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Once the pandemic is tamed, the travel sector will have to respond to the climate emergency. Startups with expertise in responsible travel need to prepare now for when their moment arrives next year.

While the world grapples with a global pandemic and its fallout, the United Nations tourism agency and its private sector partner Globalia on Wednesday sought to keep climate change and sustainable travel a priority for the travel industry.

Through a competition of startups addressing these issues, the two groups will select  winners from more than 1,000 expected entrants after it closes on September 20. The competition was first announced in July.

The update came the same day a report by the World Meteorological Organization found fossil fuel emissions have nearly regained year-ago levels as the world recovers from the pandemic.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), an advisory body to the sector, launched the startup pitch competition with private sector partner Wakalua, the innovation hub of Globalia, a Spanish tourism group. The organizations used a webinar  on Wednesday to make it clearer their criteria and ambitions for this startup competition, co-organized by Plug and Play, a California-based consultancy for startups.

“We’ll look for the feeling, not just the data, that the startup can truly scale to a global solution,” said Lisandro Menu Marque, director of international business development for Globalia, a group that flies Air Europa and runs tour operators, travel agencies, and hotels. “We seek solutions that present transformations in how to address sustainability-related tourism problems.”

The competition casts a wide net in concepts, such as waste management and clean energy. Interested applicants attending the webinar included LeafyLife, a maker of clean fuel in Kenya, Dulwa, a social travel enterprise based in Nepal, Manouv, the maker of solar-powered electric bikes for tourists in Bali, and the Central Himalayan Institute for Nature & Applied Research in the Indian Himalaya.

Startups that have received early-stage or Series A rounds of investment can enter the competition. Program organizers will choose the 17 most disruptive startups, one for each of 17 sustainable development goals set by the UN agency, and said they would support the companies to help them scale up.

More supporters of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) global startup competition include Amadeus, Amazon Web Services Activate, BBVA, Google, Mastercard, and Telefónica.

Representatives from these companies will help winnow down the list of qualifying startups from all that apply.

The startup finalists will have opportunities to receive mentorship and group training from them and other partner companies on topics intellectual property, business models, and best practices in sustainability, said José Ricardo Díaz Ardila, who oversees innovation and digital transformation at the World Tourism Organization. They, along with the UN agency and Globalia, will also present the best ideas to organizations and investors for networking opportunities.

Some people question whether “sustainable” is the most motivating and helpful term to describe the challenge. Harold Goodwin, a tourism sector consultant, has argued for a few years that sustainable tourism is too much of a vague aspiration while the term “responsible tourism” might better convey the need for accountability and specific, pragmatic actions, though it also happens to be the brand name of a tour operator.

But terminology aside, the climate emergency is likely to return to the surface of travel industry conversations as record-setting heat and growing carbon dioxide emissions threaten to destabilize the planet.

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Tags: climate change, startups, sustainability, travel startups, unwto

Photo credit: Open water swimming. The United Nations tourism agency WTO, Globalia, and Plug and Play seek to keep sustainable travel a priority with a startup pitch competition. Gabriel Caparó / Flickr

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