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Despite stating their intentions to make responsible decisions, people are far more likely to make the choice that causes the least resistance. | Photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash

Why Sustainability Must Be Tourism’s Default Mode


Published on November 2, 2021


As the tourism industry slowly gets back to business, there’s a lot of talk about whether travelers will be more mindful and responsible moving forward. Based on my own conversations and observations, it seems two key things are happening that are worth noting.

First, those people who really are mindful about their impacts when they travel have been far more hesitant to start traveling again. They’re concerned about vaccine equity and whether they actually benefit local communities by traveling. And, they are hyper-aware of their carbon footprint, especially as it relates to flying, so they are thinking long and hard about hopping on a flight — and many are choosing to stay close to home.

And then there’s the group of people who either don’t care or haven’t given any thought to the consequences of traveling right now. They’re all in on revenge tourism, and their only concern is scratching that travel itch that’s been building over the past 20 months.

In other words, the people who offer the most holistic value to the places they visit, the people they interact with, and the tourism industry as a whole are the people who aren’t traveling right now. And those who are casual travelers have already gone back to checking their bucket lists and booked their next cruise/tour/flight.

This is why I’m thrilled by the buzz about Google. The tourism industry has been focused on an upgrade to the search features on Google Flights, which now show consumers information about carbon emissions displayed alongside flight information. This is a huge step in the direction of radical transparency, because now travelers have more information they can use in their decision-making. For travelers who are conscious consumers, making this data easily accessible may influence what they purchase.

While I’m very excited about this new development, I’m even more enthusiastic about the fact that Google Maps now automatically defaults to the most eco-friendly route when the time it takes to make a trip is roughly the same as a higher carbon-emitting route.

Why? Because it’s frictionless. And when it comes to making sustainable and climate-forward choices, people talk a big game, but they often fall short when taking action.

The Knowledge-Action Gap

According to a poll conducted by the UN Development Program (UNDP) of 1.2 million people in 50 countries, in every country surveyed, most people are very concerned about climate change. The statistics range from Moldova, where 50% of people said they were very concerned, to the United Kingdom, where 81% indicated they were. The United States came in at 65%

Yet, according to other studies that focus on intention and action rather than awareness and concern, people are far less likely to actually do something when it comes to climate action. The linked study in this paragraph notes that only 29% to 45% of Americans always or often try to exhibit behavior that mitigates harm to people, the planet, and its resources.

The knowledge-action gap is very real. It’s one of the reasons I am skeptical of travel-related companies that state that their climate action is providing “awareness” and “education” to travelers. Certainly making people aware of critical issues is important, but making information available is not likely to lead to meaningful action.

It’s also why the onus is largely on the tourism industry to do the hard work in making changes to its operations to close that gap. Conscious consumers may want to make more responsible decisions and do the right thing, but when it comes down to following through, the path to action must be accessible and frictionless. And, when it comes to casual travelers or those who aren’t thinking about their positive and negative impacts, the best option is simply leaving people with no other choice.

Responsible and Sustainable, By Default

Numerous studies have shown that people are less likely to “opt in” to marketing content than they are to “opt out.” While privacy and data concerns are inherent in online spaces, this insight can be extrapolated to the way travel companies conduct business and how they can build operations that lead to positively impactful action or mitigate unwanted action.

It takes far more work to opt in than it does to opt out, which is why responsible and sustainable options need to be designed with intention and implemented as the default option within tourism products and offerings. 

For example, removing single-use plastic toiletries from hotel rooms and letting guests know they can ask for them (or opt in) at the front desk is far more effective than making them available but placing a notice nearby asking people not to use them (or opt out).

If you’re concerned about how travelers might feel about these types of perceived conveniences or inconveniences, remember this: A lot of people want to be responsible and conscious consumers. When tourism companies take action by making sustainability the default, they are providing customers with what they want.

Take It Mainstream

Yes, I love the fact that Google Maps is making a sustainable option the default option. But there’s one other thing about this news that makes it particularly exciting, and that’s the fact that Google Maps is a default choice for so many people. It’s an everyday tool for a massive amount of people — even those people who aren’t conscious consumers or mindful travelers.

The Google Maps development is a recent excellent example of the sustainability-by-default concept, but it’s not the only major travel-related brand utilized by casual travelers that has taken this route lately. Booking.com recently updated its animal welfare standards and will no longer contract, offer, or promote direct interactions with wild animals, wild animal rides, or aquariums, among other activities. When folks search for activities on Booking.com, they aren’t even given an option to see these harmful animal encounters as possibilities. (TripAdvisor did something similar in 2016.

Similarly, Venice will institute a booking system and entry fee to help manage overcrowding and, presumably, to pay for some of the damage tourists have caused to the city in the past. As much as travelers might gripe about the system and fee, they have no choice but to follow the rules and engage with Venice in a more responsible way if they choose to visit. They are, by default, opting in.

These kinds of stories make the news because these brands, experiences, and companies are mainstream. This points to the crux of an important issue related to this concept: There are an ever-growing number of companies — from online booking platforms to agencies with a positive impact travel slant — seeking to surface ethically responsible and local experiences. They exist to make conscious consumerism as simple as possible.

Yet the yawning gap between knowledge and action remains. While I greatly admire many of these startups that truly do operate from a high moral and mindful ground, they remain unknown to the average person and casual traveler. 

That certainly doesn’t mean their operational models and frameworks should be disregarded. In fact, quite the opposite: Those companies that have made it a point to specifically — and even exclusively — promote products, services, offerings, and itineraries that put people, the planet, and purpose before profit should be seen as an inspiration for how all companies should operate: sustainably with intention by default.

Because we know that, as well-intentioned as travelers might be, their actions may not follow. That’s why it’s imperative that everyone working in the tourism industry — from the smallest niche startup to the most mainstream search engine — make the most responsible options as simple as typing in a destination and letting the map lead the way.

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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