Overhead view of a crowded beach

To achieve its sustainability mission, the travel industry needs to find a way to connect with the casual traveler. | Photo by Nemanja .O. on Unsplash

May 26, 2020

If you’ve been working in the travel and tourism industry for any length of time, you’ve probably given at least some thought to the following: overtourism, flight shaming, peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb, plastic bottles, the sustainable development goals, and carbon emissions.

For many years, travel — and, in particular, sustainable travel practices — has been at the heart of the work I do. I think about issues like these all the time, and I know many people who work in this industry also do. At conferences, on webinars, in Zoom calls, and throughout countless social media groups, people working in the tourism industry grapple endlessly with the complexities of travel. They want to amplify the economic importance of tourism and emphasize how it can help bridge social and cultural gaps while ensuring it does minimal harm.

The sustainability message is not reaching casual travelers.

Clearly, people working in this space are enthusiastic about this mission. Tour companies write blog posts about social impact for their websites. Content creators touch on responsible travel practices more often than in the past. Think tanks and associations hold endless conversations about slow travel practices, capacity management, minimizing waste, and other sustainability issues.

There’s just one problem: The sustainability message is not reaching casual travelers.

Wait, what?

According to Booking.com’s 2019 sustainability report, 55% of global travelers are determined to make more sustainable travel choices. Exodus Travels found that 91% of travelers believe it’s important to take ethical trips.

Yes, those are promising numbers. But who are the people answering the questions in these surveys?

More importantly, who is not included in those surveys?

To me, it’s become glaringly obvious in the last few years — and especially the last few months — that there’s a missing piece of the tourism puzzle. That missing piece is the casual traveler.

More importantly, who is not included in those surveys?

I’m talking about the person who travels every once and in a while but doesn’t think much of it. The person who doesn’t follow any travel-related influencers on social media and doesn’t read travel magazines or blogs. The person who has probably never taken an organized tour. The person who always goes to the same beach for a summer holiday or considers it a major trip to take her family to Disneyland. The person who isn’t a frequent flyer.

Yes, that person.

That person who doesn’t answer surveys from Booking.com because she’s never visited Booking.com. That person who isn’t concerned about border control because she doesn’t have a passport.

The person who doesn’t even know what sustainable travel means.

Let’s take a step back here: When the industry talks about travelers, I think they’re talking about travelers. That is, people who show an interest in traveling, are engaged in traveling, and actively think about traveling. People who read travel content, seek out travel inspiration, and follow travel influencers.

Yes, there is data about leisure travelers, and I think statistics detailing their behavior from a strictly analytic perspective offer the best insight into their decision-making. Yet, even this information doesn’t take into account many casual travelers: those people who always visit the same destination, take the same road trip, or leave the planning to someone else.

This is where I see a huge gap between the travel industry and the casual traveler for whom travel is an afterthought.

And that is a gap that needs closing.

For a few moments, there was silence. And then one of the women said, “I don’t even know what that means.”

There is a gap between the plastics problem and the casual traveler who fills her cooler with bottles of soda for an annual trip to the same beach every year. There is a gap between responsible wildlife practices and the person who stops at a roadside petting zoo for her kids while on a road trip to a family member’s house for a summer holiday. There is a gap between overtourism and the family that visits a crowded national park because it’s the only one with which they’re familiar.

On a recent call with several women completely unaffiliated with the travel industry, I asked the following question: What do you want or need to know to become a more sustainable traveler?

For a few moments, there was silence. And then one of the women said, “I don’t even know what that means.”

To those working in the travel and tourism industry: This is a wake-up call.

The casual traveler is hard to pin down because she doesn’t identify as a traveler. She’s not engaged with travel brands or influencers, so she’s hard to reach. And she’s not actively putting her earnings toward travel experiences, so she doesn’t contribute much to the industry’s bottom line.

The casual traveler is hard to pin down because she doesn’t identify as a traveler.

If the casual traveler takes so much time and energy to find and communicate with — without offering a meaningful financial benefit — then why do we care about her?

The casual traveler is not the traveler. But the casual traveler travels occasionally nonetheless. She might not be booking the fancy tours or staying at the flashy resorts, but if she spends a night away from home, she’s a traveler. As such, she should not be forgotten or overlooked when the travel industry considers how to develop and grow sustainably at scale.

The question, then, is how to reach the casual traveler.

