Growth in the travel industry is booming – but so is the need to reduce travel to meet environmental goals.

As I observe the business travel industry from the neutral perspective of an independent consultant, I cannot help but notice a glaring contradiction and an ensuing divergence of direction at the heart of it: a path of rapid post-pandemic growth pursued by suppliers versus the much more cautious route of those that advocate environmental targets.

Travel management companies, hotel chains and airlines declare that business travel is a burgeoning force for good and while corporate travel buyers instinctively know this to be true, for the sake of the planet, they also know we will have to do less of it in the future.

Few would dispute that business travel plays a critical role in today’s increasingly interconnected world, acting as a catalyst for innovation, cultural exchange and economic growth. It fosters relationships, generates trade, promotes cultural understanding and drives innovation. Business travel can shape a more prosperous and interconnected global economy.

American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once wrote: “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Of course, there is also a considerable economic benefit from travel both as a result of deals done and contracts signed, but also within the wider travel industry. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) tells us that for every 34 international visitors to a destination, one new job is created; women account for 54 per cent of global travel and tourism’s employment; and SMEs make up 80 per cent of the sector.

Development entrepreneur Lelei LeLaulu is quoted as saying: “I see tourism as the largest voluntary transfer of cash from the rich to the poor, the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’, in history.” As we move towards a more interconnected world, it is important that we recognise the enormous benefit that business travel has to both individuals and whole societies.

Tough choices

On the back of these largely legitimate claims, business travel continues to grow. The global business travel market was worth US$1 trillion in 2022 and is forecast in some quarters to reach US$1.5 trillion by 2028. Hotels are opening at record rates and airlines are rapidly surpassing their pre-pandemic capacities.

However, the urgency of environmental conservation is also becoming increasingly apparent to the business community as the effects of climate change continue to escalate. One significant area that has been the focus of companies’ attention in their effort to reduce carbon emissions has of course been business travel. Some have started to argue that business travel is a needless expense with the rise of video conferencing and communication technology providing travel-free ways to meet business goals, not to mention an unjustifiable burden on the environment.

The environmental impact of frequent business trips is undeniable and even the use of more sustainable travel options to make these trips may not be enough. Companies are increasingly asking themselves whether abstention is more appropriate in some cases than mere sustainability – just because a trip is being made by more environmentally friendly methods does not mean that it necessarily should be made at all – and whether it is a reduction in business travel altogether that is necessary to reach carbon neutrality, not just a reduction in air travel. Maybe taking a train to a meeting in Glasgow rather than a plane is not enough. Taking an electric vehicle to the airport rather than a diesel limo doesn’t necessarily make it OK.

It seems that a mismatch between supply and demand is emerging. One that will either result in an oversupply of capacity in the industry or a failure by companies to deliver on their carbon zero ambitions. Highlighting this advancing divergence between supplier ambition and buyer behaviour doesn’t win you many friends in the industry. The travel industry supply chain business models rely on growth, so contraction does not seem to be an option.

At the same time, most environmental experts and commentators recognise that while efforts to make travel more sustainable are to be encouraged and applauded, we will not reach net zero without some level of abstention on the part of frequent flyers. The great contradiction therefore is that while business travel might be a force for good, we will need to do less of it.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach