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The tourism industry needs to follow through on sustainability commitments in a way that is obvious and transparent to travelers. | Photo by Karolina Grabowska

May 8, 2023

Once again, the latest Booking.com Sustainable Travel Report has the tourism industry running in circles.

The most notable stats to come out of the 2023 report include the following:

  • 76% of travelers say they want to travel more sustainably over the next year.
  • Two-thirds of travelers want to leave the places they visit better than when they arrived.
  • 53% of respondents say the climate crisis has encouraged them to be more sustainable.

The research, which includes insights from more than 33,000 travelers across 35 countries and territories, is arguably the most extensive and consistent information available about consumers’ beliefs and expectations about sustainable travel. 

It is a survey that I always approach with skepticism. After all, the research specifically identifies its survey respondents as “travelers,” which fails to acknowledge the outsize proportion of “casual travelers” who aren’t heavily invested in their travel experiences yet still travel. 

However, with each passing year, I believe the response from survey participants more closely reflects society at large.

The climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and the need for sustainability measures is no longer reserved for conversations among professionals working in these areas. In 2019, a survey of 150,000 people in 142 countries found that nearly 70% of people believe climate change poses a concerning risk to their home country in the next 20 years. Most people believe they’re already seeing the fallout of the climate crisis where they live; using messaging that indicates other people think of these issues as distant threats can actually result in those who do think there’s a dire concern to take less action.

In fact, people are taking action: The Booking.com survey indicates that well more than half of travelers incorporate sustainable behaviors while on holiday by turning off air conditioning, recycling waste, and carrying reusable shopping bags and water bottles.

They’re also willing to put in manual labor, which I recently witnessed. A couple weeks ago, I participated in the Closed for Maintenance initiative facilitated by Visit Faroe Islands. For one weekend, 100 randomly selected international visitors (out of more than 4,000 who signed up for the draw) worked with local Faroese volunteers to rehabilitate tourism infrastructure in need of some TLC. This innovative initiative, which is part of the destination’s “preservolution” strategy, naturally attracts people who are interested in leaving a positive impact on a destination.

This is to say, they were a perfect group of people to chat with about sustainable tourism.

And here’s the news flash for everyone working in the tourism industry: They care. They’re aware. But they’re waiting for you to do something about it.

Based on my conversations with well-intentioned, engaged, and invested travelers, here are some observations and feedback the tourism industry should note — and what can be done to encourage relevant, sustainable action faster.

Hard Truth: Travelers aren’t just aware of greenwashing. They are actively looking for it.

People don’t always know what greenwashing looks like or how to sniff it out, but you better believe they know it exists and they’re just waiting for businesses to slip up. 

Travelers who are aware of the negative impacts tourism can have are legitimately concerned that they’re harming people and the environment when they travel. They want to know that they’re making good choices. And, travelers are worried that, when travel-related businesses engage in greenwashing, they (the travelers) are complicit if they don’t know how to spot devious practices.

They’re also increasingly asking hard questions of destinations and tour operators. If your sustainability and climate initiatives are legitimate, you shouldn’t have any problem explaining your processes, pointing out policies, and inviting these curious travelers to learn more.

Solution: As scary as it might be, normalize transparency in your business operations and marketing communications. Make information about your sustainability journey available, accessible, and free of jargon. You might not always get it right, but by being completely honest, travelers are going to trust that the successes you amplify and wins you celebrate are the real deal.

Hard Truth: Travelers are taking action, but they want to do more.

At this point, it’s worth noting a couple other statistics from the Booking.com survey:

  • 51% of travelers believe there aren’t enough sustainable travel options.
  • 74% want companies to offer more sustainable travel choices.

They know they’re not supposed to use plastic straws and take public transportation — and according to that Booking.com data, they’re taking action accordingly. The knowledge-action gap for travelers is a real thing in large part because it’s hard (or expensive, confusing, etc.) to take action. The knowledge exists, and a lot of travelers are already doing something, which means it’s the tourism industry’s responsibility to make it as easy and seamless as possible for the next wave of action to take place. 

For example, on a recent trip to the United Kingdom, it was less expensive for me to rent an electric vehicle than it was to rent a standard gas-powered car. The easy, seamless action for me at this juncture was renting the electric vehicle, especially because the action was supported by tools and a price tag that made the choice easier. 

Solution: Every sustainable option should be the easiest option to make. Remove barriers to responsible options, and make it challenging to fall back on harmful ones. A lot of resistance on the industry side comes with the idea that travelers “expect” things to be a certain way and they are “comfortable” with the status quo. Yes, and … the catalyst for change has to happen somewhere, and at this point, it needs to come from within the system.

Hard Truth: Travelers view the entire tourism ecosystem as a singular entity.

When I travel throughout Germany, I always marvel at how bike-friendly it is. I also notice bins where people can separate their waste, and I am constantly in awe of the extensive public transportation system. And yet, the country's airports seem to have no water bottle filling stations. How is this possible? Is Germany as sustainability-focused as it appears to be, considering travelers can't easily drink tap water in its airports?

This cognitive dissonance is more common than I'd like it to be when I travel, and I'm not the only traveler who notices it. These inconsistencies take lots of forms: Tour operators that embody sustainability, but use a massive, gas-guzzling bus to transport a small group. Participating in a destination-based activity like a beach cleanup, which is then followed by a snack break where coffee is served in single-use plastic cups. Sustainable tourism conferences give out cheap branded t-shirts wrapped in plastic as swag (ahem, really?).

These kinds of actions, regardless of their size or emphasis, have the potential to completely undermine the intention of otherwise carefully considered experiences. The widely studied negativity bias has found that humans are hard-wired to notice and remember negative things. This means, from a traveler’s perspective, a destination’s or trip’s sustainability may be judged by its weakest link. 

Solution: Service providers and destinations need to work closely with all suppliers to ensure they align as closely as possible with stated commitments. Every organization is at a different place in their sustainability journey, so it makes sense for partners to work together and support each other throughout this process. Nonetheless, be mindful of how seemingly unrelated partners or attributes can reflect upon your company’s efforts.

Hard truth: Travelers hear your sustainability messaging, but they’re skeptical when they don’t see it in action.

How great are those little placards in hotels that invite travelers to hang up their towels to be reused? I love them … but I’m not actually convinced they work. Too often, I find all the towels refolded and back on the bathroom shelves. How is it possible to identify the used towels, so they can actually be reused?

This particular issue has come up in conversation with other travelers who refuse housekeeping services in order to make sure their towels aren’t tossed in the wash; this, of course, harms the people working as cleaning staff. But it’s not only hotels: Separating used/eaten items from unused/uneaten items on airline food trays does no good; everything is thrown in the same garbage bag. Specifically requesting no takeaway amenities is a waste of time when eating establishments toss a handful of napkins, single-use cutlery, and pouches of ketchup into the to-go bag anyway.

Companies across the tourism spectrum — from airlines and accommodations to restaurants and tour companies — undermine their own sustainability commitments when consumer-facing staff don’t uphold those commitments. It doesn’t matter what efforts are made behind closed doors to reduce waste, minimize carbon, and cut back on fossil fuel: Travelers only see the actions that take place in front of them, and when messaging doesn’t match those actions, people are less likely to trust what companies say they’re doing to become more sustainable.

Solution: Your company should be working on internal, systemic changes to ensure it’s operating as sustainably as possible. These may be the changes that will have the biggest impact, however they aren’t the ones visible to most people. Think about what sustainability looks like from the traveler side, and incorporate those more visible changes into your plans as well. Don’t forget to communicate with frontline service providers about their role in following through on stated commitments.

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