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People are eager to travel again, but the tourism industry must remain committed to implementing sustainable tourism practices. | Photo by Tsunami Green on Unsplash

Why Sustainable Tourism is More Important Than Ever


Published on August 4, 2020


When the coronavirus forced everyone into lockdown in March, it felt like we had all the time in the world. It took a hot minute for those working in the tourism industry to get over the initial wave of shock, but then they started laying plans for survival.

Almost immediately, calls for a better, more thoughtful version of tourism began circulating within the industry. Representatives and residents in Venice and Amsterdam took advantage of the pandemic pause to reimagine travel in their destinations without the suffocation of overtourism. Many cities that turned to cycling during the pandemic have committed to maintaining a more environmentally friendly form of transportation for both locals and visitors. A newly formed Future of Tourism coalition set out 13 guiding principles to help the industry build back better, and dozens of organizations and companies have signed on.

These are all promising steps, but there still isn’t enough commitment and compliance to manifest an industry built on responsible, ethical, and sustainable principles and practices.

The global lockdown gifted governing bodies, destinations, tour operators, and other service providers a small window of opportunity to flip the script on tourism’s unsustainable growth. But now borders are beginning to reopen, and that gift of time is quickly slipping away. The chance to put policies in place that center more responsible tourism practices without visitors in the way is closing.

We can’t give up on the commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism.

But even though that valuable sliver of opportunity is nearly gone, we can’t give up on the commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism. 

Here are several reasons why — and solutions for keeping the tourism industry on the path toward a more promising future.

Revenge Tourism

After being trapped inside their homes for several months, people (and especially frequent travelers) are eager to travel again. This overwhelming sense of claustrophobia is manifesting itself into a new travel trend known as “revenge tourism.” In short: Demand for travel is high, and some people are booking trips at an unprecedented rate. It’s almost as if they’re making up for lost time.

The question is: Will the intense desire to travel override the potential damage of doing so? And will those who travel do it in a responsible way?

Solution: The tourism industry largely works in a silo. It is not at all surprising that many casual travelers want to hop on the next flight to anywhere in the world. If your destination is appropriately ready to welcome tourists, work with influencers and content creation partners to communicate how to travel responsibly. Use this opportunity not only to encourage travel but to better educate travelers on the best way to be a visitor in someone else’s backyard. 

How can you inspire and motivate while also creating awareness, educating, and activating meaningful change within your communities?

Influencers and content creators: Think about the messages you’re sharing with your audiences right now. How can you inspire and motivate while also creating awareness, educating, and activating meaningful change within your communities?

Also, do not underestimate your power as an individual person. You may work in the tourism industry by day, but don’t forget tap into your own personal networks to talk about sustainable travel in general. Each and every person in the tourism industry is a powerful role model for responsible behavior.

Climate Crisis

The planet may have gotten a brief respite while the world was locked down, but the pandemic pause certainly didn’t solve the climate crisis. We are still moving full speed ahead to a climate disaster if we don’t take drastic and immediate action.

Despite the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry, that does not give it a pass when it comes to climate action. In fact, the climate crisis is exactly the catalyst the tourism industry needs to double down on its sustainability efforts.

The climate crisis is exactly the catalyst the tourism industry needs to double down on its sustainability efforts.

Solution: Unfortunately, national governments largely let big businesses off the hook when it came to receiving bailout money without environmental commitments during the initial wave of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean individual companies and travelers can’t do their part. 

If you and/or your company have not yet declared your commitment to reducing your carbon footprint and aren’t actively working toward finding climate solutions, do that today through Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency to hold yourself accountable. Review Intrepid Travel’s 10-Step Guide to Decarbonizing Your Travel Business and activate a plan. 

Travel media companies, which have largely stood at arm’s length from the industry as a whole, need to get on board with these actions and also begin offsetting their writers' carbon emissions when they are sent on assignment.

Travelers: In addition to implementing more responsible practices when traveling, like conserving water and taking public transportation, offset your flights with carbon credits. (I use Good Traveler to do this.) A newly launched initiative called Tomorrow’s Air also gives travelers a way to help fund carbon removal from the atmosphere.

Desperate Destinations

They might have known that tourism was vital to their economies, but it wasn’t until tourism was non-existent that some destinations realized they too heavily relied on it for their survival. From Spain’s Balearic Islands to Bali, people dependent on tourism are struggling without tourists. Some destinations will do anything to get people through their borders so the local economy can begin operating again.

