The movement may be head-spinningly complex, but there are many avenues for hotels and tour operators to help save the planet
“Move Over, Sustainable Travel,” trumpeted a newspaper headline last summer, “Regenerative Travel Has Arrived.”
Indeed, it has. According to the article, even as global tourism nosedived during the pandemic – the World Travel & Tourism Council estimated losses of 121 million jobs and at least $3.4 trillion – some in the industry have been planning for travel to return “better than it was before March 2020 – greener, smarter and less crowded.”
While the United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities,” regenerative tourism is basically “leaving a place better than you found it.”
So should hoteliers and travel operators seeking to have a positive impact on the destinations they invite travelers to experience eschew sustainability for something more regenerative?
“One of the concerns I have is that we may be entering a new era of ‘greenwashing,’” says Costas Christ, an original visionary of sustainable tourism (see Sustainability Man), who ticks off other spins such as geotourism, conscious travel and impact travel, before landing on regenerative travel as “the latest kid on the block.”
“There is a lot of talk about regenerative travel, but when you pull back the curtain, it’s just more marketing spin. I have researched it extensively and cannot find even one single example of regenerative travel leaving a place better than it was found that is any different from what sustainable tourism has been putting into practice for more than a decade.”
While Christ says he is behind “anything that will dial the travel industry forward on sustainability,” he cautions against needless complexity. “We already have the tools in place, and hundreds of case studies show sustainable tourism works. What we need is to put more energy into advancing positive impact.”
Whatever one calls it, travel consumers are strongly supportive of sustainability. The 2019 Sustainable Travel Report from Booking.com, for instance, found that 72% of travelers believe people should be taking action and making sustainable choices for the future of the planet, while 70% of global travelers would be more likely book an eco-friendly accommodation whether or not they were seeking to travel sustainably.
What hotels and travel operators should focus on, then, are the three pillars of sustainable tourism:
- Protecting natural environments, wildlife and natural resources when developing and managing tourism activities
- Providing authentic tourist experiences that celebrate and conserve heritage and culture
- Creating socio-economic benefits for communities through employment and income-earning opportunities
As travelers have become more desirous of sustainability, hoteliers and travel operators have responded in kind. Among major international players, for instance, Marriott International launched Serve 360 in 2017, committing to delivering positive results in four priority areas inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – all 17 of ‘em – including nurturing the world; sustaining responsible operations; empowering through opportunity; and welcoming all and advancing human rights.
Meanwhile, the leading Spanish hotel chain Meliá Hotels International has promoted its 2019 ranking as the “World’s Most Sustainable Hotel Company” for achieving the highest score in the global travel & tourism industry, including the maximum on climate strategy, on the globally recognized SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment.
Lots of small independent hotels have much to tout about as well. A quick glance at various roundups of top eco-friendly hotels (there are many) finds gems such as the eco-retreat Camp Glenorchy on Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand, built according to the Living Building Challenge from the International Living Future Institute that metaphorically suggests buildings should function as cleanly and efficiently as a flower to guide performance across seven ‘petals’ of sustainability: health, happiness, energy, water, materials, place, beauty, and equity. Neat!
Many Hawkins International clients have made great strides on sustainability. In Africa, Wilderness Safaris has a history of directing conservation investment to areas in which it operates. Last April, for instance, the company’s non-profit partner Wilderness Wildlife Trust allocated $20,000 towards the Namibia Desert Lion Conservation Project to ensure the continuity of crucial work in the ongoing mitigation of human-lion conflict in the country’s northwest. And just this week, Wilderness Safaris opened DumaTau and Little DumaTau, new 100% sustainable, wellness-focused lodges in Botswana’s Linyanti region.
Nomadic Expeditions, the ultimate experts in adventure and authentic travel to Mongolia, has become an international benchmark for sustainable tourism, continuously striving to enrich local lives, protect the places it visits, and spread best practices throughout the vast and beautiful country, whether it’s preserving indigenous eagle hunting traditions, hiring and training only local guides, or creating alternative employment to extractive industries such as mining. Nomadic Expeditions guests stay in authentic ‘gers” (yurts) and offers travelers true nomadic experiences on horseback, camel back, and off road. Anyone traveling to Mongolia will get an incredible feel from everything from visiting camel herders in the Gobi to meeting Buddhist monks. In 2020, Nomadic Expeditions formed a new partnership with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and the Peregrine Fund to create and fund a five-year field research project to drive golden eagle conservation using globally recognized citizen science techniques. It also achieved 100% renewable solar energy to power its USA headquarters in Cranbury, New Jersey.
On the shores of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the new beach enclave Palmaïa, The House of AïA embraces sustainable practices, from maintaining its dense mangroves and protecting its namesake palma chît from extinction, to encouraging plant-based dining, as animal consumption is a big contributor to climate change, and using 100% biodegradable ingredients and essential oils in its bathroom amenities.
Which begs the question: What can hotels and travel operators based in urban destinations do for sustainability? Plenty.
As urban hotels become centers of their communities, reflecting local culture from dining options to onsite interactive spaces, they have motivation to enhance the neighborhoods around them. Late last year, for instance, Hyatt, a client of our sister agency Maverick Creative, launched Hyatt Loves Local, a global initiative undertaken by member properties to provide complimentary resources and exposure to uplift local businesses that have struggled during the pandemic.
“Tourism should never be about conquering a destination, but rather it should be about enhancing it, culturally through hotel design that embraces sense of place and local character; environmentally through reducing carbon emissions and waste; protecting nature through support for conservation projects and programs; and investing in community businesses and prioritizing hiring local people,” explains Christ, who points out a variety of things city hotels can and have done to further sustainability, from darkening roof lights to minimize interference in bird migrations to partnering with organizations that work to support wildlife in local parks.
Not surprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout were no help to sustainability, resulting in losses of jobs and income in poor communities that are dependent on tourism, and forcing a halt or reduction in anti-poaching operations in more than half of protected areas in Africa, as noted in a recent piece on phys.org.
The good news is, sustainable tourism remains a priority for the post-pandemic future of the travel industry. The “One Planet Vision” of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, for instance, calls for a responsible recovery of tourism “founded on sustainability,” and striving to enhance the industry’s resilience by balancing the needs of people, the planet, and prosperity. The Vision recommends six lines of action: public health, social inclusion, biodiversity conservation, climate action, circular economy, and governance and finance.
Meanwhile, the Center for Responsible Travel and Sustainable Travel International are among a half-dozen organizations that lately banded together as the Future of Tourism Coalition to appeal for change. The organization’s 13 guiding principles include recognizing “most tourism by its nature involves the destination as a whole”; following “accepted scientific consensus on needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”; and limiting “high-occupancy resort tourism to concentrated areas” to discourage resort sprawl from taking over coasts, islands and mountains.
Bottom line? You don’t have to shoot for the stars, just shoot for the planet.