by Peter Berg Schmidt, Owner, Beachmeter.com
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Our holiday is a time to free ourselves from our worries
Join a sustainable tourism seminar today, and you will walk away thinking that sustainable tourism is the next big thing. If we could turn back time and enter the 90s, you would have walked away from the seminar with the same conviction; that tides were changing and a big boost in responsible travel was right around the corner. “A growing number of tourists prefer sustainable travel”, “One out of three travelers would pay more for staying at a sustainable hotel, up 10% from 5 years ago” etc. etc.
After 2-3 decades with positive outlooks on the growth of sustainable tourism, where do we stand today? It may be that ecotourism and other responsible forms of travel have become more visible and have seen an increase in total numbers, but so have other forms of travel during the steady growth of the tourism sector. No matter how we look at it, sustainable tourism is still an “alternative” and nowhere near the norm.
Concern doesn’t belong on a holiday
A few years back, I made a free sustainable travel guide for travel agencies to hand out to their customers. I also spent weeks identifying green hotels while juggling with hundreds of different eco-labels and investigating the commitments of each hotel. The response was underwhelming. Travel agencies were generally not interested, and their clients (the tourists) did not request such guides. Why?
I think we can find some of the answers by digging up an old tourism research classic. If you have studied tourism, chances are that you have come across an article from 1989 called “Tourism: A Sacred Journey” by Nelson H. H. Graburn*. Here Graburn illustrates the dichotomy between the ordinary everyday life of work and responsibilities (the profane), and the non-ordinary (sacred) life of vacation characterized by pleasure, play, relaxation, and informality:
Although this dichotomy is becoming more muddy as travel and work increasingly intertwine today, it still holds true that when we travel for holiday, we seek a break from the ordinary. A break from our daily worries, tasks, and maybe even our colleagues. Our holiday is our reward, our time for self-pampering, and our breath of fresh air from daily worries where we can go crazy and act out. In this mindset, a lot of tourists are not prepared to worry about the problems of the world including environmental and social sustainability.
In other words, worrying about sustainability is part of ordinary life, while vacation mode is a time of relief from such anxieties.
To say and not to do sustainability
Ask anybody if they would prefer to stay at a green hotel and go on a responsible holiday tour, and you will get a ‘yes’ 9 out of 10 times. However, this doesn’t mean that these factors are a top priority. In a booking situation, what most of us look for is a good value holiday that fulfills our own needs. So even though we may be positive towards sustainability, we are more concerned with convenience of booking, hotel rankings, enticing images, room amenities, and hotel facilities that will directly affect our holiday experience. If our chosen hotel or holiday package does commit to following the guidelines of sustainability, that’s just icing on the cake.
How do we sneak in more sustainable tourism?
How easy is it booking a hotel or a holiday package today? The hardest part is probably choosing from the hundreds of available options. Other than that, finding and buying your hotel and extra travel add-ons from the comfort of your armchair is a breeze. On booking websites you find user-friendly booking flows, descriptive images, and you can quickly compare prices and dates among several providers. Sustainable tourism products should be just as accessible and price competitive, but that’s often not the case.
Here are three critical adjustments needed to boost the proportion of sustainable tourism products sold and enjoyed:
- Take the product straight to where the customer is
- Translate “sustainability” into hands-on actions
- Don’t “bother” tourists with a choice
One: Take the product straight to where the customer is
For sustainable travel products to be visible and contend for a bigger share of bookings, they need to be where the customers are. They need to be on user-friendly booking platforms, and they need to be competitive in a tourism market that has never been more transparent on price and customer experiences.
Today, if I want to arrange my own eco-holiday, I will bail out if I have to do hours of research finding each sustainable hotel or eco-tour operator. I will bail out if I have to visit each supplier’s individual website to make inquiries and fill out forms, because of their often non-working online booking procedures and availability searches. I am too spoiled at this point. So for sustainable tourism to emerge as more than a niche for the few dedicated consumers, sustainable tourism products have to be found, compared, and paid with the same ease as mainstream travel products.