Solution: Don’t just jump back into the beds-in-heads mindset. Destinations who cater to travelers seeking the sun-and-sea setting while exploiting local resources will provide a quick financial boost, but this doesn’t foster long-term sustainable development. Mindfully thinking about and intentionally communicating with the type of traveler you want to attract will pay off in the long run — financially, environmentally, and socially. 

Mindfully thinking about and intentionally communicating with the type of traveler you want to attract will pay off in the long run — financially, environmentally, and socially.

Use communication throughout the customer journey to make sure the right people are visiting your destination. Raise prices as appropriate. Center local people and cultures. Highlight local social impact projects. Ask local people what they want — what they really want, beyond a monetary return — and use these desires to create guidelines and expectations that are clearly communicated and enforced when travelers don’t abide.

Sense of Comfort

This has been a tumultuous time, and people are eager to return to what once was. Change is scary and uncertain, and people will gravitate toward what they are familiar with. That includes traveling the way they are used to traveling, even if there is a different (and better) way to do so.

Solution: For far too long, travelers have been catered to and coddled so that they receive a sanitized experience — often at the expense of the environment, local people, and the local history and culture. 

Don’t be afraid to completely rethink the way you communicate about and offer travel experiences. Instead of shying away from the challenging issues your destination is grappling with, lean into them and educate travelers so they become part of the solution … and not a bigger part of the problem. 

Don’t be afraid to completely rethink the way you communicate about and offer travel experiences.

The trifecta of sustainable tourism, social impact, and responsible storytelling is a good place to start for figuring out how to help tourists embrace a new way of traveling.

Desire for Space

Early analyses about travel trends coming out of the global pandemic have, by and large, been accurate. One of these is the desire to escape urban spaces and head toward natural areas. Unfortunately, this means lots of national parks and other recreational areas are overcrowded, undergoing environmental damage, and forcing people into situations where they aren’t actually socially distant from each other.

Solution: As difficult as it might be, these representatives for these recreational areas need to be very clear about their visitation expectations and firmly enforce rules. It may be necessary to institute lottery or ticket systems to keep visitation at a manageable and safe level for the foreseeable future.

Don’t overlook resources and advocacy groups to help with communication. Amplify the work done by organizations like Leave No Trace to help educate travelers headed into the parks and onto the trails.

This is a great opportunity to begin integrating information about Indigenous people and decolonization into your destination or tour’s storytelling.

And while travelers are in these wilderness destinations, think about the stories they are hearing. This is a great opportunity to begin integrating information about Indigenous people and decolonization into your destination or tour’s storytelling. Start with educating yourself and your staff with the resources and information through Intersectional Environmentalism and the edition of Yes! Magazine on decolonization, but then reach out to Indigenous people in your destination and invite them to take a more active role in developing a more complete and honest narrative of local outdoor spaces.

The Coronavirus Risk

Despite the fact borders are easing open, the global pandemic is still a very real thing. It is not under control, and the tourism industry needs to act with care and prudence as it makes decisions with the world’s actual reality in mind. The more people travel right now, the harder it will be to get this pandemic under control as quickly as possible.

Solution: Destinations, travel agents, and other tourism service providers need to make it very clear that travelers need to take care of themselves. Healthcare facilities and services should be reserved for locals who are in need before they service foreign visitors. And, if there aren’t enough services for local people, then it’s not time to invite travelers in.

If it isn’t safe to open borders, don’t do it. Instead, turn your attention toward domestic tourism. This may require creative thinking and repackaging offerings with a fresh perspective for local travelers, but domestic travelers offer a wonderful opportunity for organic word-of-mouth marketing once out-of-town visitors can return. Some tour operators, like Intrepid, recognize people aren’t traveling far from home and have rolled out a new portfolio of day trips and short, local getaways.

It is not okay to put local people at risk just so tourism can begin functioning again.

Further, one of the pillars of sustainable development is the health and wellbeing of people. It is not okay to put local people at risk just so tourism can begin functioning again. Marginalized and vulnerable populations, such as Indigenous people, are in a particularly precarious position. Minimize opportunities for interaction between visitors and these populations right now. 

However, it is important that these people still benefit from tourism. Work with an organization like Planeterra or other local advocacy groups to ensure they are financially supported.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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