How Scotland is tackling carbon emissions in tourism at a destination level

Aileen Lamb from Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s main economic development agency, spoke to us in 2023 about climate action planning at a destination level in Scotland. This interview formed part of our work with Expedia Group developing the destination climate champions programme. Information highlights action taken in 2022-23. 

Can you provide some background on your organisation’s role in the Scotland Net Zero project?

The government looked to us to find ways to help the Scottish tourism industry to recover from the pandemic but recover in a way that was sustainable, and addressed the climate targets that both the Scottish tourism industry and Scottish Government had set. 

Over the past 12-18 months or so, as part of our Destination Net Zero programme, we undertook a pilot working with the Travel Foundation and with three very different destinations in Scotland, to help them test the climate action planning process. We worked with Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, we worked with a city and rural destination, Visit Inverness Loch Ness, and we worked with a rural island in the Western Isles. 

Why did you think it was important for Scottish Enterprise to support DMOs to engage in climate action?

DMOs have got an absolutely vital role to play in this decarbonisation journey because we recognize the DMOs are a trusted route to a vast range of tourism businesses. Destination organizations lead and develop and deliver their own place-based destination strategies. They have huge influence both within their industry communities, and also with their wider stakeholders. 

We also recognise that destination organizations typically are the best vehicle for sharing good practice and engaging industry in that learning, and that destination organisations have the capacity and mechanism to undertake a considerable amount of one-to-one engagement that often public sector organisations just don’t have the capacity to do. We find that one-to-one learning and engagement is really helpful, particularly with a difficult and challenging topic like climate action.

What do you consider to be the biggest achievements from this process?

We’ve delivered a real feeling of collective action, and shared learning and cooperation. Having spoken recently to each of the destinations who were in our pilots, they all highlighted the fact that hearing from examples who were slightly different from them has given them other things to challenge themselves with and to think about within their own climate action plan process. 

I think our pilot process has helped Scotland uncover that there is actually a huge amount of really good practice already underway in Scottish destinations, and having the ability through this pilot to showcase that good practice has been excellent. It has allowed us to show Scotland on a national and a global stage as somewhere that has not just got strong 2045 climate targets, but it’s actually working already towards how to achieve those at a destination and policy level. 

What are the most important things you have learnt from this process?

One of the key lessons we have learnt is that despite our country’s pledge to be net zero by 2040-45, we have realized that we shouldn’t assume that everyone is on board with that already, and that they understand it and buy into it. We’ve also learned that fear and lack of knowledge can be a really limiting factor. It can limit interest, it can limit the amount of engagement we can gain from stakeholders. So there’s something really important around addressing the fear and having to change and to do new things. 

But the biggest learning, particularly for our DMOS who were involved in our pilot, was that not having a really comprehensive baseline should not stop you putting a plan together and starting, and that has been our mantra since the very beginning of all this work with the industry. Just start and communicate that you’re starting because other people will support you, and other destinations will share their knowledge and share their tips with you. 

What do you think are the benefits for DMOs to develop their own climate action plans?

I think there’s a huge number of benefits for DMOs to putting a plan in place. DMOs putting their own plans together and actioning them can be a really motivational tool for staff, and it can also motivate stakeholders and businesses to think about what they can do within their own organisations. Having a process to develop a climate action plan is also a really good engagement tool, whether it be clients or industry stakeholders or strategic partners. So we actually think being able to evidence the process of creating a climate action plan is a really useful tool for a destination. 

The process of creating the plan then supports the DMO in their broader strategic aims. The process of having a plan will help engagement with broader place strategies, quite often, public sector lead strategies. This is often the way that public sector funding will be unlocked or influenced. So being able to have that evidence that a destination is creating a climate action plan is often fundamental to unlocking future engagement and funding.

Having a climate action plan also influences wider strategies too. To support stakeholder buy-in, we’re really conscious going forward within tourism that community and resident buy-in is extremely important to destinations in Scotland, and having evidence of a climate action plan and development and what the goals are from that is deemed to be a really strong way to get that stakeholder buy-in. 

Finally, the development of a climate action plan allows the destination to be really clear with industry, with clients and with stakeholders what their aspirations are around climate, climate change and our own decarbonising industry. And then having the plan helps with the marketing and communication of achievements of the DMO.

Can you give three bits of advice for DMOs who are starting on the climate action planning journey?

Talk to your contemporaries, whether they are local destinations or destinations from somewhere else around the world. 

Gain strategic support through governance structures so that you can really build climate action right into the heart of your strategy for your DMO. It’s about having that strategic intent so you can push upwards to help influence but also that you can share downwards and outwards to all industry members and stakeholders and customers. 

Don’t expect consumer pressure to make industry change. Often DMOs tell their industry members that consumers want greener, more sustainable products, expecting that that will be the thing that will turn a business on to undertaking climate action. We would encourage DMOs not to expect that to happen and instead be focused on the positive business benefits of undertaking climate action, and use climate action plans to influence stakeholders to make that change. 

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