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Corendon CEO: ‘As long as the consumer wants it, and we are allowed to fly, we will go to the Mediterranean countries’

Evacuations of visitors will be increasingly necessary due to climate change, realizes Corendon CEO Steven van der Heijden. But how responsible is it to continue to bring people en masse to vacation spots that are increasingly unsafe? “If we stop, someone else will take over effortlessly.”

Willem Feenstra in Iva Venneman

Even before the conversation with Steven van der Heijden (63) has properly started, he talks about Venice, which is plagued by tourism. He bought a house there last year. Not ‘in one of those tourist districts’, but in just about the only part where Italians still live. Apartments will be built in the house. Also for friends. And a little rental.’

From himself: ‘Yes, then it will become even more touristy there because of me, but okay, we have completely restored a poorly maintained house and made it more sustainable.’

In addition, he also spends ‘at least five times as much money’ on a beautiful interior as an average landlord, who uses ‘Ikea ​​stuff from the cheapest category’. Ergo: the guests he attracts to Venice come from a segment ‘that the Venetians are really delighted with’.

Van der Heijden is not the man to avoid uncomfortable facts. He has been working in the travel industry for almost forty years, was a top man at TUI and chairman of the travel industry organization ANVR. He is now CEO of Corendon, the second biggest travel organization in the Netherlands. And still he rarely hides behind communication departments or protocols. He prefers to answer critical questions himself.

The reason for this conversation is also such an uncomfortable fact: the increasing number of wildfires in the Mediterranean, Corendon’s main destination. visitors who were dropped off by the travel organization at their hotel on the Greek holiday island of Rhodes last week had to flee the fire ten minutes later. Corendon, to the chagrin of Van der Heijden, came in for a lot of criticism.

In response to questions from this newspaper, you wrote an argument last week that seemed to contain emotion and irritation.

‘That had to do with the wording and the easy, straightforward way of thinking. Like: you have an economic interest in the visitors going there, just like the local population, and that is why you wait as long as possible before evacuating. That is such nonsense! Because this situation causes much more publicity damage. And for that island: of course they want to evacuate on time, a dead tourist is worse than an evacuated tourist.’

Your customers returned to Schiphol crying and traumatized 36 hours after they left the Netherlands. They blamed you very much.

‘I understand that emotion very well, especially when you ran to the beach between the flames and had to leave your suitcase behind. The Greek authorities do not exist for those people. They only see the travel organization and the local population. The population takes them in and is kind. And we let them down. Look, there’s no question we dropped them off in a disaster area. That’s why I’m so angry with those Greeks, they should have closed off that area much earlier.’

The people who dropped you off in that disaster area knew nothing about wildfires in Rhodes, even though they had been going on for a few days anyway. Should you have informed them in advance?

‘It is not the case that as an individual traveler you no longer have any obligation to inform yourself when you book a package holiday. Moreover: do you also offer them the choice not to go, or to book something else? And who pays for that?

‘Package holidays are relatively cheap because we fly with full planes. Because the hotels are full. Because of the efficiency of the process. Flexibility is at odds with this. So there are really only two flavors with us: either we carry out the trip as agreed, or we don’t.’

Isn’t it your responsibility to inform customers as best you can about the circumstances? At the moment, for example, a trip can be booked at Corendon over three weeks to a hotel on Rhodes that has partly burned down. But there is no mention of that on your site. Do you understand that it can give the impression that the circus has to keep going?

‘I get that. The hotel you mention is indeed a questionable case. Well found. But you can accuse us of a lot, we’re not going to make a trip to a burned down hotel. The fact that it can now be booked does not mean that we will actually do that trip.’

Drone photo of the village of Gennadi on the Greek island of Rhodes taken on July 27. The buildings suffered relatively little damage.Beeld DPA/picture alliance via Getty

Do these wildfires represent something bigger to you?

‘Let me put it this way: I’m not blind. Almost all scientists indicate that this is due to global warming. And that very high temperatures in the Mediterranean will lead to more wildfires. That is why I think, but that is not a promise, that we should actually have a kind of wildfire coordinator at Corendon. And that should apply to all major travel companies. They can then consult with each other in the event of a fire, but especially with our local representatives and authorities on site.’

You could also ask yourself the question: should we still be bringing visitors en masse to those areas?

Van der Heijden points outside, where it has been raining almost all day. ‘Amazingly enough,’ he says, ‘people find it a lot more pleasant to lie with a cocktail under a parasol by a swimming pool at 38 degrees, and to take a dip now and then, than to sit in this so-called Dutch summer.’ Fel: ‘As long as the consumer wants it, and we can fly there, we will go.’