How do we tell her what she doesn’t know she doesn’t know?

Since my conversation with this group of women, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Here are a few solutions the industry should start exploring:

  • Get rid of the jargon. It’s important for the industry to understand and use their top-level vocabulary when developing internal strategy, but when it comes to communicating with the casual traveler, drop the pretense. Instead of the words “sustainable travel” or “responsible travel,” use tangible, accessible examples of what that means by talking about specific experiences and interactions.
  • Look beyond travel-focused forms of communication. Travel content is, by and large, created for people interested in consuming travel-related content. It is published in travel-focused publications, on tour operators’ blogs, and on social media accounts focused on travel. Create awareness in the casual traveler and educate her about sustainability issues through mainstream publications and outlets not focused on travel.
  • Form partnerships outside the travel industry. There is a huge opportunity for partnerships between the travel industry and other industries with which casual travelers interact. Consider what communication and outreach could look like in collaboration with the automotive, fashion, or publishing industries.
  • The casual traveler’s actions matter, but no one has told her that or how she can easily do better.

  • Invite conversation. When non-tourism-focused people want to know about your travel-related work, make it accessible. Ask the casual traveler what travel means to her and what her struggles are with it. If it’s appropriate, encourage small, responsible actions like using a reusable water bottle, visiting local diners versus chain restaurants, and staying on a marked hiking trail — and, if she’s open to it, explain why these things matter.
  • Don’t make travel elitist. The person who leaves home for a few days for a road trip is as important to the sustainable tourism mission as the person who spends half her time flying around the world. The casual traveler’s actions matter, but no one has told her that or how she can easily do better. Becoming a responsible traveler is a journey, and everyone is in a different place with that journey. Acknowledge and respect that, and find a shared connection within that.
  • Piggyback on non-travel-related events and news. When you see mainstream news and trends, think about how a travel-related (but not necessarily travel-branded) message can be folded into the conversation. For example, with all the waste created by take-out containers during the lockdown, could this have been an opportunity for the tourism industry to offer tips on minimizing waste at home with hints on how to implement similar habits the next time the casual travel takes an overnight trip from home?
  • Become ambassadors. Front-line service providers like tour guides, wait staff, and accommodation owners have a pivotal role as environmental and cultural ambassadors. They are in a unique position to bridge that gap between the industry’s sustainability goals and the casual traveler. When they encounter the casual traveler, they can use this opportunity to provide context for the destination and its local residents. With the right storytelling tactics (like not using jargon and avoiding the elitist mindset), these front-line ambassadors can create awareness and even encourage meaningful change.
  • Put pressure on the big industry players. The casual traveler isn’t going deep or far with her planning. She’ll stick with the names she knows. This includes the major airlines, cruise lines, and hotel chains. Policy makers, think tanks, and industry associations must pressure them to adopt sustainable practices so that, by default, the casual traveler engages in responsible practices.
  • Remember that local matters. The casual traveler doesn’t have to physically go far to make a difference. This is the ideal time for local tourism boards to foster relationships with their residents, and include accessible, responsible messaging in their communication to them.
  • Tell better stories. Travel feels foreign to a lot of people, but humanity is a shared condition. When you tell travel-related stories, don’t get caught up with the logistics or exoticize a destination. Instead, share stories about the people you meet and the interactions you have.
  • Avoid dangerous language. Even the casual traveler has heard of the bucket list, and that’s a dangerous thing. There is a temptation to use catchphrases and language like “bucket list” and “Instagrammable” because those are recognizable words that make for good clickbait, but the casual traveler doesn’t necessarily know why that language can be destructive for a destination. Avoid the problem by avoiding dangerous language.

The travel and tourism industry is teeming with people who want to do good in the world. They believe in the positive power of travel. They want people to have the truly meaningful experiences they’ve had. And, they want people to enjoy these experiences in a responsible manner.

It’s time for the travel industry to burst its insulated bubble and find a way to connect with the casual traveler.

There are also many wonderful ideas on how to integrate sustainability into the travel experience so that it grows and develops in a meaningful way. A big part of making that happen is helping travelers make responsible travel-related decisions.

Right now, this gap stands in the way of fully achieving that goal. It’s time for the travel industry to burst its insulated bubble and find a way to connect with the casual traveler.

What ideas do you have for reaching the casual traveler? How can those working in the industry talk about sustainability in an accessible way?


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