In The Big Chair – Justin Francis of Responsible Travel

Justin Francis, CEO

After completing a master’s degree in responsible tourism, Justin Francis founded Responsible Travel in 2001 with Harold Goodwin, his course tutor.

The online travel agency was one of the first to offer carbon offsetting in 2002, only to drop it 10 years ago, seeing it as a distraction to work on reducing carbon emissions.

Responsible Travel is a pioneer in sustainable travel. What did you see back in 2001 when the company was founded, that others were not seeing?

I came from a radical and pioneering ethical business (The Body Shop) working with a female entrepreneur (Anita Roddick) who wanted to the change the world through her business.

Making money wasn’t a dirty word for her, and she saw no reason to choose between profits and principles.

My only experience of the tourism industry was that I’d traveled a lot; mostly camping, hiking, kayaking and cycling through Africa. It was obvious to me that tourism’s product was other people’s culture, landscapes, traditions, foods, dance and nature.

This makes it different to almost any other industry on earth, and means that tourism can do more good, or create more damage, than most other sectors.

I quickly found that very few people in tourism saw it this way, and making some kind of intervention excited me. I’m a disruptor. I completed a masters in responsible tourism, and co-founded the business with the course tutor – Harold Goodwin.                    


Responsible Travel


Brighton, England


What is your view on the “Flyskam” movement?

Responsible Travel is founded on the concept of people taking responsibility for the impacts of their holidays, so I very much support the fly less agenda. We’ve been saying this on the site since 2009.

However, I don’t think that we will be successful in reducing aviation’s carbon emissions without system change. Flyskam should add, not distract, from that agenda.

Unlike almost any other fuel on earth, aviation fuel is untaxed, and customer taxes like air passenger duty do not make up the shortfall. This needs to be addressed, and the revenues raised ring fenced for R&D into renewably powered aviation. Short domestic flights should be banned, as should airport expansion.

Carbon offsets, which take years to work (if they even do) are no solution to our immediate need to reduce emissions. Only flying less will achieve that, and a fair tax on aviation fuel would deliver it.

We call it the green flying duty. Any pain we feel about a rise in the cost of flying will be less than that felt by a family underwater in Bangladesh.               

Apart from the “Greta Effect,” what else would you say is contributing to the drive towards more sustainable travel?

The overtourism crisis, with people on the streets of over-visited destinations protesting against tourism and tourists was a game-changer.

So too was the analysis done by the Travel Foundation and Megan Epler Wood revealing the true cost of hosting tourism in terms of social services, water, energy, waste, social disruption, etc. When the costs are set aside revenues then not every tourist is a profitable tourist.

I think the cruise sector’s unwillingness to engage with sustainability over many years has drawn a lot of criticism and attention.

Finally, our business has doubled over the past three years. Customers want a more authentic experience that makes them feel good about the impacts of their holiday in the destination. In the past six months I feel the industry is starting to get this.   

Does technology have a role to play in the research and distribution of sustainable travel?

I think all forms of tourism can be more sustainable, and all forms of tourism have their distribution and marketing platforms. So I hope to see the big distributors do the work needed to give their customers positive choices about responsible tourism.

We, as a dedicated distributor for more than 400 tour operators committed to responsible tourism, have been doing this for 19 years. I’d welcome some competition from the big guys, as long as it’s transparent, thorough and not greenwashing.          

From your experience, how should online travel companies be developing and offering sustainable travel going forward?

To be effective, I think sustainability needs to be linked to the vision and purpose of the company.

This is for the board of directors and shareholders.

Then some essential elements will be required; a method for screening holidays for sustainability and a way to be transparent about this; an exclusion list of things that can’t be sold; forms of content that help improve responsible tourism literacy and make customer choices easier; and ultimately a way to measure impacts and progress.

Carbon offsetting schemes seem to have become trendy, but how can travel companies ensure they have an impact?

We don’t support carbon offset schemes. We dropped them 10 years ago after being the first company in travel to offer them in 2002.

They are a fig leaf, often used to justify more carbon pollution. They remove any pressure from airlines to reduce their carbon emissions.

Offsets are much cheaper than the hard work in R&D to reduce emissions, and are a dangerous distraction from this task. EU research last year showed that 85% of the “gold standard” offsets schemes don’t work.

Finally, offsets work over time, often many years – there is little transparency over how many. We have just 10 years left to make massive carbon reductions, and every flight emits carbon instantly.     

Do you sense a real appetite from travel companies now to make a change when it comes to sustainable travel?

I sense massive interest from good people within most companies to make a change. However, they often find themselves trapped in organizations where shareholder profits trump every other consideration and are unable to effect as much change as they’d like.