For the fourth time in this interview, Van der Heijden himself asks the follow-up question, because he now knows what is to come.

‘Then why don’t you offer other destinations? That’s nice and nice, but there are no hotels there, which are in the Mediterranean countries. So basically there are no serious alternatives for this type of holiday. If everyone decides to go to Scandinavia, the whole summer will be fully booked on January 15th.’

Do you try to create alternatives, perhaps closer to home?

‘No, because people don’t want to go there. But take Curaçao (where Corendon is expanding, red.): rarely warmer than 33 degrees, always a breeze.’

Flying further, more emissions, a greater contribution to global warming. Do you actually feel a moral responsibility for the climate?

‘Yes, of course I feel it, that seems quite logical to me.’

From a human point of view it makes sense, but on the other hand you are of course also responsible for a large company.

That’s my dilemma. We are renewing our fleet at an accelerated pace, reducing our emissions per seat by 40 percent. We voluntarily mix sustainable jet fuel. But it’s a drop in the ocean. We would like to do more, but that is priceless. The flying space exists. Our customers want to go on holiday and are not bothered by the circumstances, I think it bothers me even more. It’s just a fact that there is no sustainable alternative to aviation.’

Then it might make sense to fly less until that alternative is available?

That may be asking too much. It is not in your nature to do anything that will hasten your own end.’

Out of the blue: ‘If I had had to make a choice 35 years ago with the knowledge of today in which sector I would have worked, I would not have chosen a sector for which I would have to answer for myself 35 years later.’

Nevertheless, Van der Heijden does not run away from uncomfortable confrontations. Earlier this summer he participated in a double interview in NRC, together with climate activist Hannah Prins of Extinction Rebellion. It led to a clash of ideas: idealism versus cynicism.

Still, it seemed like you admired her.

‘That’s right. I admire the fact that she dares to take a stand. Not necessarily because of what she stands for. When I was in my early twenties, I was also quite activist. I have been demonstrating against nuclear weapons and against the construction of parking garages in Nijmegen where students could live, or people with a lower income. They still live there now. I’ve been there.’

How would that young man of that time view the man you have become today?

‘Yes, probably the way Hannah Prins looks at me. You are part of the establishment. And if you think it can be done differently, then you should contribute. Then you have to leave the system.’

Or change the system.

‘I can’t change the system. I am a very small cog in the whole, in which I can try to slowly bring about that acceleration, just a little bit. The establishment consists of thousands of people. If you step out, you no longer belong. Then the doors close behind you. Then you can only kick it, but that has never helped. Within the system I do what I can. And within my industry I’m already called a climate activist, can you imagine that?’

What does that say about your industry?

‘That the heart pieces are fossil.’

‘I think this conversation is getting annoying now,’ says Van der Heijden after an hour. ‘The reason for this interview was completely different from what we’ve been talking about for a long time now: why I offer climate-polluting trips.’

Wouldn’t it be strange to only talk about incidents when there is something important behind them, namely the tension between your revenue model and climate change?

‘I understand that, but what I find difficult: yes, I am indeed part of a generation of people in business who have been successful at the expense of the climate. That’s true. But it’s not something I could have suspected. People then shout, and Hannah Prins did too: Club of Rome (a group of scientists who already warned in 1972 that economic growth and the use of raw materials would have major consequences for the environment, red.). But not many people took that seriously at the time. I don’t think I can be held accountable for that. I would also like to be in your shoes and criticize the behavior of others who do something similar to me.

‘Apart from that: in recent years we have gained enormous momentum with the climate. And I don’t feel positive about that.’

You say yourself that you have been successful at the expense of the climate. With a key position in the travel world, don’t you feel the urge to do something about it?

‘Yes, and I believe I do. Only there is so damn little you can do about it without making rigorous choices. This is our business model: flying people to sunny destinations, offering them a holiday, and flying back again. It’s great, those economical planes, and it saves 40 percent emissions per seat, but there are still a lot of emissions that we would rather avoid. But if we stop, someone else will take over effortlessly. There’s no point in stopping.’

Does that also apply to you personally?

‘And then? Should I now say: guys, I can no longer justify it to myself, I’ll stop? And that someone will come back who might do less for the climate? Fine, I have my sheep on dry land. I’m going to Venice by electric car, and I’m going on a nice tour. I’m going to behave completely sustainably, solar panels, off the gas, you name it. Can afford it all, can do it all though. But will the world be better for it? No, I don’t believe it.’

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