Two men hiking up cloudy mountainside

If tourism doesn't actually build back better, there will be no future for the industry. | Photo by Laurentiu Morariu on Unsplash

September 15, 2020

2020 will forever be remembered as the year the tourism industry fought for its survival in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak

Even though the first few months of the global lockdown froze the industry in place, the remainder of the year is being defined by the following mantra: Build back better.

To be sure, there are calls for the industry to return back to “normal” as quickly as possible. “Normal” being a pre-pandemic level of intensity defined by overtourism, communities overly dependent on travelers, and environmental damage accelerated by flying. 

The beauty of a mantra like “build back better” is that it's aspirational. It offers hope, opportunity, and potential.

But for those calling on the industry to build back better, the question is: What does that mean? What does that look like? And what does that require?

Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, addressed this issue in the recent Phocuswright Europe event, noting that platitudes like "build back better" and "new normal" sound nice, but they don't actually provide a specific framework toward action.

The beauty of a mantra like “build back better” is that it's aspirational. It offers hope, opportunity, and potential. 

But it offers all of those things on a macro level, free of commitment, investment, responsibility, and skin in the game.

In some ways, the “build back better” mantra feels like tourism’s black square moment. It is urgent and essential, a movement that has the power to catapult the industry to a place with so much more potential than what has existed in the past. Destination representatives, tour operators, accommodation owners, other service providers, and industry thought leaders have declared the importance of solidarity in this moment, but words are only words if they aren’t followed by action.

It’s easy to get swept up in the moment. The message is sound. The need is clear. 

And it requires you — yes, you — to actually get on board and build back better.

Calling Your Company To The Mat

There’s a psychological phenomena called illusory superiority, which is the belief that you are better than average in any particular metric. People assess others fairly, but when it comes to assessing themselves, they overwhelmingly rate themselves above average and positively compared to their peers.

Applied to the tourism industry context, this means holding onto a belief that your tour company is offering the best, most environmentally friendly experience. It means you think your destination is already acting in the best interests of its residents.

But it’s impossible for every company and every destination to be on the top tier.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve put calls out in various social media channels asking those in the tourism industry — destinations, tour operators, and other industry professionals — what they are doing to build back better.

The response was far from overwhelming. In fact, these calls were met with near silence.

Putting action into place to “build back better” requires completely rethinking the way we do business — how all of us do business.

For an industry insistent that it needs to build back better, it appears that many are planning on sticking to the same old playbook they used before the pandemic hit.

Building back better is necessary — that message has been loud and clear across all aspects of the tourism industry. 

But putting action into place to “build back better” requires completely rethinking the way we do business — how all of us do business. It requires an emotional and possible monetary investment at a time when both are running low. It may mean scaling back, repackaging offerings, marketing differently, hiring new staff, creating new partnerships and not renewing others.

Hardest of all, it means admitting that the way we used to do business wasn’t as responsible and environmentally aware as it could — or should — have been. If the tourism industry is truly interested in building back better, it requires letting go of our egos and realizing our businesses and destinations need to evolve.

Success Story: Intrepid Travel

One of the companies I’ve been following with interest since the pandemic hit is Intrepid Travel, which offers small group tours around the world. In full disclosure, I was a fan of Intrepid prior to the coronavirus outbreak and have traveled with the company a couple times. This was one of the reasons I specifically had my eye on Intrepid. The COVID-19 outbreak — and the way companies responded to it — signaled to me whether I wanted to be affiliated with them in the future.

I’m happy to say that not only did Intrepid Travel walk the walk with its commitment to build back better, but the company’s commitment to do so offers valuable lessons for others in the tourism industry.

In the past six months, Intrepid has done or launched the following:

It would have been easy for Intrepid Travel to look at the industry, proclaim the need to build back better, and conduct business as usual. As a Certified B Corps that has been carbon neutral since 2010, the company has long been a leader in responsible travel practices

Building back better means building back responsibly, not building back expensively.

It is also important to note that many of the initiatives Intrepid Travel launched during the past six months are projects the company had in the works or were interested in pursuing at some point in time. Yet, taking into consideration the pandemic’s impact on the climate emergency, the natural environment, and humanity in general, the company saw this time as an opportunity to completely rethink how the industry operates and accelerate some of the work it planned to do someday in the future.

