We're at the beginning of a period of long-term change toward more sustainable business practices from members of the global travel industry. Executives who take a proactive approach will be rewarded for not just being ahead of the curve but doing the right thing.
Overtourism, flight shaming, climate strikes, and global warming are each major issues with serious ramifications for the global travel sector. Until recently, though, industry leaders haven’t had much to say about their efforts to change the status quo.
At Skift Global Forum in New York City last Wednesday and Thursday, travel’s top executives expressed concerns with overtourism and the environmental impact of travel but did little to offer alternative visions to limit the damage to the environment and communities around the world.
The theme of the event was travel’s responsibility to the world, and on that subject, executives clearly showed they have a ton of work to do to create positive, lasting change.
The leaders of the biggest online travel agencies, for instance, talked up the importance of travel growing more sustainably while demurring on what exactly they would change going forward.
“We can’t demonize the greatness of travel… but we need to make sure travelers know there are other places to go besides the popular places,” said Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom.
According to Okerstrom, an important role for intermediaries is to help convince customers they don’t need to travel to the most popular places. By surfacing and promoting alternatives, agencies can help distribute travelers in a more sustainable way.
Others called for regulations to help guide their actions.
“Overtourism is a serious problem… we believe there needs to be some solution to this, but it can’t be done by just one company,” said Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings. “It’s the government’s duty to set up the ground rules.”
The cruise industry takes perhaps even more flak than the aviation sector on its environmental impact and role in urban overtourism.
“At any point the number of cruise guests is very small compared [to domestic visitors and others],” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp. “For us, because we are visible, we feel we need to lead the way and connect with local communities so they feel were improving the quality of life for the locals… [for instance] the mayor of Dubrovnik will tell you he wants more cruise, the reality is that the cruise guests do spend well, but they don’t spend necessarily as much as someone staying at a week at a hotel.”
Fair enough; obviously someone in Dubrovnik for an afternoon isn’t going to spend as much as someone spending a week in a local hotel. But leadership in the cruise sector needs to grapple with the reality that local backlash will play a role in the industry’s acceptance as calls to reduce overtourism and protect the seas grows.
It makes more sense for distribution platforms and industry middlemen to wait for regulation than those actually designing travel products; if you don’t sell particular flights or cruises, potential customers will just head to your competitors and book anyway.
The hotel sector is making an effort as well to reduce its use of natural resources and design hotels that are able to operate both more sustainably and efficiently.
“The greatest risk in the golden age of travel is that we’re not responsible with the environment… our industry would ultimately not be able to pursue opportunities if we’re not responsible,” said Christopher Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Worldwide.
There is only so much hotel brands can do, though, since owners and developers are the ones on the ground in global destinations making decisions about how hotels are built and designed.
For TripAdvisor, which has long taken stands on divisive issues like tours involving animal cruelty, taking a case-by-case approach to removing products from its site seems to be working.
The company recently, along with Booking Holdings, joined Travalyst, the group spearheaded by Prince Harry that charges companies to operate more sustainably. It’s still an open question, though, if Travalyst will have any tangible impact on the world.
“While each of our companies have already put muscle behind sustainable travel in our own way, this is about what we can do together… light on specifics? Yeah, we’re [figuring it out],” said Steve Kaufer, TripAdvisor CEO.
Small Changes With a Big Impact
Smaller companies, and those with a larger stake in sustainable business practices, are taking interesting approaches to operating sustainably.
Saira Hospitality, a nonprofit which trains locals to work in luxury hospitality roles around the world, is just one example of a smaller company taking a compelling approach to changing the status quo of the industry.
“We’re in an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers through serving needs greater than their own; there’s a clear correlation between purpose and profit,” said Harsha L’Acqua, CEO of Saira Hospitality. “Sustainable, authentic, local, experiential. Aren’t we all sick of these buzzwords? We’re focusing so much on local products, we’re forgetting the people.”
Another lesson can be learned from the Faroe Islands, which went viral and then turned the importance of sustainability for the small destination into a mindful, long-term marketing campaign.
The travel industry also has a poor track record when it comes to accessibility, with hotels in particular suffering from either a lack of information about the features of their rooms or poorly designed properties that make travel near impossible for those with disabilities.
Stephen Cluskey, CEO of Mobility Mojo, laid out a compelling vision for how the global travel sector has not just neglected those with disabilities but the business opportunity associated with making a stronger commitment to accessibility.
“Studies show that more than 50 percent of people with access needs choose not to travel because of a lack of info or a fear of something going on,” said Cluskey. “The scariest thing isn’t the organizing. It’s the uncertainty. It’s the black hole of not knowing what they’ll get.”
“Lots of people with disabilities still believe doors are closed to them,” he added. “I know this is not the case. We just need to inform people properly.”
You can check out Skift’s eight tenets for the greening of travel below.
Photo credit: TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer, left, with Skift CEO Rafat Ali at Skift Global Forum 2019. Skift