Is sustainable tourism a zero-sum game?

Words By Kosta Lucas
Date Published June 15, 2021
Available on All Major Podcast Platforms

Is it actually possible to make travel and tourism more economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable at the same time? On this episode of Undesign, we unpack travel and tourism with Edmund Morris. Edmund is a well-travelled and experienced international economic development professional, currently Founder at Equator Analytics and formerly an economist with USAID.

Your Host
Kosta Lucas

Head of Community Practice, DrawHistory

Edmund Morris

Founder, Equator Analytics

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Transcript: Introduction


KOSTA: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host Kosta.

Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures.

I know firsthand that we can all bring something to these big challenges, so listen in and see where you fit in the solution as we go on to undesign tourism and travel.

While we can see how COVID-19 has not been the great equalizer that some thought it would be, there is some aspect that we’ve all been affected by, which is travel and tourism. As a result of the world’s nations closing their borders to each other in order to contain and control the virus, many of us have ourselves or know people who are now unable to be with loved ones to celebrate or to mourn loss together.

We are also really seeing the tangible impacts of our own collective behavior as well. Countries like China and India’s nitrogen dioxide emissions have decreased, and that’s as a result of burning less fossil fuels. Venice’s waters started to look cleaner due to the reduction in traffic in their canals.

Are these changes evidence of a world that is finally healing itself from our overconsumption? While these environmental gains should be celebrated, though, there’s a big shadow of a question that looms — is sustainable travel and tourism a zero sum game?

Broadly defined as the economic, environmental, and cultural impacts of travel, now and into the future, it feels like whatever change you make in one of these aspects, there are unintended consequences on other aspects. So, for example, if we stopped travel altogether, we adversely affect many millions of jobs in tourism-dependent economies. If destinations promote their sustainability practices, research shows that this actually stimulates more revenue and tourism. But what’s the threshold of tourism before it becomes too much and actually undermines its own sustainable objectives?

Joining us for today’s episode of Undesign is Edmund Morris. Ed is a former economist with USAID and now CEO of Equator Analytics, a data-driven analytics firm focused on this question of sustainable travel and tourism, which is now more relevant than ever.
Ed really is the best tour guide you could ask for in this conversation. He’s at once a source of knowledge about the travel and tourism industry, and a natural comedian full of anecdotes and weird metaphors to wrap your head around.

And much like a world tour, Ed and I make a lot of stops in today’s chat. We talk about the history of tourism and travel, the paradox inherent in being sustainable in our efforts, and perhaps most surprisingly, we talk about the social value of travel. All of this leads us to set a new challenge for ourselves — how can we as everyday travelers rewrite our own relationship with travel?

Some of the research my team did at Equator Analytics was, we looked at how many people are in the sky at any given time. If the sky was a city in the United States, last year in 2019, there will have been around 2 million people up in the air at any given time, which makes the sky one of America’s largest cities.

Transcript: Conversation


KOSTA: Ed, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re here to talk about travel and tourism, and particularly sustainable travel and tourism. Just as a starting point, how would you define those concepts?

EDMUND: I think you captured it pretty well in your introduction. We generally refer to sustainable travel and tourism as being comprised of three components or elements. One of them is economic, the other is environmental, and the third is social or cultural. Those are going to capture the major elements of what we construe and what the industry uses as “sustainable tourism” today.

KOSTA: How long has it been a thing? It feels recent, but I don’t know.

EDMUND: Yeah, not not long. Relative to the history of travel and tourism, not long at all. As humans, we’ve been traveling for millennia. But tourism as we know it today, and travel and tourism as an industry, only really emerged in the modern sense in the 18th century. What we would call modern travel, or contemporary travel, began really in the 1940s and 50s, after the Second World War. The idea of sustainability within this sector, probably only around 20 years [ago].

KOSTA: You’re saying that tourism and travel, as we’ve understood it in the modern context, has not even hit 200 years? It’s probably just under 200 years?

EDMUND: It’s probably just passing the 200 year mark. Thomas Cook was the first travel agent, back in the early 1800s, who started traveling with people, I think, primarily to deal with abstinence from alcohol. So the first travel agent — I might be wrong about this, but I think it was getting people to try and quit drinking —

KOSTA: Through travel?

EDMUND: Yeah. Through taking people around Birmingham and Loughborough and different parts of England. That is the first form of travel agents and tour operators. Then Thomas Cook started to expand their trips abroad and take people further afield — across Europe, to relive the Grand Tour, which was the “in thing” to do for nobility around the 18th century, but had never been organized as a professional experience by an operator. The industry is not brand new. It’s not like the tech industry.

KOSTA: Because, like you said, we’ve been traveling since we could document history and human movement. But what is it that characterizes modern travel and tourism? Where’s the line drawn? Why is it drawn in the 1800s?

EDMUND: I would guess, one of the ways we define modern travel and tourism is that it’s now becoming commercially organized. So it wasn’t just done for the sake of a necessity or for the extraordinarily rich. In the Roman period, it would have been nobility. Through much of the Middle Ages, you had Crusades or conquest or pilgrimage. So there were fundamental life reasons for travel, rightly or wrongly.

