The effects of climate change are no longer relegated to news of melting ice caps at the poles and faint warnings of rising sea levels.
The last 10 days alone have seen countless German and Belgian towns torn apart by flood waters; submerged underground trains and floating cars in Zhengzhou, China; enormous hailstones on a 30° day in Kibworth Beauchamp, England; landslides and extensive flooding in the western Indian state of Maharashtra; and the town of Lytton in British Colombia has been erased from the map by extensive wildfires.
Even here, in the sleepy Austrian countryside, last Sunday was spent sandbagging to protect our homes as we watched the peaceful stream just metres away swell into a gushing torrent in just a couple of hours.
The scenes of devastation are apocalyptic. It is evident that these kinds of events are no longer one offs.
The 2015 Paris Agreement committed to do everything possible to combat the worst of climate change by eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to keep the temperature rise below 2°C.
While some admirable steps forward have been taken, progress in general has been inadequate.
There is no longer time to wait until governments take decisions for our futures. Your actions matter in this fight against climate change. No business is too small to make a difference.
There has never been a better time, apart from yesterday of course.
Booking.com´s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report talks about this being a “potential watershed moment for the [travel] industry and consumers”. 1
People travel to be delighted by our natural and cultural heritage. If they are erased by erratic climate-induced events, there will be no industry left.
The pandemic has driven tourism businesses into survival and resilience mode, and consumers into considering the impacts of their choices with heightened awareness and consciousness.
The same Booking.com report stated that “83% of global travelers think sustainable travel is vital, with 61% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future”. 1
In addition, the report continues that “Almost half (49%) still believe that in 2021, there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available, with 53% admitting they get annoyed if somewhere they are staying stops them from being sustainable, for example by not providing recycling facilities”. 1
What does “being sustainable” really mean?
It is a nebulous term that essentially translates into an aspiration. That is where the term Responsible Tourism comes in. Responsible Tourism is taking action that is relevant and important to your destination, with the end goal of generating a better place to live in, and therefore a better place to visit.
Let’s take a look at how you can begin to take steps that generate change in your destination.
#1. Get your staff involved
The best place to start is with your own staff. You might only have casual help with cleaning, or a part-time receptionist. They still count. You simply cannot a) generate change, and b) ensure that the change is maintained over time, without engaging your staff.
This goes far beyond asking your staff politely to turn lights off or to compost food waste. Sustained operational change can only happen when your staff members feel a part of the change, and for that they need to understand the reasons behind why you are asking them to do something differently, and they also want to know what is in it for them.
This is not egotistical behaviour; it is human nature.
Let’s think for a moment about the psychology behind general consumer buying decisions. We don’t always buy products or services based on price alone, maybe table salt and pasta yes, but not clothes, furniture or cars. We are always looking for that extra value that answers the question of “What’s in it for me?”, “What value do I get from this product?”.
The answer to this question could be as simple as accumulated points on a specific purchase; or a good dose of feel-good factor that your new t-shirt is made from organic cotton.
The point is, encouraging your staff to change the way they do things requires that you understand the similarity between getting them to “buy-in” to the change, and the recently explained “buying decision” psychology. They need to know the value of the changes they are being asked to make. What does it mean to their lives, their family's lives, their community, and the place they live?
This takes us nicely onto the next point.
#2. Get clued up about the concept of a "Circular Economy"
The tourism industry creates a local multiplier effect when money stays in the destination or the region.
You can do your bit by taking a look at your supply chain to assess where you buy products from. This can be anything from the printer paper you use to the sausages served for breakfast. Can you support more local businesses whose supply chains are also geared towards keeping money in the local economy?
A circular economy is not just about where products are purchased though. It is also about recycling – not just waste, but furniture for example. Can you upcycle something to give it a new lease of life? Upcycling can be stylish and luxurious. We are not just talking about turning an old bathtub into a flower planter, though that of course is also a great start.
The luxury lakeside lodge that I managed the marketing for back in Chile upcycled the 1950’s iron radiators from the rooms into steps that lead guests down into their vegetable garden. As a result, a part of the property’s history stays in situ, it adds a story to tell when showing operators and guests around, and kids spend hours on their morning fresh produce pick with the chef running up and down them and counting how many there are.
Basically, the model of a circular economy is about “decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system”. 2
It is also about making the best use possible of the natural resources available to us. Sunlight and shade for example to help warm and cool spaces. Green areas to encourage visits of bees, insects, and other local species.
