‘Carbon offsets are not credible’: the travel boss exposing the truth about the industry’s sustainability

‘Carbon offsets are not credible’: the travel boss exposing the truth about the industry’s sustainability

Having dodged corporate jobs to find a way to keep travelling, Darrell Wade was, as he tells it, pretty pleased with life as his business took off. But the climate crisis wasn’t yet on his radar.

The Australian entrepreneur was on holiday in Botswana in 2005, fresh from winning an award for responsible travel, when he read The Weather Makers – a book by scientist Tim Flannery spelling out the causes and consequences of global heating. “I was feeling chuffed, and then I read that book. And I thought, holy shit, we’re a disaster – we’re doing the wrong thing.”

The co-founder and chair of Intrepid Travel – the world’s largest travel company to be accredited as a B Corporation for its social and environmental performance – Wade appears genial and self-deprecating, frequently laughing, but not pulling punches. Minutes earlier, he had told delegates attending the Abta convention, the UK travel industry’s annual get-together, that their record on climate was a clear “fail”, sparking a brief outbreak of self-flagellation in the conference hall in Bodrum, Turkey.

After spending years as an advocate for sustainability standards within the industry, Wade told them, he had found one in three travel firms were still “actively hostile” to policies aimed at reducing travel’s carbon footprint. Another third were ambivalent – and the better ones, well, they weren’t doing enough.

That includes his own company, he admits – even though Intrepid’s adventure travel holidays have been audited as climate neutral since 2010. “So in theory, we’re doing our bit, but, you know, the reality is, we weren’t doing enough.”

That carbon audit has, as Wade acknowledges, one very big caveat: Intrepid does not sell the flights that take its customers, mainly from the UK, US and Australia, to the starting point of their low-impact, sustainable tours. Is that not a bit like Heathrow proudly claiming to be net zero, if it wasn’t for all the pesky planes? “That’s right, it’s very similar,” he says. “Consumers want to take a holiday. Let’s say half of those holidays are taken with aviation – we’ve got to fix our industry.”

He believes there is a role for offsetting and, eventually, sustainable aviation fuels, when (or if) they are made on a large scale from green hydrogen. But, he says, travel has to move from relying on offsets to “definitely now reducing emissions per person per day”. “Offsets have to be credible,” he says. “And at the moment, they’re not. That’s the reality.”

There are good business incentives to go greener, Wade points out, not least cost savings in fuel bills. And despite there being no imminent answer to travel’s environmental footprint, he maintains: “You’ve just got to hold people’s feet to the fire, talk about it, [say] that hey, we do have a problem. And all the rhetoric in the world is not going to solve this problem. You need taxation, you need regulation, you need media pressure – you need litigation as a last resort.”

Wade co-founded Intrepid in Australia in 1989 after a brief foray into corporate life following university and travelling. He hoped to establish the kind of firm he wanted to actually travel with, but did not exist – something for the ex-backpacker who liked that way of seeing the world, but only had a few weeks’ annual leave from work.

After nearly quitting the startup for a paid job and bigger salary when a first child came along, he stuck at it, with eventually lucrative results. Wade stood back as chief executive in 2017 to enjoy more travelling time, but, with co-founder Geoff Manchester, still owns the majority of the firm (“I don’t know if I’m what you’d call fabulously rich, but I’m doing OK,” he admits.)

French investors Genairgy, co-owners of sports retailer Decathlon, bought a 30% stake in 2021. Intrepid took more than 145,000 people on tour in 112 countries in 2022, and is aiming to be a A$1bn (£520m) concern by 2030, with a 25% current rate of annual growth.

“The market seems to be coming our way,” Wade says, citing the convergence of “global megatrends” around sustainability, connection and experiences. “We’re in that sweet spot. We kind of grow despite ourselves – I don’t think we’re especially clever, we’re just in the right place.”

Wade differentiates Intrepid from other rivals now in this market, saying: “We really go in for cultural immersion, to fairly extreme lengths – to sometimes even rub the nose of our passengers in all aspects of the country, good or bad.”

The key practical difference is using less conventional accommodation and more public transport. “It just has that vitality to it. It’s not necessarily more comfortable – sometimes it’s just the opposite – but it’s interesting, it’s vital,” he says.

“I hate places like this,” he adds, meaning the all-inclusive resort hosting Abta’s convention. Wade is here, he says, at the cajoling of his wife (“the original communist”) to use the platform to call for change. “Because places like this – you never talk to people. If you don’t have that, then you’re missing one of the great rewards of travel, and that is that exchange of ideas.”

Overall, Wade says he feels no guilt about a role that promotes globetrotting travel, but he does have a sense of responsibility: “We’ve got a lot to answer for, particularly on the climate-change side. The flip side of that is that I think the industry has a lot to be proud about as well.

“Whilst we get down on ourselves, the travel industry does an incredible amount of good. I genuinely think it has probably lifted more people out of poverty than the international NGO sector has, just by the money we spend. So as much as, from an environmental perspective, I’d say we shouldn’t be getting in planes, there’s the other side of the coin, which is hugely beneficial. It’s that complex.”

CV

Age 62
Family Married with three adult children.
Education Degree in economics from Melbourne University.
Pay About A$200,000 (£105,000) – “but to be honest dividends is probably the main thing.”
Last holiday Travelling in countries around east Africa with his wife.
Best advice he’s been given From his father, just before he set up Intrepid: “Just give it a crack. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it.”
Biggest career mistake Selling part of the company to Tui before an eventual demerger – “We gave them a crapload of money, and kind of started again.”
Phrase he overuses “No dramas!”
How he relaxes Walking, and long hot baths.

Abta provided the Observer’s travel to its travel convention in Bodrum

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