But around the 18th and 19th century, you began to see it become commercially organized, where people were making money off of working within the travel and tourism industry. As the Industrial Revolution kicks in, we start hopping on trains, getting into cars. We start finding transportation across longer distances much easier, much cheaper, and it becomes more and more accessible.

But it isn’t really until the “jetset age” in the 1950s, at the end of the Second World War, where we start to see travel becoming more accessible. It’s still not particularly accessible. In the 1950s, an airline ticket, a short flight across the US, would have cost a secretary her entire month’s wages, just one way. Flight was still really expensive in the 1950s. It’s called the Golden Age of Travel, but in reality, it was much more dangerous. Smoking on the plane was —

KOSTA: Yeah, smoking on a plane!

EDMUND: Sounds, maybe, kind of cool. But in reality, it was much more turbulent, flights were pretty unpleasant. You weren’t sure when you’re gonna be taking off. It wasn’t a great time to be flying, although I think you were treated a little less like cattle than you are today.

KOSTA: Interesting, yeah. I guess it sounds like one of those concepts that gets romanticized with hindsight — the Golden Age of anything, the halcyon days. It’s like, you could do more on planes. But, actually, do you remember how tumultuous and —

EDMUND: Turbulent.

KOSTA: — turbulent, literally, the journey was back then? That’s interesting.

So we’ve got that age that kicks off in the ’50s. I’m noticing two things there: modern travel is characterized by not necessarily just traveling out of necessity, but this idea of traveling and visiting for leisure; and being able to do so in shorter periods of time because of technology. Obviously, technology has had a big impact in that.

But it’s interesting that, even with a 50-year lifespan from then to where we are now (or 50-plus years), we’re already talking about sustainable travel. So where did this idea come from? My feeling is that, if we’re talking about it, then we’ve noticed the adverse impacts of it.

EDMUND: Yeah, travel exploded pretty quickly. Its rise has been meteoric. What we’ve seen is that, back in the 1950s, you had around 20 million total arrivals around the world. So 20 million people —

KOSTA: Total arrivals… okay.

EDMUND: We’ll start again. In the 1950s, there were around 20 million tourist arrivals in a given year. Now, what we had in the end of 2019 was 1.4 billion in a year. That’s a staggering acceleration.

To put that into some form of perspective — if every person is a second, it’s the difference between 280 days and 44 years.

So there was this huge growth in the interest in travel and tourism. That’s primarily because people are wealthier than they were 70 years ago. Flights became cheaper, infrastructures improved. It’s easier to get around than it ever has been in the history of the world, so people are traveling a lot more.

As a result of that, over the last decade in particular, we’ve begun to see the strains of growth kick in. We are no longer managing the numbers and the volume of people that we used to be able to, because there were less of them. You probably noticed that airports got busier in the last 20 years. That when you go to a tourist destination that you think is off the beaten path, there are still hundreds of people there, tens of thousands of Instagram photos of it.

You’re rarely the first person to visit a place, or you rarely feel like you have the entire place to yourself. That is because there are simply so many people traveling. There’s so much more congestion, and we haven’t done a great job, as the travel and tourism industry, of actually preparing ourselves for the masses as they take to the skies.

Some of the research my team did at Equator Analytics was, we looked at how many people are in the sky at any given time. If the sky was a city in the United States, last year in 2019, there will have been around 2 million people up in the air at any given time, which makes the sky one of America’s largest cities.

KOSTA: Oh my gosh.

EDMUND: So there are a huge number of people, or there were pre-COVID, up in the air at any given point. That, I think, is indicative of how difficult that is to manage. That’s thousands of planes simultaneously crossing paths.

KOSTA: “If the sky was a city” sounds like the title of a poetry anthology or something.

EDMUND: Yeah, or a pretty terrible rock band album.

KOSTA: [laughs] But that’s a really staggering thought — to think about 2 million people in the air at any given time. Have I understood that correctly? Before COVID?

EDMUND: Yeah, before COVID. Now it’s plummeted.

KOSTA: What does that look like, right at this moment, or in the last year? What does that number look like?

EDMUND: You’re seeing flights to countries, for those who are doing it…. like, how many arrivals are we seeing drop? We’re seeing, in most places, between a 80 to 90% drop in arrivals.


EDMUND: Which was the UN WTO’s (United Nations World Tourism Organization) worst prediction. When they released their first models back in April, their worst case scenario for them was an 80% collapse of travel and tourism. We’ve seen worse than that now.

We’re almost living the worst case scenario, with international borders shut, people not flying. The entire travel and tourism industry almost came to a standstill. But ironically, just a few months before COVID hit, the entire industry was talking about the crisis of there being too many people, that we’re not being sustainable. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other.

I think, post-COVID, we’re going to see a relatively slow recovery. There’s going to be latent demand, but it’s still going to be three or four years before we’re getting back to 2019 levels. But the question is, do we really want to go back to 2019? Is that the pinnacle?