Increasingly, investors see this type of shareholder-driven company as high risk. We are a stakeholder-driven business – profits are as important to us as the environment, staff, customers, local communities and conservation of natural and cultural heritage.

This is the “direction of travel” for business, with more than 100 leading global CEOs in the business roundtable seeking to redefine the purpose of business.

Businesses with this agenda are the future, and staff within them will find change much easier to make.     

We’ve seen brands such as TripAdvisor say they are enforcing policy around animal welfare in attractions, but what other measures can the large platforms put into place to improve their “sustainable” credentials?

I think I’ve tackled this one above.

Is government regulation, as opposed to self-regulation, an inevitability?

Tourism is one of the most lightly regulated industries on earth. It has been regarded as benign, more of a pastime than a serious industry. This will change.

We will see much more regulation in tourism destinations, especially around cruise, Airbnb, over-crowding and tourist behavior.

Carbon offsets, which take years to work (if they even do) are no solution to our immediate need to reduce emissions. Only flying less will achieve that, and a fair tax on aviation fuel would deliver it.

Justin Francis

Despite its effort to focus on carbon emissions I don’t see the aviation sector escaping further regulation. Other powerful industries and regulators are starting to question its tax breaks and lack of progress around carbon emission reductions.

I hope we’ll see more regulation, and better enforcement of existing regulation around accessible tourism. We’ll also see more taxation of tourists in destination – they are after all temporary residents who use public services (but unlike residents don’t pay for them).

Some might read all this as a bad thing. I think the good companies and destinations will thrive in this environment, and should welcome it. I should not need to say that in world of global heating none of us will thrive – international tourism will become a rapidly declining sector.     

Responsible travel has developed “a manifesto for the future of tourism,” can you share the key principles and explain why you think a “green flying duty” will be more successful than offsetting schemes?

The Committee for Climate Change, the U.K. government’s official climate adviser, recommends that we need to limit the demand for aviation until we get renewably-powered aviation (perhaps 2040 for domestic and 2050 for long haul).

The green flying duty, an increase in Air Passenger Duty [the U.K.’s consumer levy on flights] ring fenced for R&D into renewable aviation fuels serves two purposes – first to limit demand and secondly to massively increase our investment in a low carbon future.

We have 10 years left to reduce carbon sufficiently to avoid a 1.5 degree temperature increase. Carbon offsets “work” (many don’t) over a long period of time, and in the meantime permit the industry to emit ever larger amounts of carbon into the environment of a daily basis. It’s not a solution.         

If you could create and develop the company again, what would you change?

We change our company all the time. We are still beginners at sustainability and make mistakes all the time, but we correct them fast.

I talk with business leaders who are anxious that they might not get sustainability right, or who don’t want to talk about their initiatives until they are perfect. My advice is that you’ll never be perfect and to get on with talking about your imperfect initiatives. The only mistake is to pretend you are perfect rather than doing something and learning.  

What are the greatest challenges the company faces currently?

Carbon and biodiversity loss. I see these as two sides of the same coin. Healthy ecosystems are needed to absorb the carbon we create (natural carbon sequestration) and are vital to combat global heating. On the flip side, we can’t save biodiversity in a climate crisis.

We face other more normal business challenges, mostly in managing the growth of our business. Life is more complicated as we are a business and campaigners. I think we’ll see much more of this. Businesses with no opinion on social and environmental issues will lose currency.       

Project forward five years, where will the industry be in terms of sustainable travel?

There are lot’s of clues above!   

And, a few questions about you… if you weren’t doing this what industry would you like to be part of and why?

I made a very conscious choice in my early 30’s to create a business and career that I wanted for myself, and that I thought would be relevant and needed in 50 years rather than five or 10. So, I’m in the industry I want to be in. I find it rewarding, challenging, even a calling.

However at times life as an artist, ecologist, writer or adventurer is appealing. I can feel a New Year’s resolution coming on to build some of this into 2020!          

How sustainable would you say you are/your life is outside of work?

I try my best, but could do better. I try to go forward step by step rather than beat myself up about this. I travel by train to/from work and drive maybe once a fortnight. I eat a mostly planted based diet.

We’ve reduced our food waste recently. Having just completed a carbon audit of some of our holidays (across food, transport, accommodation) I’ve realized just how important food is in terms of carbon emissions. 

Our house could be better insulated and I need to work harder at reducing plastics.

I rarely fly for work, and when I do fly I choose a very responsible holiday! A lot of my life is spent working towards a more sustainable future, both with Responsible Travel and the U.K. Government’s Council for Sustainable Business.

More from our In The Big Chair series

PhocusWire talks to leaders across the digital travel landscape.


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