Two: Translate “sustainability” into hands-on actions
Eco-labels are great tools for hotels and tourism product providers to systematize their efforts on sustainability. They help create sustainability goals, they provide tools for monitoring progress, and they help identify gaps that can lead to a better eco-performance. For tourists, however, it doesn’t mean much that this or that hotel received 3 palm leaves, a silver medal, our 5 stars from one of the hundreds of sustainability certification schemes. There are so many labels, each with their own eco-standards, auditioning methods, and focus areas, and frankly I don’t have the determination nor the time to investigate what the rating or certification translates to. It doesn’t hurt to signal that a hotel has been eco-certified, but it should never stand alone.
As a potential customer, I am more interested in knowing what a hotel does to be an environmentally and socially responsible company than whether or not it has received a medal from someone. Customers need to be informed on concrete sustainability actions.
The example above allows me to understand how this hotel approaches sustainability. It takes sustainability from a diffuse academic concept to a practical and hands-on approach that I can identify with. I can even go and check this hotel’s accountability if that’s what I wanted.
Three: Don’t “bother” tourists with a choice
I have a love/hate relationship with the Fairtrade label. I love the fact that I can buy a product that has been produced and sold responsibly with environmental and social well-being in mind. I hate the fact that it is necessary to label something that should be a minimum requirement. Why are customers presented with a choice of buying or not buying a product that has been produced under proper circumstances?
The same goes for tourism products. I would prefer to shop around in an online tourism store, where I don’t need to worry about underpaid bellboys and excessive use of water and energy resources. I want the choice of sustainability to be eliminated, and instead be integrated in the mainstream production line. That way, I don’t have to worry about sustainability on my holiday, because it has already been taken care of.
There are already an increasing number of tourism product and service suppliers that are working on 1) enabling easy finding, booking, and paying of eco-holidays; 2) informing customers of hands-on sustainability efforts of each supplier; and 3) boosting the integration of sustainability into mainstream tourism thereby eliminating customer choice and worry.
I would like to draw attention to one such provider of responsible holidays, BookGreener.com. BookGreener is a new online booking platform already well on the path to fulfilling the three before-mentioned adjustments needed to take sustainability from the fringe to the centre of tourism.
BookGreener provides users with a growing number of hotels around the world that care about their staffs, their environmental footprints, and the overall well-being of the surroundings in which they operate. Founder and sustainable tourism expert Alexandre Tsuk says: “A hotel that cares about staff, community, and environment, will also care greatly for the well-being and special holiday experience of their guests”.
On each hotel page, you will find a structured overview of the various sustainable practices of that particular hotel, along with images, descriptions, maps, and other useful information. The responsible actions are grouped into themes such as ‘waste’, ‘water’, ‘kitchen’, and ‘guest education’, so website visitors can understand why the hotel has been selected as a green pioneer. A smooth booking and payment procedure is being implemented as we speak, and the rates will compete with all other online booking platforms.
An open-source community for caring hotels and sustainability experts
BookGreener does more than provide tourists with a green booking platform, they offer an amazing resource for hotel operators to transform their hotels into sustainability champions. On the webpage BookGreener.connect experts share their knowledge and experience in different aspects of sustainability. There are free podcasts and webinars on community involvement, energy consumptions, and more. The webinars give practical solutions to hotel managers who wish to boost the sustainability of their products and services, and perhaps save some extra dollars on their consumption bills. Don’t forget to enjoy the great selection of tourism sustainability webinars and hear the podcast interviews with sustainability experts.
By openly sharing these great tips, BookGreener is doing the tourism industry a great favour in making sustainability tangible and approachable for all players in the tourism sector. As both tourists and the tourism industry become aware of the benefits and applicability of sustainable tourism, responsible travel will creep into mainstream tourism because it makes sense. Once it’s there, tourists can worry less about choices, responsibilities, and impacts, and more about enjoying their holiday.
About the author:
Peter Berg Schmidt is a tourism professional with a background in anthropology and tourism management. He has worked several years in the tourism industry designing travel products and advising on sustainable tourism development. Peter runs his own website, Beachmeter.com, where he shares stories from the beach, sustainable travel insights, interviews with travel experts, and gives you inside stories from the tourism sector.
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Graburn, Nelson H. H. (1989): “Tourism: The Sacred Journey” in Valene L. Smith (ed) (1989): Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2nd ed), s. 21-36.