KOSTA: It sounds like that’s a theme throughout the pandemic, where we are used to a certain standard, which is quite demanding on resources, or on people, or on systems. And with COVID enforcing this pause, it’s now given us time to reflect and be like, “Were we living at a level or rate or just a rhythm that was too much to begin with?” With this enforced pause on a lot of things, we’re actually seeing some pretty adverse impacts, but we’re also seeing some other encouraging impacts, right?


KOSTA: There have been numerous instances of the environment starting to heal itself at the moment, and less concern about monuments being destroyed, and things like that. It seems like this is a pretty delicate balance to strike, right?

EDMUND: Yeah, and I can actually make this more complicated. While we have seen marginal improvements in some ecosystems — the one that’s cited quite a lot is the waterways in Venice got better, or that you’re seeing more wild animals in cities suddenly appear. Now, that’s true.

But travel and tourism funds, hundreds of millions of dollars worth or billions of dollars worth of conservation efforts around the world… Without revenues secured from the travel and tourism industry in Kenya, for instance, in the land of the Masai Mara, where you see some of the world’s largest nature reserves — without the funds secured from that, who pays the landowners? And then how do we make sure those landowners don’t appropriate the land for other purposes? They need to make their money too, so maybe they’ll go into farming.

So you might end up, if travel and tourism stalls for too long, with an increase in poaching, an increase in attacks on wildlife —

KOSTA: Oh, sure, I didn’t even think about that.

EDMUND: — on the exploitation of land. If land isn’t being used for tourists, or for conservation, or for wildlife, the question is, what should we use it for? If you’re the government of Kenya and you need to create jobs for your people, the question then begs, what should we do with our land? If there are no tourists coming, we need to do something with it. So we’ll farm it. We’ll exploit it for mining.

And that isn’t just true of Kenya. This is true of Australia. It’s true of the United Kingdom, of the US. You saw Donald Trump’s administration basically sanction the exploitation of Alaska’s natural resources, for the sake of mining, for very short-term gains. Tourism is one of the barriers for the prevention, or helps prevent the exploitation of some resources.

It’s not as clear cut as, the environment’s better because we’re not traveling to places. That may be true in terms of air quality and potentially water consumption, but there were some pretty significant downsides as well.

KOSTA: Interesting. Even though we experienced border closures at different rates, the net impact of that obviously has resulted in less travel. But I imagine, while there’s a collective impact, some economies and nations have been way more affected than others.

EDMUND: Yeah, massively.

KOSTA: So can you speak to that at all?

EDMUND: Yeah, sure. If you take a country like Maldives… Maldives, about 30 years ago, was considered to be a least developed country by the World Bank. That was their classification, and that means they’re among the poorest countries in the world. There were, I think, 28 of them or around the early 30s.

The Maldives decides to move heavily into tourism, and it builds its entire economic system on the revenue generated through tourists. It establishes these stunning islands, these turquoise waters, these beautiful corals, these wonderful hotel resorts, where high-end paying tourists fly in, stay in the resorts, and fly out. That becomes around 70% of their GDP. Without those tourists, the Maldivian economy has collapsed by 70%.

That’s just one example of the islands. But the island nations (Bahamas, Aruba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica), these are all dependent on tourism, because they are very attractive destinations for tourists to go. They’ve built certain tourism models that depend on a volume, a certain number of tourists visiting, in order to generate revenue.

The crisis of COVID is huge on many destinations. And sadly, it is some of the poorest destinations that are going to be hit hardest by it as well.

Yes, France is the most traveled-to destination in the world — they get about 80 million visitors a year. But that doesn’t comprise the majority of the French economy. They can depend on other sectors to offset their losses in travel and tourism. The government can do support programs and financial assistance initiatives to help the tourism companies in France, just as you can do that in Australia.

But you cannot do that in countries like Jordan and Tunisia, or South Africa potentially, or some of the other poor countries like Fiji. It’s much harder for them to give the financial assistance to compensate.

KOSTA: Is that because of the resources they have at their disposal to do things like that?

EDMUND: Yeah, it’s just that they simply aren’t generating a significant enough GDP to be able to give the assistance to their people, to the local businesses. This is a crisis of a magnitude we’ve never seen in the travel and tourism industry before. But it isn’t that, once COVID is over, everything’s going to go back to normal.

KOSTA: Yeah. What’s the balance we should be aiming for, do you think?

I guess the question I should have asked earlier was, how do you even measure sustainability of travel at that global level? We touched on these ideas that there are environmental, economic, and cultural dimensions. What are the indicators of each of those aspects?

EDMUND: Yeah, this is probably one of the most difficult questions in travel and tourism at the moment, which is, we don’t really know. The industry has built sustainability indicators for destinations. Those are ISO 37123, I think. But we don’t have a very clear mandate for different cities, different tourism entities, for how to be a sustainable entity. The Marriott Group don’t have a checklist of what it is to be perfectly sustainable.

