Ireland’s denial as flight-shaming clouds gather over tourism

Sector thinks it can grow unhindered but environmental concerns already having effect

About 43 per cent of aviation emissions come from the sort of narrow-body aircraft upon which most visitors to Ireland arrive. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

About 43 per cent of aviation emissions come from the sort of narrow-body aircraft upon which most visitors to Ireland arrive. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

As the most senior people in the Irish tourism industry gathered in Croke Park on Monday to discuss Fáilte Ireland’s plans for 2020, the elephant in the room was the c-word. Not in any profane sense: most industry figures don’t dislike the sector’s voice at cabinet quite as much as all that. Rather, the c-word in tourism is climate.

Just as most tourists – including yours truly – are in denial about the damage inflicted on the planet by travel, the Irish tourism industry may also be in denial about the threat posed to the industry’s projected growth by what the Swedes call flygskam, or flight shame fuelled by environmental concern. It is what drives the campaigner Greta Thurnberg to keep traversing the Atlantic Ocean in boats.

Ours is an island nation. If flight shame really does take off as a mode of consumer behaviour in coming years, how else are the bulk of US and European tourists meant to get here? They won’t all suddenly switch to the booze cruise from Holyhead.

The Irish tourism industry has had a mixed year, due mainly to Brexit effects and an increased Vat rate. The latest data shows the number of trips to the State is down 1.1 per cent, as revealed by Fáilte Ireland at its Croke Park gathering. But for the medium-to-long term, the industry’s neck still cranes upwards.

Under pressure from practitioners, the Government in recent months recalibrated its targets for the sector for 2025 after the previous targets were met seven years early. Leaving aside whatever they spent to get here, 9.5 million overseas tourists to the State spent €5.2 billion on holidays here last year. The Government’s revised target for 2025 is for 11.6 million overseas tourists to spend €6.5 billion on Irish holidays.

40 per cent growth

That will require the Irish tourism industry, including its flight capacity, to expand by about a quarter over the next six years. Paul Kelly, Fáilte Ireland’s chief executive, even spoke at the conference about data suggesting a 40 per cent growth in international tourism by 2030. The sector thinks it can grow, grow, grow unhindered.

In response to a query about whether this target-setting may soon collide with the realty of growing consumer flight shame, Kelly replied that the industry is “not seeing any significant mindset shift in that area”. He may be right, so far. But more flight shame appears to be in the post.

A recent, extensive study by UBS found that more than one-fifth of western travellers have already reduced their flying over the last 12 months – the year of flygskam – due to environmental concerns. The Swiss bank found that, if the trend continues, the airline industry’s projected growth in passenger numbers could be halved. If the extra number of people flying is cut in half, so will Ireland’s tourism targets.

Flygskammers might have you think otherwise, but overall, commercial aviation isn’t responsible for a huge share of global carbon emissions. It generates only about 2.5 per cent of all emissions, according to data from the International Council on Clean Transportation. That rises closer to 3 per cent in the European Union.

Flight shame fuelled by environmental concern is what drives the campaigner Greta Thurnberg to keep traversing the Atlantic Ocean in boats. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP/Getty Images
Flight shame fuelled by environmental concern is what drives the campaigner Greta Thurnberg to keep traversing the Atlantic Ocean in boats. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP/Getty Images

So even if we all went full Greta, quit flying and mothballed the airports, the planet would still produce 97.5 per cent of the carbon it currently belches out. The reason air travel is in the crosshairs of environmentalists is not the gross amount of its emissions. it is the stratospheric rate of growth. Aviation emissions account for only a small chunk of the total now. But that proportion will grow exponentially in coming years.

Contain climate change

Global aviation emissions have risen by a third over the last five years. It has been assumed they will triple by 2050. The ICCT researchers analysed the impact of about 40 million flights, and estimated that emissions are currently growing about 70 per cent faster than previously thought. Other researchers have predict that by 2050, air travel may account for a quarter of all permitted emissions, as the planet battles to contain climate change.

The notion of flight shame is not an idle fear. It is perfectly plausible to believe it could reach a tipping point in coming years.

From an Irish tourism point of view, the worst bit of the ICCT’s research is the emphasis on short-haul flights, which are the bread and butter of the sector here. Our next-door neighbours in Britain are close to 40 per cent of the Irish tourism market, while France and Germany are also major sources.

About 43 per cent of aviation emissions come from the sort of narrow-body aircraft upon which most visitors to Ireland arrive. A fifth of aviation emissions come from freight planes, and the rest is from long haul travel.

Proportionally, shorter flights are twice as bad for the environment as long haul flights. Expect any future green taxes or restrictions to be imposed on that basis.

Nine EU countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, and France, recently asked the European Commission to examine the possibility of an EU-wide aviation sin tax to reduce air travel and its damaging effects. The game is already on.

Ireland, as Kelly highlighted on Monday, is opposed to EU aviation taxes as it would harm “an island nation”. He believes the solution to aviation’s carbon problem lies in fuel efficiency. But even the most wild-eyed of scientists believe green flying is decades away.

In the meantime, the only way to dampen the effects will be to reduce aviation demand. Shame is a powerful emotional force. Consumers may decide to do it all by themselves, and the Irish tourism sector will feel the effects of that more than anybody.

Lottery bunfight shows no sign of abating

The ongoing bunfight between the National Lottery and the bet-on-lotto operators, whose customers bet on the lotto without buying an official ticket, shows no sign of abating.

Bet-on-lotto operators such as Lottoland have made headway in the Irish market over the last five years. This has prompted repeated bursts of competitive concern from the National Lottery, which the Canadian-backed Premier Lotteries Ireland (PLI) has the contract to operate until 2034.

Foreign-based bet-on-lotto groups have coalesced around an industry group, the European Lotto Betting Association (Elba), which has become their voice in the Irish market in the wake of slings and arrows from the local official operator.

Both sides have developed a speciality in penning stern letters about each other in national newspapers. This week, Elba went further with a critical report from DCU economist, Tony Foley, who argued that the National Lottery unduly benefits from unclaimed lottery prizes – €19 million in 2018. Under Irish rules, the operator is allowed to use unclaimed prizes to promote the lottery. In some other countries, such as the UK, unclaimed prizes must go to good causes.

The report suggests that National Lottery and PLI could get the benefit of €306 million in unclaimed prizes over the 20-year contract. It also criticises National Lottery’s “commercial strategy” and its record on digital sales, which stand at just 7.7 per cent of the total.

Elba claimed that these factors, combined, deprive Irish good causes of €43 million annually in lottery-enabled funding. National Lottery rejected the criticisms.

Critically for Elba, the report it commissioned also found that a ban on bet-on-lotto operators, which is desperately coveted by the National Lottery, would not help boost the funding for Irish good causes. What are the odds that the National Lottery will, at some point, come to the opposite conclusion?

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