June 25, 2021 / Point of View
Katie Anderson and Alli Bolger
The following article was edited and originally published on PhocusWire.
As Americans begin to emerge from the pandemic and return to travel, we can reflect on some unexpected outcomes of this difficult time. The famously murky water of Venice’s beloved canals were so clear, fish were visible as a result of decreased boat traffic. Bears, which are naturally reclusive, were spotted with greater frequency at Yosemite National Park in California. In the congested urban landscape of East London, deer roamed free. And NASA researchers watched as global nitrogen dioxide concentrations decreased by nearly 20%.
These anomalies are also just a few examples of how COVID-19 has opened our eyes to the tremendous impact of humans on the environment and on the delicate balance between economy and ecology when it comes to tourism. For all of the positive ecological outcomes of decreased travel, there have been negative impacts on the economies of destinations worldwide.
So what happens now? Do we go back to our unchecked ways when travel resumes? We believe COVID-19 is allowing the travel industry to reevaluate, readjust and reimagine the definition of sustainable travel and, as a result, what that could mean for the future of destination marketing. Marketers should now measure success not only by how many people it booked to a particular destination, but in what condition those visitors left that destination—both ecologically and economically—after the trip was over.
Many signs are telling us that the future of travel is sustainable, but also that the definition of sustainability is evolving from “do no harm” to “do better.” Those that lead the way will create thriving destinations for travelers and local communities alike, benefitting both the economy and the environment.
“Sustainability” is a sincere aspiration of many travelers and viewed as a moral imperative in our globally connected world. Both consumers and thought leaders increasingly insist that brands be environmentally responsible. For example, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has called on businesses to prioritize sustainability. BlackRock has placed 191 businesses on a watch list and voted against 64 directors and 69 companies for climate-related reasons. “The more your firms are seen to embrace the climate transition and the opportunities it brings, the more the market will reward your firms with higher valuations,” wrote Fink in a letter to CEOs.
As people start releasing their pent-up travel desires in the coming months, how can travel destination marketers leverage this momentum? According to The Harris Poll, travel is the #1 splurge purchase North Americans are saving up for post-pandemic and half of Americans are starting to plan or have already booked a 2021 summer vacation. Marketers should be blending management and marketing to create a singular tourism experience. Here are key steps to take.
Set your ambitions, act to achieve them and communicate what you’re doing.
Be clear with your ambitions in joining in and promoting sustainable tourism. You don’t need to have achieved your ambitions yet, but you do need to articulate your actions and determine what you need to do to get there. Join a sanctioning organization like the Future of Tourism Coalition or the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, or take steps to achieve certification from an accredited certification body. Proactively communicate with tourists, local residents and the local business community about what you’re doing, how they can help and how they could benefit from your efforts. And consider doing something big to connect with your target audience and differentiate from competitors. In 2017, Vail Resorts announced its intention to achieve zero net emissions by 2030 and supported this goal with an extensive public relations effort.
Transform travelers from the problem into the solution.
According to Booking.com’s 2020 Sustainable Travel Insights, 82% of travelers think sustainable travel is important and 72% believe that travel companies should offer customers more sustainable travel choices. And while these statistics are encouraging both ecologically and economically, many travelers don’t know how to go green or where to start. According to a National Geographic survey, only 15% of adults are sufficiently familiar with what sustainable travel actually means. And 37% of travelers in the Booking.com report admit they don’t know how to make their travel more sustainable.
Travelers clearly want to do better when they travel, but they need help to be sustainable. It’s in bridging this “good intentions gap” where marketers can play a critical role. Rather than launch a generic campaign that just asks people to “be responsible” — which everyone can agree with and what you’re probably doing already — focus on recommending small behavior changes that can have an outsized impact.
To address the problem of overtourism, the Icelandic Tour Board put a sustainable lens on its existing “Inspired By Iceland” campaign. One component of this refresh was The Icelandic Pledge, a unique oath for tourists whereby they agree to respect Iceland's nature and to travel responsibly during their stay. Among the pledges: “I will take photos to die for without dying for them” and “I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road.”
As part of the “Stay Wild” campaign, we helped the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board urge visitors to replace the actual geographic location of their Instagram posts with “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild” to discourage people from following social media geotags. This action helped reduce harmful traffic and unintended environmental harm to fragile nature areas, and also helped travelers stay on designated trails. At last count, the campaign had resulted in more than 900 million earned media impressions and demonstrated Jackson Hole’s leadership in sustainable travel.
Because of stress on the islands’ natural resources as a result of tourism, the Faroe Islands were “closed for maintenance, open for voluntourism” for two days in 2020. All sites and attractions were only open to voluntourists and the locals who helped them perform tasks like maintaining paths, removing garbage and constructing signage. The 11 sites that received help were determined by local citizens and farmers. For their commitment, the voluntourists were given free food and accommodations for three nights. The goal is to repeat and expand on this idea every year.
Make it easier to travel and explore responsibly in your market, from the ground up.
Tourism impacts all areas of the community, so think beyond your own industry by involving transportation authorities, energy partners, local farmers and others to find opportunities and reduce impact. Organize and incentivize the local tourism community and local businesses to build more sustainable offerings, such as tours, accommodations, activities, menus and the like.
Costa Rica is an exceptional example of how successful sustainable tourism blends caring for the planet with creating a healthy local economy and actively seeking input from the local community. The country was awarded the United Nations’ highest environmental honor in 2019: UN Champion of the Earth. It uses a remarkable 99.2% renewable energy and has seen massive tourism gains since 2019 due to ecotourism leadership. Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) rates businesses from 0 to 5 on green efforts and is recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel and tourism.
This year will offer more opportunities for travelers to reignite their traveling spirit. With your help, they’ll be able to reimagine it, too. Determine your ambition, work toward it and talk about it. Influence customer behavior by making small changes easy. Partner with like-minded individuals and groups to achieve greater strength in numbers and incentivize them to drive sustainability efforts. All of these seemingly modest actions can result in a significant positive impact to promote sustainability and keep your destination accessible and beautiful for many years to come while building a strong economic foundation for the future.
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