One of the reasons we don’t know that is because we don’t measure a lot of the key aspects of sustainability. Perth, Australia, where we are now — they aren’t measuring water consumption per tourist. They’re not measuring the value of their natural heritage sites. They might know that they exist, they might know that there are water consumption issues related to travel and tourism, but they’re not quantifying it or measuring it on a regular basis; which means when we see changes in the number of arrivals or the number of tourists, it’s very hard to see how that impacts the environmental aspect or the social aspect.

One of the things we did at Equator Analytics recently was to make this point. We look at a sample of 500 indicators from around the world, measured by ministries of tourism. And we essentially categorize them by economic, environmental, and cultural, to determine what we’re measuring globally and what matters to us as a travel and tourism industry worldwide. We found that 94% of all measures in travel and tourism are economic and financial.

KOSTA: Oh, wow.

EDMUND: That just goes to show that most measures have been designed by and for economists, not for the purpose of sustainability monitoring or for making the necessary changes. I think that is going to be the future of travel and tourism, moving over the next few years.

Are we going to go back to the same system of 2019, where we’re growth-oriented, and primarily interested in financial and economic gains? Or are we going to be investing in the systems development and, frankly, the difficult work of actually measuring, as you said, where the balance lies between the benefits secured by tourism development against the costs of the very development?

KOSTA: Yeah. Is it fair to say that perhaps we’re in the position we’re in at the moment, in travel and tourism, for that very reason you outlined — that the indicators of success, for lack of a better word, or growth have been purely economic? Especially if we’re supposedly operating in a free market economy kind of global paradigm, you just go until consumption [reaches] saturation point. There’s no limit. Are there other ways to measure or show value?

EDMUND: Yeah, no, we don’t really think. I mean, even as travelers, when you go on holiday, you’re not really thinking about your social, economic, or environmental impacts. It just doesn’t really occur to you when you’re hopping on a plane, “Hey, look, my carbon footprint just went up by 15 times”.

A flight from Perth to London, which is I think the longest flight you can do in the world or was until recently, was the entire carbon allocation for that person in a year. So you’ve used up all of your carbon emissions in one plane.

KOSTA: For that year, per person.

EDMUND: For that year, per person. And that’s an economy class ticket, by the way. That’s not a business class ticket. If you fly business class, you’re using four times as much.

KOSTA: Oh my God.

EDMUND: If you fly first class, I think it’s something like 16 times as much. If you’re flying private planes, it’s 32 times as much. You start to get a sense, when you start to break these numbers down, of how much flight can impact the environment.

But you’re also not really conscious of how our eating habits change. There’s an expression we use a lot in travel and tourism, which is “when in Rome”. What’s ironic about that expression, is that it comes from St. Augustine, from the fourth century. Presumably in Latin, not in English. [laughs] But he said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

KOSTA: I feel like it sounds a lot nicer in Latin.

EDMUND: It would have sounded great in Latin. I’m sure his fans were impressed.

He said that, and the idea was, you should follow the conventions of where you are, almost as a form of respect, to kind of fit in. That’s great travel advice. He’s a saint on the one hand, and he’s giving tour guide advice on the other.

He says that. And for some reason, in the twentieth century, we’ve decided to distort that phrase to mean, eat as much as you want. Commit gluttony and hedonism. Be the worst you can be. Don’t excuse yourself.

KOSTA: Be unintentional, in some ways.

EDMUND: Yeah. So when you’re at a restaurant and the server says, would you want dessert? Oh, when in Rome.

KOSTA: That doesn’t mean what it used to.

EDMUND: Augustine didn’t mean you could have a creme brulee. He meant that you should be respectful of the community conventions and norms of where you are.

That is a fairly decent anecdote for how our mindsets are when we go on holiday. And it’s indicative of the media around travel and tourism.

When you go on Instagram, most of what you’re seeing are filtered images of perfection, when it comes to travel and tourism. These people in baths of flowers that are perfectly set up. (And I don’t know why that is a thing, but apparently it is.) And you just get this image of “Oh, that’s exactly what Santorini must look like. There’s no one there, right?” Of course not! Because they’ve all been edited and photoshopped out.

Even just a couple of years ago, I was hiking in Cinque Terre in Italy, which is near where I grew up, and it’s so full of tourists. The guy in front of me on the hike, who I was staring at the back of the entire time because it was so crowded, said “You know, they don’t show you this in the guidebooks. They don’t tell you how crowded it’s going to be.” No, they don’t!

KOSTA: They wouldn’t.

EDMUND: Because we don’t criticize that much about travel and tourism. If you go to the nearby bookshop and ask “Can I see all your books on travel and tourism?”, I challenge you to find a book that really takes apart the industry and says, “Here are all the things that are wrong, and this destination here has all these problems with it.”

We don’t do that very much. The whole journalistic side of it is problematic. But it’s also that we don’t really want to think of travel and tourism as being like Big Pharma or Big Oil.

KOSTA: We need a Big Travel to rally against, right?

EDMUND: We don’t target it, because it’s escapism. It’s a holiday.

