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How much do consumers really care about sustainable tourism?

The new travel industry buzz word is ‘over-tourism’. Yes, they are two small words to describe a global issue. However, the explanation that typically follows, enables travellers to see the problem of sustainable tourism, plus the impact they have. 

They can then put their own values into action and play more of an active role in tourism sustainability, or not.

How can we promote customers to support sustainable living? 

The answer to this question has been in motion since 2011, when The Guardian ran an article asking how consumer behaviour could actually benefit the environment.

Seven years on, there are two assumptions when it comes to sustainability:

  1. By educating consumers about sustainable choices, they are more likely to purchase sustainable experiences and products
  2. It is better to highlight the benefit a product will bring to the individual or their cause, or simply combine sustainability in the product and remove the consumers choice

Essentially, the larger question is: does the public value sustainability enough to vote with their wallets? 

In the travel and tourism industry, consumers aren’t always aware of how their consumption of natural resources is putting some destinations and local residents at risk — something The International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is researching. 

They are tackling how increasing volumes of tourism in destinations that lack adequate infrastructure, is causing long term damage. A classic example is insufficient sanitary waste systems.

But all is not lost. Consumers and travellers are becoming more engaged by ethical and moral issues. In May 2018, the Hilton hotel group published results from almost 72,000 customers finding 62% would switch brands, if their current brand was in the news for unethical practices. This is good news right?

However, whilst this theoretical data indicates that Millennial travellers are increasingly aware of sustainability, the practical results don’t always align. Megan Epler Wood, principal of sustainable tourism development firm EplerWood International and director of ISTI at Harvard, notes that, “Though travellers increasingly do care about sustainability, it’s often challenging for them to know how to identify what is a sustainable company or destination.”

Overtourism With a welcoming like this, the effects for of over tourism on local people may be more obvious than we think.

What can be done to remedy this?

By incentivising good behaviour among businesses and consumers, there would be more sustainability gains than by using guilt, or consumers goodwill.

Even armed with this information, its effectiveness is uncertain. As a University of Berkeley study found, “More or better information on sustainability issues will likely have limited impact on changing mainstream consumer behaviour”. The only way this will work is if sustainability becomes part of a consumers decision making process, whether this be through choice or lack of it.

Exodus Travel, a well-known UK adventure tour operator has been banning the bottle for some time now. They have taken away the need for their consumers to buy plastic water bottles when they travel, instead providing either treatment options or (exchangeable) drums of water to decant from into a reusable bottle.

Sustainable tourism This is a beach on a tourism destination in the Philippines. Lack of infrastructure comes with a price.

One solution is to incentivise sustainable travel

On June 14, 2018, a team of experts gathered at Harvard Business School to discuss ways of driving sustainable goals and lifestyles in business. Shawn Cole, a professor in the Finance Unit at HBS, praised the idea of incentivising good behaviour in business and for consumers, over simply relying on consumer motivation.

Yet it appears to be neither guilt or education that are pervasive enough to change peoples travel behaviours. On the whole, most people are not putting sustainability into practice when they travel. What is needed is a set of clear, strong, meaningful and longterm metrics, which governments can put in place. These will hopefully restrict tourism to positive levels, and ease the impact on local people and natural environments.

John Ehrenfeld, a retired MIT professor and author of Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, suggests we must be “inventing a new unit [of measurement] with a socially transparent effect,” for consumers to be better aware of their own impact.

With the availability of these governmental metrics, so to will transparency of the impact and burden that tourism brings to peoples doorsteps. Then people can put their values into action and play a more proactive part in sustainable tourism. 

Have a read about when I travelled single use plastic free in Egypt and Sudan.

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