Sustainable tourism: A journey, not a destination

In June, a group of about 85 leaders from across the tourism industry convened for the Sustainable Tourism Summit, which took place as part of VERGE Hawaii. Together, the group represented the diverse ecosystem needed to advance sustainable tourism — from lodging and transportation companies to public officials and cultural ambassadors.

It’s a massive opportunity. As Heather Clancy recently reported, the industry generated roughly $7.6 trillion in revenue in 2016, or 10.2 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, and accounts for about 11 percent of the global workforce. Hawaii saw 8.9 million visitors in 2016 who spent a record $15.6 billion. 

Over our five hours together, Summit participants engaged in conversations focused on elevating the best of participants’ collective perspectives and experiences. Our working sessions were oriented toward answering our focal question for the day: What will it take for stakeholders across the tourism industry to collaboratively ensure the ecological, economic and cultural sustainability of destinations?

You can download a PDF of more detailed insights generated by the working groups. Following are five high-level takeaways from the Summit.

Kathryn Cooper Photography

Kalani Kaanaana (L), director of cultural affairs, Hawaiian Tourism Authority (HTA) and Randy Baldemor (R), chief operating officer, HTA, lead a working session on marketing and promotion.


1. Embrace education

Every organization has a role to play in advancing understanding about the benefits of sustainability — ecological, social and economic. Identifying which stakeholders are key influencers and prioritizing efforts around education were recurring themes throughout the day. This includes everyone from policy makers and hotel leadership to employees and the general public.

For example, helping guests understand the value of sustainability initiatives in maintaining destinations’ attractiveness and well-being was seen as a major opportunity area in the conversation focused on hotel leadership, including the importance of consistent sustainability branding and communications by hotels and other destinations.

2. Prioritize place

Every organization has a unique story when it comes to its history, values and culture, from the people who staff it to the local history and geography. Make this a core part of your organizational identity. For example, Hawaii is unique when it comes to U.S. tourist destinations. The physical environment — sun and sand — can be had in many places, but the local culture and history can be found nowhere else. This should be seen as a key asset that travelers value highly.

The importance of respecting local customs and beliefs, and building strong relationships with local communities, was a primary theme of the summit. When we broke up into interest groups, the working groups focusing on community and culture and the one focusing on tour operations merged in real-time. Together, they focused on the importance of building a sense of place into tour experiences, so guests walk away with a deeper connection to destinations and commitment to their preservation.

3. Tailor communications

There is no shortage of communications needs, to every audience at every level, including owners, employees, vendors, communities and guests. Moreover, each audience needs messages and language tailored to their needs — there is no one-size-fits-all communication. Finally, communications isn’t a one-shot activity — it needs to be regular and continuous so that messages are updated and reinforced.

The working group focused on marketing and promotions, led by a representative from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, identified a few key challenges, including understanding how visitors expectations are changing, and tailoring communications to meet those evolving desires and values. Maintaining a sense of place and local culture and finding creative strategies for weaving those into branding and storytelling emerged as a key priority.

Kathryn Cooper Photography

At the end of the summit, participants were invited to synthesize their key insights and what they commit to do differently once back to work.  

4. Include diverse stakeholders

There is strength in diversity, and having a broad spectrum of the human ecosystem for a given location — for Hawaii or anywhere else — requires many voices. Participants were asked to think about colleagues, suppliers and partners who were not in attendance. Such diversity takes time and can be messy, but the outcomes will endure.

During the conclusion of the Summit, participants were invited to commit to one or more things they would do differently once back in their jobs. One participant from a large hotel boldly shared his intention to organize a working group of leaders from across the hotel's departments — including operations and marketing — to identify ways that cross-departmental collaboration can strengthen their sustainability efforts and communication.

5. Maximize momentum

This summit was an important step, but as Hawaii’s top GDP-producing industry, tourism requires greater emphasis and follow-up. Waiting one or more years to reconvene will not change the impacts that tourism has on Hawaii. Much progress already is underway on resource sustainability in Hawaii that needs nurturing and acceleration, especially within the Aloha+ Challenge. Other impactful collaborative opportunities exist, including Sustainable Travel International’s Pacific Sustainable Tourism Alliance, the Global Island Partnership and the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Annual Sustainable Tourism Summit.

The insights generated and relationships forged during the summit will continue to unfold — but they now have a firm foothold in the Aloha State.

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