KOSTA: I was going to say, I would put forward that there is a tremendous social value that travel has, even just with people and with the relationships that we have. As you were alluding to before, travel photos and stuff, they have a lot of social currency with people, to portray your life in a certain way.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people’s Instagrams, that I’m friends with, their travel photos will normally be of something we’ve seen before. Just kind of as a stamp, a timestamp that says, “I was here at this time”. Or of a really empty natural space — this idea of “I found something that no one else has found.”

EDMUND: Yeah, it’s that kind of pursuit of authenticity and uniqueness. “Hey, look at me. I’m doing something no one’s [doing].” Ironically, if you actually scraped together all the Instagram photos of almost every destination in the world, they all look alike.

So now we know that those images of people’s knees in the bottom of a photo —

KOSTA: Oh, like a hot dog or legs?

EDMUND: Yeah, hot dog legs, that’s the one. And like people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or people putting their fingertip on the Eiffel Towers’ needle. These types of images are so cliched, and we still keep seeing them.

Travel and tourism — as wonderful as it is, and as fantastic as it is for economies, or for society, or for cultural understanding and mutual respect among different cultures and areas of the world — it has a very, very detrimental impact and a huge burden that comes with it for the communities that live there.

There’s a town in Austria that, I think, has around 300 residents. They receive around 40,000 tourists a year, solely because they look like the town from the film Frozen from Disney. Even though the town in Frozen is supposed to be modeled on Norway, this town in Austria gets 40,000 tourists just bussing in constantly.

They come in, they take photos, and they leave. They’re not spending money in the restaurants. They’re not staying overnight. They just get off the bus, take photos, get back on the bus, and leave. That creates huge traffic jams. The infrastructure, like the toilets that you have to build to manage these guests and these tourists… Now the residents are under pressure to serve these tourists.

In Venice, in Barcelona, you’re seeing residents and artisans who’ve been living there for decades or centuries pushed out, because cafes, souvenir stores, and Airbnbs and short-term rentals are pushing up the prices of rent. They can no longer afford to be artisans and Venetians in Venice, doing what they do. The rent’s going up so much that [they say], “Okay, I’m going to have to move and set up my leather craft-working store or my painting studio elsewhere, outside of the city, so that this can be turned into an Airbnb or into a restaurant or cafe.” We’re seeing fundamental distortions, economically, within communities as well, that make it very, very difficult to mitigate against.

That comes back to what we’re measuring. We don’t know some of these things are happening. It’s that kind of problem of, we don’t know what we don’t know in travel and tourism. And there’s a lot of that going on.

KOSTA: There’s a lot that we don’t know. If we were to try and go to 2019 levels, what does the future of travel look like from that starting point without intervention?

EDMUND: Let’s assume COVID never happened. Where we were (coming into 2019, starting in 2020) was a continued promise of growth.

It’s worth noting. We mentioned over-tourism and crowding and congestion earlier. Yeah, these were problems, but much of the industry wasn’t really doing that much about it.

I think the epitome of this is removing plastic straws from hotels. A lot of the hotel groups said, “Oh my God, we removed plastic straws. Aren’t we great?” Yeah, I mean, thank God, we’ve fixed sustainability and environmental climate change, because you’ve removed plastic straws from your supply chains. It is not a solution.

As of 2020, we’re still not investing in the kind of systems change that we need to be. Even the world’s leading tourism destinations aren’t doing enough, not even close to enough, on addressing the environmental, the social, and the economic impacts of travel and tourism.

We’re not really making the changes up until 2019. We’re talking about it. We’re saying it’s important to do. But you’re not really seeing massive investment move in the right areas, in the right direction.

A lot of the world’s leading institutions, and a good example would be the UN WTO, stated that there’s no such thing as over-tourism. It’s just bad management. That implies that you can manage your way out of growth — that growth, unchecked, unrelenting, can always be managed. And I don’t think that’s true.

A very, very clear case of where growth is taking us is if you look at something like the Mona Lisa. It’s the most famous painting in the world, in the most famous museum in the world, in the most famous city and most visited country in the world. The Mona Lisa is the epitome of travel and tourism.

KOSTA: It’s like a flashpoint of just seas of people.

EDMUND: Yeah, right. The Louvre, in 2019, got 10 million people. 80% of them, according to a study by the Louvre, visit because they want to see the Mona Lisa. So that’s 8 million people you have to get into the museum to see the painting.

The painting is pretty small, right? If you’ve ever seen the Mona Lisa, it’s like one of the first reactions people give is, “Oh, it’s smaller than I thought it would be.” And you can’t get particularly close to it because there’s a huge glass panel, then there’s a one-meter barrier, then two-meter barrier. So you’re pretty far away. And you can only really fit 16-20 people around the Mona Lisa at any given time to see it.

How much time is there, therefore, for 20 people at any given moment to see the Mona Lisa? Well, 40 seconds. That’s how much time 20 people get to look at the Mona Lisa. If you want to go to 40 people, then you might get a minute. But when there’s 40 people in front of you, looking at a painting that small, you’re going to be underwhelmed.

