Despite the many issues facing humanity, tourism continues to expand at impressive speed. International arrivals are increasing 6 percent in 2018, hitting the 1.4 billion mark, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

It’s both an impressive and alarming figure, given how fast the middle class is growing in countries like China and India.

That’s one of the reasons why we entitled this year’s Skift Forum Europe: Defining the Future of Responsible Travel. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the themes that emerged on Tuesday at London’s Tobacco Dock.

Companies Need to Do the Right Thing

It’s no longer feasible for companies to dodge societal or environmental issues. Customers are demanding action, and it was interesting to hear a couple of CEOs talk explicitly about getting out in front of the challenges the travel and tourism sector faces.

“You’re seeing in society today — and this is a personal view — a bit of a loss of belief in government, and so you’re seeing rising nationalism … and an expectation today that corporations are going to become more of a force for good,” said Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group.

“In the past it was a do-no-harm approach, which was you had your CSR [corporate social responsibility] platform, you’re going out and doing the right things. Today I think customer expectations are changing faster than government regulations. Plastics is a good example where companies are going to have to get in front of legislation because that’s what customers expect.”

This is a key point. For too long shareholders and not stakeholders have held sway at big public companies. But with the internet giving customers and employees a much bigger voice, the power dynamic might be switching. Maybe not all the way, but it’s at least making big businesses think a little harder about the impact they have.

Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser came on to the stage clutching his company’s latest holiday report, highlighting the challenges facing the travel industry: Customers behave differently when they are abroad, which may make recycling and limiting single-use plastics more of a challenge.

The company estimates around 51,000 inflatables are left behind at its resorts each year, and it has decided to join forces with a sustainable bag brand to repurpose leftover items.

Tourism Costs Need Weighing Against Benefits

For too long tourism bosses have used national gross domestic product, or GDP, as the key metric to judge the industry. If it contributes billions of dollars to the economy all the associated problems become secondary to growth.

There are a number of very good reasons that this can’t go on forever, and a lot of people and businesses are still in the denial stage. Sure, political systems across the world might be malfunctioning, but the economy is still OK, so there’s no need to change.

Skift has highlighted the issue of overtourism over the years, and one of the key reasons people were upset in places like Barcelona and Venice is because they thought their governments were ignoring them in favor of tourist dollars.

Earlier this year the Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity, published a report entitled Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, highlighting tourism’s hidden costs to destinations.

CEO Salli Felton outlined some of the issues onstage, including the startling difference in water consumption between a local and hotel guest in Goa, India.

Travel businesses need to recognize the impact they have on destinations and work with local stakeholders to come up with solutions.

A Collaborative Approach Works

The private and public sectors don’t always work well together, but there were a couple of examples at Skift Forum Europe of a more joined-up approach.

Uber, like many companies engaged in the so-called gig economy, has frequently fallen foul of regulation, perhaps no more spectacularly than in London, where regulators took the drastic step of revoking its contract because of a “lack of corporate responsibility.”

Jamie Heywood, regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, told attendees that Uber hadn’t listened enough in the past.

“I think one of the attributes of Uber that caused it to run into some of the challenges it did is it didn’t listen enough to the cities and the organizations on which it operated. We didn’t necessarily play our role as a key part for society, and we weren’t necessarily seen by cities as a key partner for their growth,” he said.

Obviously, with an $84 billion initial public offering in the pipeline it pays to smooth things over, but at least the company is making steps in the right direction (although it’s worth noting Uber is still pursuing a court case in the UK over whether drivers should be classed as self-employed or workers).

Another example of government interaction is Peak DMC leaning on the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism to help increase the number of female guides in the country — partly because it was good for business.

“We get a lot of request for female-only tours… I literally said to them [the Moroccan government] should I send them [tourists] to India, because in India in our DMC actually we had 60 female tour guides, they’re not licensed so it’s a different way of working,” said Zina Bencheikh, regional general manager Europe, Middle East, and North Africa at Peak.

“I was showing them articles in the newspapers…about the success story of India, and I was like, don’t you want to repeat this in Morocco?”

The Customer Isn’t Always Right

When British Airways decided to get rid of free food in economy on its short-haul flights in 2017, it caused a predictable amount of outrage.

Even if the food wasn’t great, it was free and passengers were used to it. The problem was it wasn’t cost effective, when BA as a legacy airline had to compete with low-cost carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair, who had no problem charging for sandwiches.

As Brian Sumers, Skift senior aviation business editor, said onstage, it made CEO Alex Cruz “one of the most hated figures in the United Kingdom.” But with hindsight it was the right decision — even if the rollout of paid snacks didn’t go smoothly.

Now BA is in a much more stable financial position to splash the cash on improvements to things like seats and lounges.

Information Empowers

Stephen Cluskey, CEO of Mobility Mojo, offered up another example of a hidden feature within the travel industry, that of accessibility and how it impacts almost all of us.

People with children in strollers, people with elderly relatives, people in wheelchairs, and people who wear glasses, all have varying accessibility needs.

Cluskey, who is paralyzed from the neck down after falling from a hay bale at the age of 18, said it was a challenge simply finding out basic information about a hotel or restaurant because websites show incomplete information. That’s why he created a business, Mobility Mojo, an online tool for the hotel sector to aid people with specific accessibility needs.

“We just need to inform them properly,” he said.

Photo Credit: TripAdvisor president of core experience, Lindsay Nelson, and Skift Travel Tech Editor Sean O'Neill speak at Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30, 2019. Russell harper / Skift