Over the last couple of years, travel companies have had to pull through the pandemic while reconfiguring their business models to meet evolving client needs and desires.
In the years leading up the pandemic, people knew the world was operating in an unsustainable manner. Coming out of the pandemic, they’re demanding that the companies they buy from and book with publicly share their climate commitments, sustainability plans, supply chains, and social impact. That’s a tall order, especially for small companies with bootstrap budgets that may be starting from ground zero on these efforts.
Responding to this need, companies have found creative ways to be more transparent about their impacts — mostly their positive impacts but, for the most courageous and honest of companies, also their negative ones.
Sharing sustainability commitments and stories with stakeholders is essential. But any operational changes intended to have a positive impact on the environment, local residents, and the places people visit should be countered with reflection:
If you couldn’t share your climate commitments, would you still measure your carbon emissions and work toward reducing them?
If the accommodations you chose for your tours were more expensive but more environmentally friendly — but you couldn’t explain why you chose them over cheaper, less eco-aware accommodations — would you still choose them?
If it took a lot of time and effort to figure out who, exactly, benefited financially from your “local” tours but weren’t able to communicate this with travelers, would you still take the time to dig into the numbers?
If you couldn’t share any information about the social impact projects your company supports, would developing these relationships still be important to your business?
A couple months ago, I wrote an article about how companies can ensure their community-based tourism initiatives actually benefit local people. I interviewed Zakia Moulaoui Guery, founder and CEO of Invisible Cities, for the article because Invisible Cities is a hyper-local social enterprise specifically focused on empowering and supporting local people using tourism.
In our interview she said the following: “I see a lot of companies using slogans such as ‘good for the community,’ ‘benefiting locals,’ etc when actually they simply have practices in place that should exist anyway. I don't believe we should promote the fact we pay people decently, or treat them with respect as unique selling points, when this is what we should be doing, no matter what business we are in.”
Read that again, and sit with it.
All companies — regardless of industry — should be acting with integrity, treating people well, and incorporating sustainable practices into their operations because it is the right and responsible thing to do. Not because it looks good in marketing materials or is currently trending.
In a rush to keep up with customer demands for transparency and pressure from competitors, the conditions are ripe for greenwashing or local-washing — framing any actions as favorable to people, places, and the planet while doing the bare minimum to actually have a positive impact. The tourism industry should be questioning any operations that lean heavily on ethical actions to promote themselves, and they should look internally to make sure their actions are intended to have a positive impact simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Yes, those working in tourism should be sharing their sustainability stories. This information provides travelers with important insight that aids in decision-making. It holds companies accountable for their action (or inaction). And these stories offer inspiration and incentive for others in the industry to improve their operations and conduct their business with integrity as well.
But before shouting any accolades out into the world, take a moment to pause and ask: If you couldn’t promote it, would you still do it?