That’s why, in 2019, the British population (and I think it was a survey by EasyJet, bizarrely) said that the Mona Lisa was the world’s most disappointing attraction. How does Leonardo da Vinci, the genesis of modern portraiture, become voted the most disappointing attraction in the world? That surpasses a boy urinating in Brussels — that statue of the little kid urinating in Brussels. How is the Mona Lisa worse than that kid?

It’s shocking to me how we can assume that management of that problem is going to fix it. Because the Mona Lisa and the Louvre Museum, they can’t do anything about 8 million people wanting to see it. There’s only so much space and time in a day.

KOSTA: And also the size of the Mona Lisa, the actual painting itself. You can’t make it more than what it is. It’s done.

EDMUND: No, you can’t. Another example would be Everest, right? In 2019, on May 23, there was a photo taken by a Nepalese mountaineer called Nirmal Purja. (I butchered his name, I’m sure.) He took a photograph of 300 people queuing for the summit of Everest in the Death Zone.

The Death Zone in Everest is essentially the top percentile of the summit, where the oxygen is so thin, the cells in your body are literally dying. It is the most dangerous place to be on Everest.

KOSTA: And there were 300 people waiting?

EDMUND: And there were 300 people queuing in the Death Zone. By the way, it gets its name because it’s where people die. And if you do die in the Death Zone, you typically aren’t going to be brought back down.

KOSTA: That’s right. Isn’t it weird, there are a lot of bodies? There’s markers, like “green jacket person” or whatever.

EDMUND: Yeah. Tragically, you have these awful deaths. And you can’t tell these hikers, “Why not summit K2 or Montblanc or go somewhere else like Kilimanjaro?” because they’re not interested in summiting the second-largest or the fifth or the 83rd-largest summit in the world. They want to summit Everest.

It’s very difficult to manage that process, because you can’t submit Everest in the middle of winter. It’s too dangerous. There’s a small window in which the weather, the climate conditions, are good enough to get to the top. On that day that Nirmal Purja did it, it was the perfect conditions, so everyone went to summit at the same time. That year, some of these people had been waiting weeks to summit Everest, to get that one day where they could do it.

As we’re going to see climate change kick in and natural disasters get worse, you’re going to have this convergence of crises. You’re going to have the unrelenting growth, this unstoppable force, meeting the immovable object of climate change. They’re going to smack into each other at extraordinary speed. And it will happen a lot sooner than we think.

As of 2019, we were not far from breaking point in many places. And I’ll add to this, we aren’t at peak travel, right? We’re not at this, “Well, most of the world is traveling right now.”

KOSTA: Right — “It’s only backwards from here”.

EDMUND: Yeah. According to Visa, 9% of the world’s population travel. Another way of looking at this — only, I think, 10% of the Chinese population hold a passport.

KOSTA: That is really hard to comprehend.

EDMUND: 4% of Indian people hold a passport.

KOSTA: The two biggest nations in the world.

EDMUND: They’re not traveling much at the moment. When they start to get access to more flights and cheaper travel, when the middle class of China and India start being able to access these places and start being able to afford to travel internationally, the industry is going to grow and grow and grow.

That is the problem — are destinations developing the sustainable systems they need in time for the pace of people to fly? With COVID, you can say, there is now this window. The question is, will we actually do anything about it?

KOSTA: On that note then, what do you see is a roadmap out? Is there a clear place to start?


KOSTA: Okay. [laughs] Look, that’s fine. I think it’s not an easy thing.

EDMUND: I’m biased. I work in data. My company works in data analytics in travel and tourism, so I would always start with measures. You need to understand the dynamics before you do anything about them.

We need to start measuring water consumption in five star hotels by guest. We need to start understanding food consumption on cruise ships. The local economic dynamics of visitor expenditure in communities — when you go on holiday, are you buying food from McDonald’s or are you going to a local restaurant? Is that local restaurant hiring foreigners or are they hiring locals?

And by foreigners, I don’t even just mean people from foreign countries. You might mean people from cities and towns nearby who are not local to that community. That can also cause animosity.

Are we including the social heritage of where we’re at? Here in Australia, are indigenous Aboriginal communities being engaged enough in the travel and tourism industry? Are they being celebrated enough? Obviously not.

KOSTA: Obviously not.

EDMUND: There’s a huge amount that needs to be done, but a lot of it just goes by the wayside because we’re busy making money in the travel and tourism industry. We’re busy enjoying our escapism. Who wants to get involved in the hard, difficult side of travel and tourism, when it is an escapism activity?

KOSTA: Right. That question around indigenous participation… It’s my way of asking, who benefits from the current system at the moment, considering we talk a lot about the economic value of travel? My sense is that the benefits of that are pretty unevenly distributed, right?

EDMUND: Yeah, we don’t really know.

KOSTA: Okay, because we’re not measuring it.

EDMUND: Yeah, we’re not measuring it. I think there’s a lot of anecdotal examples in the industry at the moment, of where both local communities and indigenous communities have benefited enormously from travel and tourism, because it does get money into areas where no other industry is going.

