Here’s a revolutionary idea for those working in the tourism industry: Not everyone spends every waking working day thinking about travel.
I know it sounds ridiculous, yet the more conversations I have with people working deeply within the industry, the more boxed into their thinking they seem to be. This is not to say there aren’t stellar thought leaders working in the tourism space, because there certainly are. And, I’m constantly impressed with the number of creative startups attempting to solve travel-related problems.
Unfortunately, thinking within this contained box filled with awesome tourism-focused strategy greatly restrains the opportunity for true innovation. And, when we stay contained to our industry silo, we fail to create collaborations that could catapult the responsible travel message.
I have had several conversations with industry colleagues over the last couple weeks, and in nearly every conversation, I sound the urgent alarm for reaching casual travelers.
Who is the casual traveler? Unfortunately for those working in the tourism industry, she’s 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.
I also think casual travelers likely make up the majority of the population. Why? Walk into your local supermarket and look around. When planning a holiday, how many of these people around you are actively seeking out tour companies giving back to local communities? How many of them use something other than TripAdvisor, Expedia, or similar mainstream online platforms to book their travel needs?
There is a big push to “create awareness” and “educate” travelers about sustainable tourism within the industry, but there are two problems with this.
First, those being targeted with this messaging likely already have some knowledge about responsible tourism practices. Companies are reaching their “ideal customer,” and there is a logical match between sustainably-minded companies and sustainably-minded consumers/travelers. This additional education is great for customers who are fine-tuning their responsible travel practices. But people who are not thinking about sustainable travel are not actively looking for this information because they don’t even know to look for it.
Second, we know that people don’t act in logical ways. BehaviorSMART founder Milena Nikolova, an expert in behavioral economics in tourism contexts, has made it clear that people don’t necessarily think, act, or make decisions the way they say they will or that we think they will. Knowing this, we can not simply suggest to people that they act in a more responsible way and expect it to happen.
I have said for a very long time that the idea of “sustainable tourism” shouldn’t even be a thing. Tourism needs to become sustainable with intention by default so that travel is responsible and sustainable, period. This is absolutely key to folding casual travelers into the responsible tourism model.
So, yes, we must continue to build this model from the inside out so that every destination, every travel company, every online booking platform prioritizes sustainability and responsibility over destructive activities, accommodations, and practices.
But even as we continue to work from the inside, it is essential to fold in “distant” tourism sectors, learn from other industries, and collaborate with businesses that don’t fit the traditional partnership mold.
What does this look like? My wild and crazy ideas are below, but I want to blow this conversation open. Please share your ideas in the comments and let’s get to work. We can’t keep pretending that we’re going to solve tourism’s problems by staying in a box while working in a world that is more interconnected than ever before.
Inviting “Distant” Tourism Sectors to the Table
- Timeshare - A little-known fact about me is that I started my tourism career in the timeshare sector. Though timeshare feels dated, there are still tens of thousands of timeshare resorts and units around the world. This is a vacation product that is handed down from generation to generation, and these casual travelers often go to the same destinations year after year. They are devoted to their ownership.
The company I used to work for does not have a sustainability statement on its website, and I doubt it operates sustainably with intention by default. But it could, and in doing so, timeshare owners would become part of the responsible travel movement.
- Golf resorts - If we want to talk about a tourism sector that takes up a lot of space, clears natural habitat, and uses a lot of water, look no further than golf resorts. Some golf resorts have water recycling programs in place, and they could serve as a model for excessive water usage in other tourism contexts. Conversely, golf resorts could certainly benefit from knowledge related to conservation, rewilding, and sustainable design.
Casual travelers who take golf holidays are highly affluent. Engaging this sector in the responsible tourism conversation opens the door for untapped funding opportunities.
- Travel agents - Some travel agents specialize in sustainable travel experiences, but the key word here is specialize. By and large, their job is to provide travel advice, insight, and services to meet their customers needs. As a vital conduit in the tourism industry, travel agents are a key piece in the sustainability puzzle. They are among the few in the industry who might actually be able to provide education to casual travelers in a way that could make a difference.
But here’s the question: Are travel agents using sustainability-focused booking platforms? Are they integrating carbon offsetting in their fees? Are they defaulting to companies, airlines, and accommodations that are B Corps, benefiting local communities, and actively centering sustainability throughout their supply chains? If not, this is a gap that needs to be addressed.
Lessons from Other Industries
- Spare change? - As a teenager working at a grocery store, I asked customers if they’d be willing to round their total charge up to the closest dollar and donate the change for countless different charities. Similarly, I used to donate my change when I shopped at pet stores in the United States. It’s easy, it’s a small gesture, and across thousands of transactions every day, it adds up.
Why aren’t we using this strategy to fund sustainable tourism initiatives? When booking travel products, companies ranging from airlines to online booking agents to travel agencies could easily ask if people would donate their spare change to remove carbon from the atmosphere or support travel-related social impact projects. Outside of the industry, partner with any sort of international brands to fund rewilding efforts or similar, easily accessible projects.
- Tap into festivals - According to Billboard, 32 million people go to music festivals every year in the U.S. alone. A lot of festival goers are casual travelers, but they are actively engaged while on festival grounds. Industry organizations or coalitions could easily engage people with sustainably focused content without ever mentioning sustainability.
What could this look like? Virtual reality to visit destinations that are committed to responsible tourism. Interactive games and activities. Giveaways for sustainable travel swag. Discounts for membership organizations like Travara and Tomorrow’s Air. Creativity is the only limitation here.
Cross-Industry Collaboration Ideas
- Reaching millennials - Tomorrow’s travelers are the answer to a healthier future for tourism. Where are they? Shopping at brands like H&M and Sephora. But, they also have disposable income and they’re interested in investing in experiences. The tourism industry should be working with common brands like these to infuse fun but responsible messaging related to travel and experiences. They’re hitting the road anyway … so how can we help them make their #VanLife story a bit more sustainable?
The good news is that an increasing number of people are becoming more conscious consumers across a range of industries from food to transportation. This is an easy inroads for the tourism industry. If the likes of H&M and Sephora sound too complicated, tap into mainstream brands that are already top of mind for eco-aware millennials — brands like Lush and Tesla.
- Educational institutions and study abroad programs - My partner teaches at an international school for third-culture kids. These are kids from well-traveled, highly affluent families. Nearly every international school like his takes a week out of the school year for students to travel as a class, sometimes domestically but often internationally. Nowhere in this process — from planning to on-the-ground tours — is there any conversation about responsible travel practices. Talk about a huge, untapped, and highly influential population that could spread the seeds of sustainability.
Related, university study abroad programs should be driven by responsible travel. These students are actively engaged, likely to travel while abroad, and interested in learning. The tourism industry should be in study abroad offices everywhere with relevant messaging, ideas, products, and services.
- Non-travel related influencers - Some travel influencers have hundreds of thousands of followers. This is great as long as they are actively promoting sustainable travel practices, which, unfortunately, they are not. That’s a challenge for another day, and one that absolutely needs to be addressed.
But what would it look like if the travel industry tapped into casual travelers who were also influencers? What if those influencers could share their journeys of learning about and becoming more responsible travelers with their followers? That is a ripple effect that could have awesome positive impacts throughout and beyond the travel industry.
I believe that those of us working in the tourism industry are passionate and want to make meaningful change in this world, but we must think beyond our silo. These are just a few of the ideas I have running around in my head, and I am eager to hear yours as well.
But, beyond that, the pivotal question remains: What are we going to do about it?