Tourism and sustainability can often be seen as an uncomfortable pairing. There is valid criticism that tourism, when done wrong, can be exploitative – of both the environment and the cultures in focus. A prototypical vacation can involve flying and driving great distances powered by fossil fuels, eating decadent meals, staying in grand and resource-heavy accommodations, and maybe even bringing back a disposable souvenir. On a warming and crowded planet, that is all simply not sustainable.
As a traveler and a marketer, there are ways to do this better, both for the planet and for the quality of experience. Travel is widely understood as a life-changing tool that can open minds and bring people together, and it is worth the work needed to fit it into a sustainable economic future. Let’s look at the component parts of a trip and some ways which a tourism marketing leader can help make the experience not just greener, but more meaningful as well.
The largest challenge to tourism sustainability is the transportation itself. According to the International Air Transport Association, 2% of all the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are the result of aviation, and on average one mile of air travel produces over 50 pounds of CO2. A single flight from London to New York can produce as much CO2 per person as an entire year of somebody living in Ghana. Solo car travel is not much better, though per-person CO2 output drops significantly with multiple passengers.
There are two ways around this challenge – encourage less carbon-intensive travel to your destination, or to help promote offset opportunities. The latter is somewhat controversial in sustainability circles, as carbon offsetting can be seen as “buying indulgences” instead of meaningfully reducing emissions. With that said, offsets are certainly better than nothing, and you can consider offering credits through certified organizations such as Gold Standard, Green-e, or Climate Action Reserve. Some airlines have also directly partnered with offset programs to make the process easier for passengers.
To directly reduce the carbon footprint of your destination, the best way is to encourage more efficient travel to, from, and within your market. Trains and buses lead lead the way in terms of per-passenger fuel economy, as well as car trips with multiple occupants (to say nothing about electric cars). While these modes are often slower, and thus your marketing radius may be smaller, they do offer more opportunity to deliver a sense of place than a generic airline seat and glassy terminal. Many destinations now promote road trips and railways as attractions in-and-of themselves, often to great effect.
Once a traveler arrives on location, they will check-in to next big CO2 driver: lodging. Hotels and resorts can be massive operations with hundreds of rooms, large kitchens, energy-intensive amenities, and a “plant” of heavy machinery keeping the whole thing humming. In 2017, the International Tourism Partnership released their Hotel Global Decarbonisation Report, which called for a reduction of CO2 emissions from hotels by 66% by 2030, and 90% by 2050.
Many of the things that hotels need to do to become more sustainable are the same for any large building. This starts with construction, where good design and modern materials can significantly reduce future energy demands for heating and cooling. On existing structures, retrofitting the facility with energy-efficient lighting, smart thermostats and controls, modern fixtures and appliances, and other activities can meaningfully shrink your footprint. Beyond the ecologic outcomes of these actions, guests also enjoy (and share) when they know their stay left a smaller mark.
A step further you will find hotels and attractions that are designed specifically for ecotourism, known as traveling with the environment as the focal point. One of the core tenets of good tourism marketing is showcasing what makes your destination special and unique, and quite literally nothing is more intrinsic to your destination than the land, sea, and sky itself. From snorkeling in tropical reefs, to hiking through national parks, ecotourism has long been a part of many vacations, whether it was called that or not.
As with some of the other items mentioned here, promoting ecotourism is a bit of a double-edged sword. Local tourism and government leaders need to make sure their operators are treating the environment with respect and not simply exploiting and abusing these habitats. While a beautiful waterfall or scenic trail may become instagram-famous overnight, many sensitive ecosystems cannot handle the stress brought by throngs of heavy-stepping tourists. There is now even an increasing movement to avoid tagging specific geolocations for natural wonders.
The environmental impact from dining largely comes from two drivers: the type and amount of protein on your plate, and the distance that your food traveled. The first issue is a challenge for diners at home and away, and there are many individuals and organizations who push for more sustainable plant-based meals. On the second count, much dining on vacations is actually relatively green already – people want to taste local flavors on their trip, and there is great appeal in having fresh, local food that you can’t get at home.
Lastly, tourism leaders can encourage a form of “souvenir-shopping” that is the most sustainable, and marketing-friendly: taking photos. The old hiking adage of “leave only footsteps, take only photos” rings true. There is no trinket that is as low-carbon as a selfie, and a great shot can spread virally to help expose your destination to countless friends and followers. Destinations can prompt more photogenic experiences by identifying locations, building pose-worthy signs and statues, and promoting (non-corny) hashtags.
This all just scratches the surface of how we can make tourism more environmentally-friendly, and also how we can use our marketing power to both grow our communities and build a global green consciousness. As the climate crisis intensifies, more and more travelers will begin making trip decisions with sustainability top of mind, and it is up to each player in each market to meet that challenge.