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The stories and images used to create travel inspiration also shape the expectations they have about a place and experience before ever leaving home. | Photo by Richy Dannielz

May 22, 2023

The vision of a more sustainable and responsibly developed and executed foundation of tourism is long overdue but gaining momentum.

The goal of this vision should be for tourism and travel experiences to be positively impactful, respectful, and responsible with intention by default. That is, people don’t have to think about making “sustainable” travel decisions or question whether the experiences they book are ethical and appropriate; these things simply are.

One of the things standing in the way of fulfilling this vision is the belief that travelers aren’t interested. “Travelers don’t ask for these things,” the naysayers insist. “They like what we offer. Why should we change?”

We should change because it’s the right thing to do.

But, more importantly, despite all the education they provide to travelers about sustainability and the nudges they encourage so that individuals will change their behavior, the real responsibility sits with the industry. It is on the shoulders of every travel-related business, destination, and professional working in this space to make the deep, truly impactful changes that catapult the industry from wishful thinking to actually supporting a regenerative way of operating.

To those naysayers who insist this change isn’t necessary or of interest, we need to take a step back to understand why travelers appear to be satisfied with the status quo. And, how those working in the tourism industry have used content, specifically, to trap them in a cycle that centers traveler interests over locals’ needs, sets inappropriate expectations, and fails to communicate a more complete, unsanitized narrative about the places people visit.

The “Inspirational” Content Problem

People seek inspiration about where to go and what to do — and the tourism industry (which includes content creators like travel media and influencers) delivers. Destination websites flaunt the most appealing aspects of a place. Travel articles run with catchy photographs. Image- and video-heavy social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok feature eye-catching backdrops and fun activities.

All of these things make sense, in theory. People want to travel to places that are beautiful and help them “escape” the “real world.” That is how the travel experience has been packaged for many years.

The problem is, when these beautiful backdrops are paired with encouragement to tick off bucket lists and visit the “must-see” sites without additional context, it doesn’t necessarily encourage people to travel responsibly. Messages that convey that everything in a particular destination is perfectly curated and ready to host that care-free getaway fail to enlighten travelers about issues like waste management, leakage, and gentrification. 

These images and the messages they are paired with shape travelers’ perceptions and expectations, and influence their behavior when they travel. This creates a destructive cycle.

Understanding the four steps of this cycle is imperative to breaking it. And breaking this cycle is one of the keys to fully realizing that vision of a more sustainable and responsibly developed and executed foundation of tourism.

Step 1: Sharing content without context or nuance

The tourism industry pushes inspirational content that readers and followers respond to. These readers and followers are potential travelers. They read, like, and share this content — content about those beautiful beaches and must-see urban spaces — and this pushes its reach further into the world. 

Step 2: Shaping traveler expectations

This content influences travelers’ decisions and their expectations for what they will encounter when they travel. Before people even leave home, they have an idea in their mind of what they will see, how to act, how to treat local people and the environment, and generally what to expect — what their travel experience will be like.

Step 3: Accommodating expectations through product creation and delivery

Eager to meet the expectations of these travelers, destinations and travel service providers may shape their offerings to suit them, which reinforces this narrative of what travel looks like. 

You can see this, for example, at accommodations where travelers have access to pools and large buffet spreads while being blissfully unaware of water shortages or food waste problems in the destination. Or, for example, when travelers seek out tours or visit sites, the story of those tours and sites is told from the colonial viewpoint; this very likely aligns with the comfortable narrative travelers know — a narrative free of violence and oppression.

Step 4: Shaping the traveler narrative of the experience

When places or experiences are shaped in this way, then travelers' expectations are satisfied. Their interests are fulfilled; their assumptions met.

This shapes their own narrative — the story these travelers have created about their travel experience, which reinforces their expectations. This is the story they believe about the destination they visited and the people they interacted with — and it’s the story they share with other people. 

And so, we start the cycle again.

The Content Solution

It’s true: Travelers might like the options available to them. They might not be asking for more sustainable choices.

But it’s also true that travelers don’t know what they don’t know. And when they don’t know and/or more sustainable choices are not the default option, they have little choice but to fall back on what exists. 

And they exist, in part, because the stories and messaging created, shared, and perpetuated by the tourism industry have reinforced the status quo of a tourism ecosystem that is traveler-centric, unsustainable, opaque, and allows irresponsible behavior to continue.

To break this cycle, we need to disrupt this status quo.

  • Instead of creating content that centers travelers above all else, focus on content that amplifies the people — and their needs and desires — who make a place unique
  • Instead of churning out content that encourages people to engage in unsustainable behaviors, focus on content that centers sustainability as the default — the only — option. Avoid making sustainability a niche.
  • Instead of shielding travelers from the realities about the places they visit and the negative impacts travel has on destinations, bring these stories to the forefront and amplify them. Encourage travelers to grapple with these complexities, and help them understand how they can be a solution rather than perpetuate the problem.
  • Instead of letting travelers dictate the way they want to visit places, clearly lay out expectations about appropriate behaviors and repercussions for failing to follow them. Importantly, follow through with those actions.

If you work in the tourism industry and you communicate with travelers in any capacity, what you communicate and how you communicate matters. In addition to offering inspiration on where to go and what to do, you have the power (and responsibility) to explain more thoroughly about the places people visit, how to appropriately engage in experiences, and how to better prepare before leaving home.

About the author

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.

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