“We actually found this time very, very important for us to look back and think about how we want to be looking forward,” said Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid Group’s managing director of Europe, Middle East, and North Africa. 

If Intrepid Travel can build back better, other companies can absolutely put those words into action too.

Build Back Better: Actions and Solutions

After years of building up your company or marketing your destination, it can be incredibly hard to admit that there’s still (a lot of) room for improvement. Yet, coming to that realization and taking action to actually move the tourism needle in a more positive direction is the only way the industry as a whole can actually build back better.

Get started today, with these tips from Bencheikh.

  1. Start somewhere. From the climate emergency to diversity issues, the world can feel overwhelming. It can be hard to know what to focus on first, so it’s easy to freeze and do absolutely nothing instead.

    That can’t be an option. Pick any issue — reducing carbon emissions, cutting out plastic, avoiding animal encounters — and start there.
  2. Start small. It’s also not necessary to completely reinvent your company overnight. Once you’ve chosen what you’ll focus on, pick one small action, then move on to something else. For example, perhaps your company can commit to offsetting carbon emissions for 10% of trips in 2021 as a jumping off point to offsetting 50% the next year.
  3. Don’t focus on money. Many companies think they can’t take action to operate differently because they don’t have funds earmarked to implement more responsible practices. “Traveling responsibly doesn’t always require money,” Bencheikh said, noting Intrepid’s decarbonization guide provides simple actions that aren’t driven by money.

    Remember, building back better means building back responsibly, not building back expensively.
  4. Begin with an assessment. In regard to climate, start by assessing the situation. It’s important to know where you’re starting from before moving forward. “Every situation is different,” Bencheikh said, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But, every company can take a hard look at what it offers now to get a baseline measurement. That provides the information needed to take real action and move forward in a more impactful way.
  5. Look both internally and externally. Tourism touches so many aspects of people and place, and there are lots of ways to begin building back better. For example, consider internal operations as well as the trips your company offers. “Sometimes it’s just small tweaks and changes to how you operate, how you manage your offices to make an impact,” Bencheikh said.
  6. Involve travelers. Don’t hesitate to fold travelers into the opportunity to build back better. At Intrepid Travel, for example, carbon offsetting is built into the price of a tour at less than a dollar a day. This is a chance to educate travelers on why responsible travel is so important — invite them to be part of the process!
  7. Take a stance. It is safe and comfortable if you don’t offend anyone. You don’t risk losing customers. You don’t rock the boat. You don’t become involved in anything controversial.

    But the urgent issues facing the planet — and the tourism industry — demand a response. Staying neutral is not an option. When Intrepid Travel cut elephant rides out of its itineraries, the company was concerned it would lose a lot of business — but the exact opposite happened. People are waking up to the environmental and socio-cultural challenges in the world today. Building back better may mean taking and acting on a controversial stance. Commit to doing the right thing — then put that commitment into action.
  8. Move beyond performative actions. This one goes out to all the tourism companies that posted black squares for Black Lives Matter but didn’t put any action into place. If your company or destination truly believes the industry needs to #BuildBackBetter, move beyond the hashtag. Performative action isn’t action at all. In fact, it detracts from those that are actually taking action and helping others do the same.
  9. Actually take action. Pick the action, any action, but do something and do it today. The tourism industry must urgently and actually build back better.

    Intrepid Travel’s CEO Jame Thornton has said, “There might be a vaccine for COVID-19 but there won’t be a vaccine for climate change.” Adding to that, Bencheikh notes that the industry’s future is contingent on real and meaningful action. “If we don’t have a healthy planet, we won’t have a travel industry.”


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  1. Great post, JoAnna! All of these are great suggestions and for GOOD Travel, the points you've made on taking a stance and looking internally and externally are ones we're thinking a lot about, amongst others. It's certainly an opportunity for reflection both as a company but also as an industry. You picked a great company to highlight as well-we love seeing collaborators in our field doing great work!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Caitie. We all have an incredible opportunity here, and I’m so glad to hear your company is doing work internally and externally in order to build back better.

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