If you’re working out of rural communities in, let’s say, Jordan, for example, and you want to find economic activities to increase their livelihoods, their quality of life, help their children get access to education and health care — well, tourism is a fantastic way of getting money into a community while maintaining their way of life. You don’t have to come in and train them all in financial services or encoding, then move them to a major city so they can find employment elsewhere. Tourism can help celebrate a community exactly as it is, you know, that kind of ethereal pursuit of authenticity that we mentioned early. Instagrammers looking for —

KOSTA: Like the original idea of “when in Rome”, where you do more as the locals do. You adapt to your local context and nurture that rather than trying to introduce something new.

EDMUND: Exactly. Italy and France have done this very well, in almost celebrating the artisans of their countries. Whether they’re wine producers or cheese makers or cold cuts, you can go visit prosciutto factories in Italy. They do that very well.

They maintain their industry and their way of life, while also making that part of the tourism value chain, that touristic experience. That’s a fantastic way of doing it. And so tourism is great, that aspect of it.

But at the same time, you have huge hotel groups and huge cruise liners coming in and distorting those economies by essentially centralizing everything in one hotel or, in the case of a cruise ship or resort, all-you-can-eat buffets.

KOSTA: I didn’t even think of that.

EDMUND: Where are they getting that food from? Chances are, they’re not getting it from nearby farmers. They’re not getting it from artisans. They’re getting it from industrial producers, because of volume and economies of scale — getting the cheapest possible unit at the lowest possible cost, so that you can make more money off of that item.

When cruise ships stop in port in the Caribbean, for instance, typically (not always, but normally) they’re not loading up food from each port they visit.

KOSTA: From local producers in each port.

EDMUND: No, they get all their food from Miami. They put it on the ship, and they go all the way across the Caribbean. They eat all the food on the boat that was sourced from the United States, so the Bahamian community are not getting those benefits as much as they could be.

KOSTA: Everyone’s bringing their own lunch and dumping it in other people’s bins.

EDMUND: Exactly. The best way of looking at it is packed lunch. If you’re not spending, when you’re on holiday, in the communities or with locals, then they’re not getting the benefits of it.

And the same goes for taxation, as well. We have tourism taxes in almost every country in the world, whether that’s getting on and off a plane or visiting a museum. The question is, are the revenues generated from taxation by government going back into the communities whose job it is to preserve those sites?

One of the major problems of heritage and cultural preservation, for instance — money generated from major sites like Uluru, is it going back to the indigenous population for which Uluru is known? That’s a core part of the story.

KOSTA: And of their cultural identity.

EDMUND: Yeah, exactly. Is the story that has its value, receiving the value —

KOSTA: The benefit of its exploitation?

EDMUND: Exactly. There’s a lot to be done on all of these domains, worldwide. No country, as far as I can see, is doing enough in this domain.

KOSTA: Is there anyone doing something we can learn from at this stage?

EDMUND: Yeah, I think there are hundreds of amazing examples of where destinations are doing it right, where communities and towns have a great system in place or are building the right type of system.

Nearby, we’re seeing it in the island of Rottnest, for instance. It has a small community of quokkas. For those who don’t know what a quokka is, it’s a small marsupial. It’s like a cross between a beaver and a kangaroo that smiles a lot.

KOSTA: That’s a pretty good description. And yeah, they’re cute.

EDMUND: They are cute. Quokkas and the island — about 7-8 years ago, they had about 500,000 visitors. Today, or 2019, they were around 800,000. Just in a few years, they had grown massively.

KOSTA: Almost half by half.

EDMUND: Yeah. In anticipation of that massive growth — which even they didn’t predict would be that fast; it was that fast because of social media, primarily, and marketing — they had started to build sustainable sources of energy production that you can measure and monitor on your phone. Tourists going to Rottnest can download an app on energy, and see the consumption of energy and how much has been produced sustainably.

KOSTA: That’s amazing.

EDMUND: Yeah, so these are great models for how travelers can be more conscious of their environmental output. But you could do this for economics as well.

You can do this as a traveler, where you know that the people you’re traveling with, the tour operator you’re traveling with, are going to be investing the money that they get from the destination back into its community. Look for tour operators, for instance, if you’re a traveler, that are environmentally conscious, that are economically conscious, that are only using a local guide, will take you to local restaurants, that support their communities, or that hire locals, or that have some social enterprise element to them.

KOSTA: That was actually going to be my next question to bring us to the tail end. Until we can wait for the systems to get their ducks in a row, so to speak, what can we do as travelers to travel more thoughtfully?

So that’s one piece of advice, right? To actively look for these places.

EDMUND: Yeah, this is a good question, because it’s not easy to travel consciously.

There’s a movement called Flight Shame that’s growing in Europe, for instance, that points out that flying is terrible for the environment, and that we should have greater shame around flying. That is a movement with, I think, a good ultimate cause and purpose, which is the protection of the environment. But it also will have negative implications for countries that we talked about earlier (like the Maldives, and Bahamas, Bermuda) that depend on flights for people to come to visit their communities. If we stop flying, then those communities go without tourism, and then we have issues there.

