enjoy traveling, there will need to be some changes, and every one of us should know it.
Green incentives that I aim to provide to my travellers will encourage them to change their behaviour rather than punishing them. Why not take a train rather than a plane for short trips or experience a country’s local cuisine on a plant-based diet for a couple of days? It’s slow going and the truth is as consumers, price trumps sustainability. Until our behaviour changes, the only way to discourage travellers will be to make the price point unattainable. Government initiatives such as the impending Carbon Emissions Tax is simply a plaster on a bleeding artery and won’t deter the most frequent of flyers, the ones who will ultimately be able to afford the tax.
We have to protect both our environment and our ability to move through it. Travel is something that we all benefit from. It’s the only way we have to open our eyes to the wonderful world out there and to become tolerant, satisfied human beings. Remember, even eco-protesters need a holiday sometimes.
Nabeel Shariff is founder of Muslim ethical travel site Rihaala.com
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