While it's more obvious that hotels, airlines, and cruise lines have a big impact on sustainable tourism, travel advisors wield influence too. How they guide clients in the choices they make has ramifications for the health of the travel industry, as well as for the planet.
While hotels, cruise lines, tour companies, and destinations are under increasing pressure to implement sustainability practices, where do travel advisors fit in the movement toward responsible tourism?
Pointing to the influence that travel advisors have over their clients’ choices, sustainable travel experts say travel advisors can and should play a leading role.
“Responsible tourism is everyone’s job, not just the hotels and airlines, but travel advisors too,” said Susan Sweeney, a tourism digital marketing expert who led a session at the recent Ensemble Travel Group International Conference about the travel advisor’s role in sustainable tourism.
“You have a big impact on where people go and how they behave,” she told the audience. “As a travel advisor, you can do a lot. No one comes in and asks for a sustainable vacation. You have to take the initiative.”
Good for Business
Along with being good for the planet, consumer trends indicate that promoting sustainability makes good business sense.
Surveys such as Booking.com’s annual Sustainable Travel Report show growing interest among travelers in making responsible choices. Almost three quarters (73 percent) of the global travelers surveyed in 2019 said they intended to stay in at least one eco-friendly accommodation this year, up from 65 percent in 2017 and 68 percent last year.
Concern over the impact of tourism on destinations is such that some in the travel industry are concerned that a growing number of people will decide the best solution is to not travel at all.
“There are potential clients out there who are staying home because they view travel as not sustainable and are turned off by overtourism,” said Gary Pollard, owner of Ambassador Tours, a San Francisco-based travel agency. “We can’t be afraid to market sustainable tourism — it’s not a negative anymore. Suppliers are doing some really positive things, but not enough people know about them. Travel advisors can be instrumental in getting the message out that travel can also benefit destinations.”
Guiding the Way
Among others who believe travel advisors have “huge potential” in promoting responsible tourism is Jonathan Day, an associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and chair of Travel Care Code, a network of academic and marketing organizations that publishes guidelines for sustainable travel.
“Advisors can guide clients to products that are adopting sustainability in their businesses, and they can encourage suppliers to adopt sustainability measures,” he said.
Day sees sustainability guidance as a way for travel advisors to demonstrate their value to clients. While many travelers are eager or at least willing to make responsible choices, he noted that researching suppliers and destinations committed to sustainability is often confusing and time-consuming.
“If I want to buy organic food, I can find it on the shelf, but it’s much harder with travel,” he said. “So if my travel advisor can direct me toward the right way, that’s an important service.”
Erin Green, a travel advisor with Pique Travel Design in Excelsior, Minnesota, who holds degrees in sustainable tourism and environmental studies, said her clients appreciate guidance.
“Often clients don’t know the right questions to ask in regards to sustainable travel,” she said. “If a travel advisor is armed with the right information and can share stories or insights with clients about specific partners related to their commitment to sustainability, these ideas can often influence decisions. Clients really love to hear that beyond just planning a great vacation, they are planning a vacation that gives back in some way.”
Clearing Up Misconceptions
Despite a growing interest among travelers in sustainability, travel advisors may need to address misconceptions that it means discomfort or even hardship.
“Some people think sustainability is about doing without clean towels for two weeks or not having electricity,” said Heather Magnussen, director of responsible travel and sustainability manager for Audley Travel. “We can educate clients that it’s about working with local partners in the destination to create authentic experiences. Not only won’t they be uncomfortable, but they’ll actually have a better time.”
Irene Lane, a sustainable tourism consultant and president of the tour company Greenloons, agreed, adding that many clients may not realize that they can enjoy favorite activities and upscale amenities while traveling in a sustainable manner.
“They can stay at hotels with luxury amenities that use renewable energy sources and minimize waste,” she said. “They can engage in fun water activities that support conversation and participate in cultural activities that respect local traditions, rather than feeling like they’re attending a performance.”
Researching and vetting suppliers committed to sustainability is an essential part of steering clients toward responsible choices, but it can take some digging. Determining who is really making strides as opposed to those who are simply greenwashing —or putting a false spin on their efforts — is not easy, experts say.
While sustainability certification can be a good indicator, Lane noted that it’s important to check if the supplier received it from a legitimate source such as EarthCheck, Green Destinations, or Travelife.
“While some ‘seals of approval’ include an intense verification process, others are simply available for purchase,” she said.
When it comes to hotels, Lane recommends asking about the percentage of local ownership and management, labor practices, whether or not food and furnishings are locally sourced, and how the community benefits.
Another issue travel advisors should consider is what impact the development of a hotel or resort property had on the local community. Did housing or farmland get gutted to make way for a five-star hotel? Is it providing good jobs to locals?
With activity providers, contribution to local wildlife protection and the environmental impact of the activities are important to consider.
Green recommends that travel advisors have a discussion with sales reps from hotels and tour operators about what their companies do to support the environmental, economic, and cultural aspects of their destinations.
“If they aren’t able to tell you off the top of their head, it may not be something truly ingrained in the company’s identity,” she said.
Travel advisors who belong to a consortium may also find help in vetting suppliers, Green added, noting that Virtuoso recently created a sustainability section on each of its preferred partner pages for suppliers to detail what they are doing to make the industry better.
Along with helping clients choose sustainable hotels or activities, there are other ways that travel advisors can encourage clients to travel more responsibly and, at the same time, enjoy greater immersion in the destination.
“Letting people know about local customs can go a long way in reducing friction at the destination,” Day said. “Providing information on farmers markets and locally owned restaurants are things that can really benefit the community.”
Sweeney recommended that travel advisors learn what cities have to offer in the way of public transportation and other alternatives
“Let clients know if the city has bike sharing, a subway, or hybrid car rental,” she said. “Give them a fact sheet on what’s available. Encourage train travel over flying when it makes sense. Let them know about local buses — you can even take a bus up the Amalfi Coast, which is great if you sit on the right side.”
Travel advisors can also help mitigate overtourism by encouraging clients to visit popular destinations during less crowded seasons and to consider lesser-known places, Sweeney said.
Training and Policy
Should travel agencies follow the lead of other businesses in implementing sustainability policies of their own? Lane at Greenloons thinks that agencies should define what sustainability means to them and what impact they want to have on the client experience and suppliers they do business with.
“A policy that clearly defines these goals will help with corporate messaging, both external and internal, and also with client engagement and partner negotiations,” she said.
Educating staff on sustainability is also important, Lane added. “This can take the form of monthly discussions on new sustainable offerings within destinations to organizing a ‘green team’ within the office that focuses on issues they are passionate about and encourages continuous improvement.”
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Photo credit: Travel advisors should steer their customers away from overtouristed destinations, such as this busy street in Venice, Italy, as shown in 2016. Davide Gabino / Flickr.com