Consumers are expected to travel with more purpose and sensitivity towards the health of people and planet when tourism resumes following the COVID-19 outbreak. About 82% of travellers identify sustainable travel as important to them and 58% are keen to make more sustainable choices, according to a survey by booking.com. It also found that 68% of travellers would like the money they spend on travel to go back into the local community.Such research shows responsible tourism will be crucial in helping the travel industry return to its feet – and those who embrace sustainable practices as part of their recovery process will reap the rewards in the long term. In an example of sustainable initiatives in tourism, Red Planet Hotels recently organised a beach clean-up in Chonburi, Thailand (main picture). Fiona Jeffery, Senior Partner, Finn Partners Global Responsibility Tourism Practice, said the pandemic can help put sustainability on the agenda.To what extent will responsible tourism be a key factor in driving the travel industry recovery?
We’ve been presented with a unique opportunity to recalibrate the industry and ensure social and environmental concerns matter. At the moment, a more immediate concern is whether businesses can survive and there’s been a lot of job losses across the travel industry. As businesses address health and social-safety issues, there will hopefully be a greater level of social and environmental consciousness too. In a recent webinar, you talked about how governments and trade bodies need to measure tourism in environmental and social, as well as economic, terms. Can you expand on that?
Yes, this could be an absolute game-changer for the industry and the planet. Measuring economic growth and the number of tourism arrivals is important but I think we should also measure air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and water scarcity to develop a more responsible travel and tourism industry. We can use the pandemic to positive effect to build a more impactful industry and [having access to these measures] may influence how we travel.
Travel brands will need to become more transparent. What do consumers expect from the industry?
Before the pandemic, people were happy to book holidays based on sexy marketing and the promise of inspiring experiences. Now, they want clarity on things like local healthcare systems, and this may influence where they want to travel. Insurance policies will be considered more, as travellers will want to know they can get home in an emergency. People need reassurance from destinations, airlines and hotels so they can feel confident about travel. How can a more responsible approach to tourism benefit destinations and firms in the long term?
I’d say massively in the long-term. But really, what is the alternative? People can’t destroy the product they’re seeking to promote. We need to move from short-term business benefits to think about long-term strategic benefits. Post-lockdown, you expect consumers to travel with greater sensitivity towards the health of people and planet. Do you really think that will be the case?
I genuinely hope so, and people’s behaviour can often change under extreme circumstances like this pandemic. During the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, initiatives were put in place and everyone respected them. Under exceptional circumstances, behavioural change does happen. The travel industry now needs to demonstrate great leadership to inspire change. What practical measures could travel companies and destination marketing organisations take to develop sustainable offerings?
Think about your business and the impact it has and don’t be overwhelmed by the dialogue. Mitigate the negative and enhance the positive. What can you do to reduce the negative impact of, say, using a lot of electricity? How can you consider your employees and communities more? Embrace the principle of partnership as we can’t do everything in isolation – collaboration strengthens resilience. Government, businesses and non-government organisations can come together as a transformational triangle to enhance each other’s capabilities and utilise one another’s strengths. You talk about destinations moving away from acting as marketing organisations to being responsible management companies with an environmental and social emphasis. How can they do that?
The United Nations’ sustainable development goals are a really brilliant framework, and the UN World Tourism Organization has a global code of ethics. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council has management schemes that provide valuable guidance. Firms can also partner with a charity that shares synergy with its organisation.
How can we expect travel to change as the industry reopens?
Tour operators will want to encourage people to feel safe and willing to travel. Domestic tourism will benefit most, and there will also be an expansion in regional and experiential travel. People may take fewer, longer trips that benefit the community directly, and if you’re not flying as much, your carbon footprint is also reduced. Ultimately we want a healthy planet and healthy industry, so we need to approach what we do with a real sense of responsibility and perspective supportive of communities we engage with in the whole journey.