Is the green revolution an opportunity for UK tourism?

International tourism accounts for 5% of the world's CO₂, according to the United Nations, but even before the Covid-19 travel restrictions clipped wings, the industry was already seeing a rise in climate-conscious travellers.

Trip Advisor and Visit England now have green accreditation schemes so people can easily find sustainable accommodation and attractions, and the Michelin Guide has introduced a green star for environmentally friendly restaurants.

“Green tourism is on the radar now, particularly for the younger generation. Having good sustainability credentials helps to build customer goodwill, and it's a differentiator from the competition,” says Darren Ashworth, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

Could the UK’s hospitality industry capitalise from the rise of environment-conscious domestic tourism, and how might this demand be leveraged?

“For a start, there is an inherent greenness to holidaying in the UK because you don’t get on a plane,” says Rory Stracey, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

There's a feel-good factor that comes with green tourism; people do want to stay in sustainable hotels and eat sustainably.”

The image of holidaying in the UK is changing. While you can still find static caravan parks and sticks of rock, there is a growing demand for more quality accommodation, emphasising sustainability and locally sourced food.

And it’s not just the hotels and restaurants which are going green, there is an emphasis on sustainable tourist attractions and activities. Cornwall’s Eden Project was the trailblazer and continues to be. This year work has started on a geothermal energy project to heat the biomes and feed energy back into the National Grid. It's also planning to build an eco-hotel.

A new scheme in Cornwall is the Celsius Project which got planning permission in May. It will be built on a cleaned-up landfill and will be the world’s first geothermal rum distillery combining sustainable tourism with local produce.

Will the lack of guaranteed sunshine be a fly in the ointment for the UK’s tourism offer?

Perhaps. But bad weather can be turned to tourism’s advantage. Sports such as wind and kite surfing need blowy conditions, and there is a growing trend among hardier types for wild swimming all year round.

As well as sporting activities, Ashworth thinks culture can play a big part in the appeal of UK tourism.

It's about finding unique experiences and being immersed in the culture, and there is niche culture to explore all around the country. It’s about the authenticity of individual places, challenging the perceptions and playing to strengths by offering something new and unique,” he says.

It all comes down to how holidays in the UK are branded and marketed. Ashworth thinks linking eco-hotels or resorts with local culture is a missing piece of the UK tourism brand. “Think of Manchester’s music heritage and the industrial revolution, there is so much to explore, but combining that messaging with sustainable travel options needs more work,” he says. Home-grown tourism faces other challenges too; making it appealing all year round so it is economically and ecologically sustainable.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for UK eco-tourism is to ensure it doesn’t develop at the expense of local communities.

The demand to develop new quality accommodation in UK holiday destinations is high. This, combined with the advent of platforms like Airbnb, has pushed up house and land prices, making homes unaffordable for many locals.

As a result, local councils in popular beach towns such as St Ives have introduced restrictions on new build accommodation which is used as holiday accommodation.

Stracey says: “It’s a real challenge trying to sell in your development to a local community and drawing the link with the economic benefits of tourism spend.”

With a lot of travel restrictions still in place, this year will no doubt be a good one for home-grown tourism. However, longer-term, with the right product and right marketing, the UK’s tourism industry could capitalise on more environmentally conscious holidaymakers.

Hotels going green

There is a growing trend in tourist hotspots and the UK’s cities to build new hotels sustainably and run them with minimal environmental impact.

In Cornwall, eco-hotel The Scarlet was built to high sustainability standards. Materials were vetted for environmental impact and miles travelled to the site, pre-fabrication and concrete produced from waste clay were used. Research went into the local wildlife to make sure construction didn’t have an adverse effect.

“Locally sourced products and trades were used as much as possible for example, local artists were used for interior features,” says Ivy Acorda, Senior Associate at Trowers & Hamlins.

The hotel is operated with the same locally sourced, minimal waste and environmental impact philosophy.

The Pig Hotel chain, which operates across the south of England, goes one step further and grows its own fruit and veg for the ultimate in locally sourced.

UK city hotels are also going green. The Helmsley Group is planning a net-zero carbon emissions hotel in York. It will include solar panels, air-source heat pumps and a green wall. The hotel is being built on the site of a car park but will offer no car parking when it is complete.

Technology will increasingly play a big part in helping hotels minimise their environmental impact, from gathering data and monitoring waste and energy to smart hotel rooms, which turn everything off automatically when guests go out.

However, building new sustainably is only part of the challenge; there is a huge amount of existing hotel stock that doesn’t meet the same high sustainability standards. Pressure to invest in green refurbishment will grow as demand from eco-tourism grows as well as the need to meet the Government's environmental targets.

Planning plays a part in the green tourism agenda

Demand is the carrot for the tourism industry to be greener, but there is also a stick, the UK Government has a target of reaching net-zero by 2050.

“The Government can set policy which impacts how construction is carried out, and the types of materials used, and likewise local Government is starting to drive the sustainability agenda through planning policy,” Acorda.

Indeed, local councils are increasingly looking for development that minimises environmental impact and offers economic and social value.

For the latter, green tourism can be both a positive and negative. For example, hospitality which focuses on locally sourced products and produce, can boost local businesses, but the flip side can be rising residential values, which price local people out of the market and the dominance of low-paid, seasonal jobs.

Perhaps more palatable for UK tourism hotspots like the South West and East of England are glamping sites. While static caravans can be a permanent blot on the landscape, glamping facilities offer a more sustainable, temporary solution.

Glamping, a portmanteau of ‘glamourous’ and ‘camping’, involves semi-permanent tents, good facilities (your own loo, for example) and plenty of on-site activities.

Permitted development rights (PDR), which stipulates that land can be put to any use (with limitations) for 56 days of the year, has boosted glamping opportunities.

But with PDR there is a danger that giving free rein to land use ultimately risks destroying the beauty of the landscape, which is what attracted people to the area in the first place.

Ashworth, says: “There is a balance to be struck. Traditionally the planning system has been in place to ensure that any tourism growth proposals are considered in a measured way so that the environmental impacts are minimised.”


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