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The world will reach an environmental tipping point by 2030 when the number of global travellers is forecast to reach 1.8 billion, according to Harvard Professor Jack Spengler.
Spengler, professor of public health and director of the Centre for Health and the Global Environment, told the WTTC Summit in Madrid: "We will be at a tipping point and that will mean huge climate disruption, sea level rise, acid sea water, coral reef destruction."
But he suggested tourism could be part of a solution, saying: "It is through tourism that people might begin to understand that their health and the health of their children depend on addressing this."
Darrell Wade, chief executive of PEAK Adventure Travel, told the Summit: "As an industry we don't take this anywhere near seriously enough. We have to face up to it.
"The WTTC is increasingly successful at portraying travel as a huge industry. The negative side of that is that we could become a big target for governments, NGOs and shareholder activists."
Seychelles minister of tourism and culture Alain St Ange said: "It is not just tourism, not someone holidaying for two weeks in the Seychelles, that is the problem. It is the development of massive cities.
"We totally depend on tourism. We are not responsible for the problem."
Spengler agreed: "The fault goes wider. Since the first Rio Conference [in 1992] we've learned the word sustainable. We measure how bad we are. We manage flows. But the earth's systems are not getting better. It is not making a big impact."
He said: "We are at the end of the beginning. The mountain we have to climb is steeper because we have wasted time."
Wade said: "I don't think we have started the journey at all."
But St Ange said: "Without tourism, poverty creeps in and that gives you another set of problems. It is not just tourism, it is all industries."
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