What we thought tourism in 2023 might look like

In 2008, we set out to imagine what tourism in 2023 might look like.  Looking back now, not only were some of the results of that exercise strikingly accurate, but many of the messages and calls to improve travel’s future prospects are still highly relevant.

Fifteen years ago, with the help of more than 100 industry experts and in partnership with Forum for the Future,  we developed a set of scenarios that explored the critical uncertainties facing the industry and offered vivid images of possible futures, taking into account key variables: whether the economy, politics, technology, and energy costs combine to encourage or restrict overseas travel; and whether the appeal of overseas destinations and consumers’ sensitivity to the environmental impacts of travel makes tourism more or less attractive.    

On the one hand, the Tourism 2023 report set a clear vision for a profitable, prosperous, and sustainable future for the travel and tourism industry. On the other hand, the report highlighted significant risks to the holiday experience and the travel industry’s type of operation. Tourism 2023 identified urgent actions such as demonstrating and monitoring the economic benefits tourism delivers to destinations, finding and implementing ways to make tourism low-carbon and low-impact and driving customer demand towards sustainable tourism models and products. All of which are still very relevant today.  With tourism today accounting for around 8-11% of global emissions, we clearly haven’t done enough. We have had fifteen years since this report came out, and our industry still faces these same problems. What needs to happen for our industry to act?   

In addition to the areas of action, Tourism 2023 also highlighted challenges that could impact travel and tourism the most. Our research identified the following issues: the impact of climate change, drought, water scarcity, growth in visitor numbers, cost of resources, aging population, political instability, and regional conflict and terrorism. As we all know, these issues have remained over the last fifteen years and are more significant and critical. Cities like Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Venice, and Barcelona continue to battle against the negative impacts and consequences of over-tourism. At the same time, regions elsewhere deal with the effects of climate change, such as wildfires in Greece, heat waves in Spain, water scarcity and depleted resources among many small island nations, and the rising sea level, which is increasing the intensity of storms, flooding and the erosion of beaches in many of the world’s coastal destinations.    

Taking action against climate change   

In 2008, we highlighted the importance of taking action against climate change. Our research was supported by a KPMG report that found that “by 2023, public awareness of the impacts of all forms of travel will be much higher than today. Over the next 15 years, the impacts of climate change will increasingly be felt and reported on in diverse forms of new media. Leaders in business and politics are expected to accelerate their action due to the urgency of the task ahead.”  Although hopeful to read and see climate change emerging as an essential topic in various industry reports, there was never enough noise for the tourism industry to listen and act. For the last decade, the tourism industry has, for the most part, continued business as usual, with a primary focus on growth above all else

Tourism 2023 set out clear actions and principles to help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change on tourism. The scenarios examined how stakeholders in the industry, including governments, businesses, and tourists, could promote sustainable practices, invest in climate-resilient infrastructure, adopt green technologies, reduce transportation emissions, and raise awareness about the importance of responsible tourism. How familiar do these suggestions sound? As if they could all be written in a report on today’s tourism. 

Unfortunately, now our sector is playing catch-up to address challenges foreseen more than a decade ago, with each year passing diminishing our chances of a successful transition to net zero. Whereas fifteen years ago, we had various pathways to lead to a successful future for tourism, today, there is only one scenario for industry growth and reaching net zero.   

Fifteen years toward change   

Now, we have arrived in the year 2023.  Over the last fifteen years, the tourism industry has undergone significant changes and transformations due to various factors, including technological advancements, shifts in consumer behavior, economic developments, and global events. We’ve experienced a pandemic, extreme climate disasters, regional conflict, inflation, and disruption to supply chains. Despite all that, travel today is booming, and the trends show it is not slowing down soon. We have seen an increase in low-cost airlines, increased travel motivations, destinations dealing with over-tourism due to too many visitors, and an increase in tourist apartment rentals worldwide. What has our sector done to address the areas identified for urgent action in our Tourism 2023 report? Have we done enough? Has the focus changed? 

Many of the predictions from Tourism 2023 have proven to be somewhat accurate.  