It’s a difficult balance for conscious travelers to manage. What I would recommend is, don’t fly, for instance, if trains are manageable for you. Try and enjoy a slower journey.

There’s this whole movement called Slow Travel, for instance, that you can look into, where you’re going to a destination and the journey becomes much more of a part of it. Flying is a pretty awful experience.

KOSTA: I hate it.

EDMUND: I don’t think anyone really enjoys flying.

KOSTA: Even when it’s quick, I hate flying.

EDMUND: I think quick flights are almost the worst, because you have to spend longer in the airport going through security, etc, than you do in the air.

KOSTA: It’s actually the airport wait that makes me the most anxious, to be honest.

EDMUND: Oh, it’s awful. I think, after COVID, that is definitely something that’s going to get even worse. We’re going to have a lot more health checks, vaccination passports…

KOSTA: That’s right, yeah.

EDMUND: It’s gonna be more difficult. It might be that, in the future, you won’t be able to fly with a fever, that you will not be allowed to board a plane if you’re not feeling well.

KOSTA: So there are still all these impacts where you get to grapple with that? It’s still speculative at the moment.

EDMUND: To come back to the question of, what can travelers do to be more sustainable? Another thing is, review hotels, operators, and destinations for their environmental, social, and economic systems.

If you go to a hotel and they are handing out small plastic bottles of water, and they leave the air conditioning units on all day long, review them for that. Give them lower stars, and then make sure they know in their review that this is something that matters to you and matters to other travelers as well.


EDMUND: Because hotels live and die by reviews. It’s like on Amazon. If you find a product on Amazon at two stars, you’re not going to buy it. Or you’re probably not going to buy it. It’s the same with hotels. If a hotel gets a lot of bad reviews, they’re going to have to do something about that.

KOSTA: People in businesses pay for reviews for a reason, sometimes. It’s not a great practice, but we know that it exists, right? Obviously, they mean something. They carry a lot of value. So why not hit them where it matters, if it matters to you as a person.

EDMUND: You can also ask TripAdvisor,, the big review or booking agencies, to start including environmental filters. So, I only want to stay at a hotel that is energy efficient, and follows certain protocols, and follows guidelines set by international organizations.

KOSTA: That’s a really good point. Potentially, you could add a filter about that sort of cultural preservation aspect of it. Like, any visible engagement with local businesses or something like that. You’re trying to find hotels that source from local providers, have tour guides that take you to local destinations, and local restaurants and stuff like that.

EDMUND: Absolutely. Those are normally the better hotels and better experiences, as well.

KOSTA: Yeah, for sure.

EDMUND: If travel and tourism is ultimately the experience you’re seeking, and you want to benefit from being on holiday not so you can take an Instagram photo, but to actually engage with a local community, or to get in touch with a culture and heritage you didn’t know existed, or an ecosystem you aren’t familiar with, then what I would always recommend is — make sure you’re making choices based on operators and entities that are going to give you that experience, and then review them positively for it.

Give them the support that they need, because that’s going to encourage them to do better, and it’s going to encourage their competition to match their standards and ethics as well. There’s quite a lot of power you have as a traveler to do these types of things. But it’s not straightforward. It’s certainly not going to happen overnight.

KOSTA: Yeah. Just as a closing thought, what it sounds like for me (and I’m a bit biased, because I look a lot at social narratives) is that we do need to renegotiate what the value of travel is on a story level. What it means with social currency with others, or what it means to travel. How can we use the data, once we figure out what we’re actually measuring, to tell more stories of travel that encourage people to travel in a particular way, or to see travel in a different way? Do you think that’s a fair —

EDMUND: Yeah, and I think data is going to be critical here. We’re way behind in travel and tourism compared to other industries. We are very far behind.

KOSTA: We know enough to actually tell those stories, probably. I guess, to tell their stories properly. We know enough. We don’t need too much data. But you know, people are always wanting some sort of assurance.

I guess I come from a particular discipline where people want to see the real world reflected back in whatever story they’re consuming. I guess data is one way to do that. But you’re right. We can also just rely on people’s experience, and being authentic and credible about what they’re talking about.

EDMUND: I actually think we need a combination of both. You need the storytelling aspects, but you also need to validate what you’re doing. Destinations and governments need to know that certain systems are working and some aren’t, and we need to invest more in that.

KOSTA: Fantastic. Ed, we could talk forever about this topic, because it’s so immense. I really appreciate your time that you’ve given us to even get this far into it. For those that might want to find more of your work, where can they find you?

EDMUND: We’re at We’re on LinkedIn and Instagram. You can check it out. We put out articles every couple of weeks — deep dives into random aspects of travel and tourism.

KOSTA: And they look really nice as well.

EDMUND: Oh, thank you.

KOSTA: Yeah, I really liked them. Great, thank you so much for your time.

EDMUND: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

KOSTA: We’ll do this again.

EDMUND: Yeah, I hope so. Thank you.

KOSTA: You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at

Thank you to the talented Jimmy Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.

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