Sustainable Travel CEO: How tourism industry does better

ShutterstockJay Boucher
With nearly 2,500 visitors traipsing around Machu Picchu every day, the 15th century city of the Incas is a fragile tourist destination.

As the world’s attention turns to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COP21 Paris climate talks, there’s a growing sense of urgency and growing recognition of tourism as a potential path to economic opportunity and environmental protection.

The SDGs specifically call for promoting sustainable tourism and adopting monitoring tools to assess its impacts. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has declared Sept. 27 World Tourism Day to highlight tourism’s power for environmental and social good.

"Tourism has been recognized as a force for sustainable and inclusive development, generating much needed jobs, alleviating poverty and contributing to environmental conservation,” said Dirk Glaesser, director of the UNTWO’s Sustainable Development Program. "However, we need to ensure that it is well planned and managed to maximize social and environmental outcomes. We’re committed to accelerating this shift towards more sustainable consumption and production.”

Many businesses have been proactive in adopting sustainable practices and even in helping frame the SDGs and COP21 goals. They also will be key actors in implementing them. Some travel businesses already are working together to assess and address the industry’s negative impacts, including the 5 percent of global GHG it emits, and to scale up the positive benefits to people and places worldwide. 

Industry, destination and sustainability leaders met at the Travel and Tourism Collective Impact Summit in Portland this week to further that agenda and to mark the launch of 10 Million Better, an industry-wide effort convened by Sustainable Travel International aimed at improving the lives of 10 million people in destination communities by 2025, while protecting natural and cultural heritage.

Travel and tourism is a $6.6 trillion industry. Its vast social and environmental footprint also provides enormous opportunity to leverage positive, global-scale change. If the whole industry worked together to adopt more sustainable practices, it no doubt could improve hundreds of millions of lives. But for tourism businesses and destinations to embrace that approach requires a compelling business case.

Fortunately, there’s a strong one. Working proactively and cooperatively to protect the environment and promote social and economic justice through travel and tourism reduces compliance risk and keeps businesses ahead of fast-changing regulations connected to the implementation of the SDGs.

It also reduces reputational risk, responds to consumer demand, builds customer loyalty, lowers costs, improves efficiency and employee retention rates, and helps protect destinations beyond the resort walls.

Surveys show a majority of consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to good. Havas’ "Meaningful Brands" report found the that businesses which integrate sustainability outperform others in KPIs by 100 percent, have a 46 percent higher share of wallet and outperform the stock market by 133 percent.

They align with the fast-rising demographic of "aspirationals," young-ish cultural influencers in emerging economies and around the world who help shape new norms and demand goods and services that combine quality and beauty with sustainability and responsibility.

Specifically in the tourism sector, sustainability initiatives save money and enhance brand reputation, employee motivation and goodwill with travelers. A recent Booking.com survey found 52 percent of global travelers were likely to choose a hotel or destination based on its social or environmental impact.

Decades of great work by many actors across the travel sector has brought sustainable practices and positive impacts to more places, and made sustainable choices available to more travelers, than ever before. Even outside what has been considered the "sustainable tourism" sector, more hotels recycle, more restaurants serve locally grown food and more airlines offset their carbon emissions. 

For example, United Airlines’ CarbonChoice program lets travelers offset the emissions of their flight and donate money or miles to bring social and environmental benefits to communities. United’s Eco-Skies program also promotes travel to sustainable destinations.

"We continuously look for ways to reduce our own footprint in the air, on the ground and at our facilities," said Angela Foster-Rice, managing director for environmental affairs and sustainability at United Airlines. "We are committed to environmental stewardship and to protecting the cultural and economic integrity of the destinations we serve."

While such laudable commitments are becoming widespread in the industry, travel and tourism still lags behind food, fashion, forestry and other industries that are making sustainability a business norm, pursuing shared, concrete objectives and demonstrating aggregated results.

But that’s starting to change. As the travel industry recognizes the need to collaborate on sustainability goals, silos are breaking and new tools are emerging to measure and aggregate impacts. Sustainable tourism is starting to look less like a flourishing segment of the market and more like a universal imperative for the whole industry. Travel industry leaders who attended the Portland Collective Impact summit cited different business reasons for embracing it.

For Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra Foundation and vice president for social enterprise and sustainability at G Adventures, sustainability commitments help his organization stand out as a leader of the industry trend. "We believe that all too often tourism fails to deliver on its promise to improve the lives of local people," he said. "We are determined to demonstrate that G Adventures is different and we are working with Sustainable Travel International to measure this for the first time."

For Paula Duque of Panama’s ecotourism project ECOTUR-AP, focusing on sustainability represents a chance to spread tourism’s benefits beyond the Canal Zone.

"It provides a path to sustainable economic development for communities throughout the whole country, and a way to protect Panama’s natural and cultural heritage," she said. "We announced our Green Tourism Initiative this year, recognizing sustainable tourism is key to preserving our diverse national parks and World Heritage sites. It is the new vision of Panama beyond the canal. We also see the opportunity of bringing more of the benefits from tourism to indigenous communities.”

Other tourism business at the Portland summit said they see sustainability as synonymous with a better experience, greater authenticity, better tasting food and a warmer community reception. 

But whatever reasons they cited, all participants committed "to operate and grow responsibly and to influence, restore, protect, and build the communities in which people travel." That’s a significant step on the path to realizing tourism’s vast potential to drive sustainable development. Not coincidentally, it’s also the path to better performance for tourism companies and destinations.