As tourism begins to emerge from the dark days of the pandemic, there appears to be at least a small shift in the way some companies and destinations are approaching business.
Some destinations clearly stated they didn’t want tourists during uncertain times, and some aren’t convinced they want to invite tourists back at all. While some destinations have clung to old-school, colonial narratives, others are taking a fresh approach that doesn’t center tourists or expected offerings. And a growing number of companies are becoming more transparent about their marketing practices and efforts to fund rewilding projects, among other initiatives.
These are all steps toward a tourism model that is more community-focused, value-driven, and integrated within the greater world in which we live. And, these actions are driven from the destination or corporate level, which is especially important. These types of changes — if instituted across all (or at least a majority of) destinations and companies — can fundamentally change the way people travel.
Why? Because when travel experiences are created more equitable, inclusive, safer, and sustainable with intention by default, these experiences become frictionless. Travelers are automatically “opted in,” and it actually takes effort not to be a more responsible traveler.
This “top-down” approach is essential for driving real change in the tourism industry, but there is value in empowering people to make better choices on their own accord as well.
As noted extensively within the tourism industry, Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report noted that a vast majority (83%) of those surveyed say they want to be more sustainable travelers. It’s also worth noting that about half of the respondents don’t feel there are enough sustainable options available, and only one-third of accommodation providers communicate their sustainability initiatives with travelers.
This indicates two important things: First, people are interested in making better choices when they travel. Second, the tourism industry still has a long way to go in making these choices available, accessible, and visible to travelers.
It is not appropriate to put the onus of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of travelers. The knowledge-action gap is a real phenomena, and providing “awareness” and “education” to travelers is not the solution for changing the tourism industry in a large-scale, meaningful way.
However, what travelers can do shouldn’t be discounted either. Conscious consumers want to do what they can to minimize their negative impacts and maximize their positive impacts. They may be individuals in a global (but highly localized), complex, and evolving ecosystem, but their actions — and the ripple effects from their actions — should not be overlooked.
The industry at large should take advantage of this and help travelers become a sliver of the solution to the tourism problem.
Use Transparent Communication
Even though a lot of people can’t tell greenwashing from genuine environmental action, people are seeking out companies that are committed to sustainability and are demonstrating those values.
If you are invested in operating ethically, share your actions with travelers. They don’t know what you don’t tell them, so communicate sustainability initiatives and actions clearly. If there are things they can do to further maximize their positive impact, tell them what it is they can do.
There are lots of ways to be transparent in this way. Consider publishing carbon labels on your trips so travelers can take carbon emissions into consideration along with other factors, like cost and duration of the trip. If travelers can donate toward a conservation project, offset emissions, or plant trees via an add-on fee, make it easy for them to do that when they book and buy. If your company partners with a social enterprise that accepts material donations, be specific about what travelers can carry with them to donate.
Don’t hide this kind of information or make it vague. Communicate clearly, and make it easy for travelers to take action.
Involve Travelers in Responsible Travel Campaigns
People love to be involved and feel like they are an important part of something. Take advantage of this with innovative campaigns that involve travelers themselves.
In late 2018, hoards of folks on Instagram, in particular, were ill-prepared to find the places they wanted to visit using only geotags. Over-tagging was also causing overcrowding, environmental degradation, and unpleasant guest experiences. Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board sought to address the issue with its generic geotagging campaign, which encouraged people to not specifically tag locations on social media.
This line of the campaign always stood out to me: “As champions of conservation, we ask that you share your photos using a generic location tag.” This messaging puts responsibility in the hands of travelers while asking them to be part of a bigger campaign to generically tag their images.
Similarly, responsible tourism pledges, such as those from Iceland and Aspen, Colorado, lay out expectations for how people should behave when visiting these destinations. These kinds of initiatives are not a substitute for appropriately attracting the desired travelers and clear expectations backed up by reinforcement, but they are good reminders of how visitors can do their part in creating a quality experience for everyone.
Make Action Easy
People take the path of least resistance, so make it as easy as possible for people to act responsibly where and when they travel. Remove all possible places where people encounter friction on their trips.
These instances are often related to waste, which means the best thing you can do is simply eliminate the option to create waste. Remove toiletries bottles from hotel rooms, serve water in pitchers versus single-use plastic bottles at mealtimes, and minimize swag that doesn’t add value to an experience.
Also, beware that one of the major barriers to action is cost. For example, it’s often less expensive to take a short-haul flight than it is to take the train. If your company or destination can work out deals that make the more responsible option less expensive, it becomes far more appealing.
Don’t Discount the Traveler
These suggestions are not an invitation to the industry at large to bypass their own part in stepping up to the challenge of addressing tourism’s problems. However, tourism professionals should recognize that travelers have agency and the power of choice … and that’s a powerful thing.
After all, every intention, every action — big or small — we can take together puts tourism one step closer to actually being a force for good.