The name “circular economy” might sound big in itself but getting started is easier than you think. Awareness is the very beginning.
#3: Work out what your destination needs the most right now
Water conservation has a very different meaning in rural Australia than it does in rainy northern England.
What is the most relevant issue that needs addressing right now in your destination?
This could be anything from building new cycle tracks to encourage people to use greener modes of transport, to creating more areas for children to play in. No one wants to visit a destination where groups of kids are hanging around because they don’t have anywhere to go.
Every destination is unique, and each will have its own set of challenges. Taking action to improve where you live and do business is the main pillar of Responsible Tourism.
It goes back to that staff buy-in mentioned above. When they can see that they work for a company that actively supports positive change that benefits their quality of life and that of their children, change begins to take on a new and more relevant meaning.
#4. Get serious about reducing plastics
Alongside biodiversity loss, and climate change itself, plastic pollution is one of the issues that the whole world is facing. Yes, we are slowly winning the battle on plastic straws, but there is much more than that.
Having said that, I am still shocked to see some businesses still offering and using plastic straws. Kids often demand a straw, parents capitulate, everyone wants to be happy on holiday, right? Why not lead the way by stocking metal straws, offer them as the only option and that they can be added onto your bill for a nominal fee? Ask someone in your local community to make beeswax bags to carry them in. The result here is a) a local job is created, b) the environment is spared another plastic straw, and c) the kids (and parents) are happy….!
There are also major steps that can be taken to raise awareness of the negative contribution to plastic pollution caused by flushing sanitary products. Fab Little Bag, a company based in the UK, offers hygienic and sustainable disposal solutions to businesses. Find out more at the link above and get started in raising awareness that ultimately generates behavioural change at home too. Every little helps!
#5. Talk about your achievements – no matter how small.
There are not enough people talking about what they are doing. To you, your small steps towards reducing your carbon footprint and the impact you have on the planet might seem too simple or insignificant to share or write about. This is a mistake. By sharing your responsible endeavours and achievements, you not only lead by example and encourage others to do the same, but you also take part in the bigger process of educating travellers and customers about how they too can do their bit.
Tell people how you planted new trees outside your rooms to create shade so that you reduce the need to cool spaces using fossil fuels. Talk about the meaning behind the embroidery on your cushion covers that is significant in the history and culture of the local community where they are made.
Storytelling is an age-old tradition that is simply not leveraged enough in the industry. Create an engaging and consistent content plan, weave in stories about your responsible actions and add in some behind the scenes detail. Publish a green manifesto, a responsible tourism pledge, an action list.
It doesn’t matter what you call, it, just do it.
But please, make sure that you are actually doing what you say you are doing.
That Booking.com report stated that “while 3 out of 4 accommodation providers say they have implemented at least some kind of sustainability practices at their property, only one-third actively communicate about their efforts proactively to potential guests”. 1
I do want to add in a caveat here in response to a comment I received a while back in my Building Tourism Resilience Facebook group when I quoted from another Booking.com report. I am aware that when bookings are made through the company, not all the money reaches the destination, which of course goes against the circular economy and multiplier concepts I talk about above. The reason for quoting from the report is that it offers complete, detailed, and up-to-date insights into current consumer opinions and trends that, as an industry, we cannot overlook.
So, in summary, there is much to be done. The list can seem endless, but I encourage you to do just that little bit more today.
In a bid to educate more tourism businesses about the changes that you can make in your destinations, I recently launched The School for Responsible Tourism.
Created in conjunction with Harold Goodwin, WTM’s Responsible Travel Adviser, the school is designed to offer educational resources that support you in your quest to do that little bit better.
It is a work in progress as there is so much to cover, but for now, I invite you to head over to the new site where you will find three (free) ways to get started.
There is a Responsible Tourism Practice Inspiration download, a best practice resource library (that will grow over time) and also a short course consisting of three 10-minute videos that cover the following:
a) the definition of Responsible Tourism and how you can get involved,
b) an introduction and discussion about the new Platform for Change, and
c) the Business Case for getting involved in Responsible Tourism and how it can benefit your business.
We have a unique chance and an imperative responsibility right now. A chance to make a difference in our own small way so that one day, responsible practice in tourism is not something we aim for, it simply is.
Found inspiration here? If you would like to receive more helpful, relatable and actionable content relevant to your business, click here to sign up to my email list. No spam, no bombarding you. Just really useful stuff. I look forward to having you onboard :)