  • Overcrowding has presented the greatest challenges to most destinations, and the natural environment has suffered as a result. 
  • Just as in the past, when television and film inspired many new dreams and journeys, today’s online experiences have fueled a yearning to experience the real thing. 
  • Increased demand for travel combined with a warmer climate has brought a seasonal shift, with autumn and spring in Europe increasingly popular and less expensive. Destinations are keen to promote this: spreading demand across a longer tourism season not only keeps cash flowing throughout the year, but also helps to dilute some of the intense pressures on water and energy supplies during the summer months.  
  • The authorities see tourism as a means to an end: a closely controlled development process to empower local communities and improve quality of life.

Macro trends such as over-tourism and climate change remain pivotal themes in tourism and travel, no matter what we do or don’t do. In contrast, technology and policies have much more uncertain roles they will play in tourism’s sustainable future

When we wrote the report, travelers’ attitudes and awareness were starting to shift. However, 76% of travelers nowadays want to travel more sustainably over the coming 12 months. (, Sustainable Travel Report 2023) In addition, travelers’ behavior and motivations have shifted towards more sustainable and climate-conscious decision-making. Over half (51%) of travelers believe there are not enough sustainable travel options, while 74% want companies to offer more sustainable travel choices. (, Sustainable Travel Report 2023) While there is still room for improvement,  travelers can now more easily check that their travel provider has a climate action plan aligned to global targets, that their accommodation uses sustainable solutions, and that their experience providers leave a fair income in the local communities where they operate, and that booking platforms and airlines are transparent about the carbon emissions related to a traveler’s flight activity. This change in behavior and perspective makes urgent changes more possible than ever.      

What are the next ten or twenty years going to look like?   

To help answer these questions, last year, we revisited the topic of climate change and tourism’s sustainable future. We published a report that explicitly explored scenarios in which travel and tourism’s projected growth could be compatible with achieving the climate targets laid out in the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. We asked ourselves again, what will the future look like if we continue business as usual? If we strive to make change, what must be done to reach our targets?   

Our Envisioning Tourism in 2030 report was developed to help policymakers and the tourism industry understand what a global, thriving, decarbonizing tourism industry could look like by the end of this decade and through to 2050 when tourism, and every other human activity, must achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.    

Although this time around, our report is not a prediction, its a last chance.  

The objective of this report was not to prescribe in any detail the measures required to decarbonise the travel and tourism system and achieve global climate targets, but to provide a realistic assessment of what needs to be done and how it will change the shape of tourism.  The fact that we only found one future scenario that resembles business as usual in a decarbonising world – even with several pain points built-in – and that this is not the most desired route is simply the reality we face.      

Transportation emissions have become the main focus   

Our focus was primarily on the implications for destinations and the businesses that rely on them.  Within the decarbonization scenario, the shape of tourism shifts, and growth comes from different travel patterns. For instance, travelers will travel shorter distances, use more rail, car, coach, and ferry options, and stay longer in their holiday destinations.   

The initial findings highlighted that only one scenario is compatible with a growing visitor economy where emissions are reduced to Net Zero.  With global tourism set to double in size by 2050 from 2019 levels, current strategies will fail to meet goals to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050.  Instead, global policymakers and tourism organisations are urged to make significant investments and create incentives for the greenest forms of transport, limiting the most polluting.       

To achieve this scenario, key recommendations include:

  • More governments including international aviation emissions in their Paris Agreement plans;   
  • Tourist boards and travel companies targeting a greater proportion of short-haul customers and bringing net zero products to market;   
  • Governments investing in greener forms of transport and the travel industry adopting and promoting them   
  • Relying less on offsetting as a “sticking plaster” solution, focusing instead on decarbonisation;   
  • The need to consider equity and fairness, recognising that some destinations are more ready for the scenario than others; and   
  • Slowing the expected rapid growth in aviation, with limits on the number of long-haul flights.   

Taking action against climate change in the tourism industry requires a collective effort and a long-term commitment from all stakeholders.  Our Tourism 2023 report noted that transport and tourism were the sectors least well prepared for climate change, and our Envisioning 2030 report again exposes that this is still the case. Reminding ourselves of what we set out to do fifteen years ago reinforces that business as usual can’t continue, and we must follow through on actions set out to achieve our goal of net zero by 2050. The growth in awareness and investment over the last fifteen years has proven that the tourism industry can play a significant role in addressing climate change while continuing to offer enriching experiences that can benefit both the destination communities and the traveler. We believe that tourism has a future that delivers positive economic benefits while protecting and nurturing the environment. It is time to act.  

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