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Why do consumers only pay lip service to sustainable tourism?


Published by:

28 June 2018

Author: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

Image: Sir Hotels


By enabling tourists to actually see the problem and the impact they have, they will put their values into action, and can play a more direct role in tourism sustainability.

How can we increase customer engagement with sustainable living? The answer to this question has been in constant development since 2011, when The Guardian ran an influential article asking how consumer behaviour could actually benefit the environment.

Seven years on, one school of thought says that by educating consumers about their sustainable choices, they will be more inclined to purchase sustainable products and experiences. The other believes that it is best to either highlight the personal benefit a product will bring to the individual or their cause, or embed sustainability within products and services, thereby removing the need to choose. The question is: do consumers perceive sustainability adequately enough today to vote with their spending?

In the travel and tourism industry, consumers often don’t realise how their consumption of natural resources is putting some destinations and their residents at risk – something The International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is uncovering. The ISTI highlights the growing yet largely undocumented and unseen burden on destinations worldwide caused by, for example, insufficient sanitary infrastructure to support swelling visitor numbers.

Promisingly, travel consumers appear engaged with moral and ethical issues. In May of 2018, hotel group Hilton announced the results of a large survey of nearly 72,000 guests, finding 62% would switch to a different brand if the brand they typically used was in the news for unethical practices. However, while data shows that Millennial travellers are increasingly interested in sustainability, that does not always translate into actions on the ground. 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.’

"By incentivising good behaviour among businesses and consumers, there would be more sustainability gains than by merely relying on the goodwill of people."

Further, even if this information is available, it’s 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’ – that is, unless it is designed to connect into a person’s existing decision‐making processes.

One solution is to incentivise sustainable travel. On June 14th this year, experts from several diverse fields met at Harvard Business School to discuss ways to drive sustainable goals and lifestyles forward in business. Shawn Cole, a professor in the Finance Unit at HBS, extolled the idea of incentives over altruism, pointing out that by incentivising good behaviour for both businesses and consumers, there would be more gains in sustainability goals than by merely relying on the goodwill of people.

Yet it remains that neither education nor guilt are proving persuasive tactics to influence travellers to be more sustainable. However, what we're beginning to understand is that we need strong, meaningful metrics that local governments can use to sustain levels of tourism that are both positive for the area, but also support local people and the natural environment.

John Ehrenfeld, a retired MIT professor and author of Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, suggests we need to be, ‘inventing a new unit [of measurement] with a socially transparent effect,’ to improve how consumers perceive their own impacts. By enabling tourists to actually see the problem and the impact they have, they will put their values into action, and can play a more direct role in tourism sustainability. However, the creation of such transparent and graphic metrics will only be possible with more research to help destinations reveal the burdens tourism brings to their doorstep.

Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst is a senior research consultant and writer at EplerWood International.


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