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The travel industry has a responsibility to help the same communities it profits from. The sector also needs to accept that green business practices will be the next major competitive advantage for brands selling to consumers and business travelers alike.
By Andrew Sheivachman
Cities strewn with trash. Communities decimated by flooding. Drought and famine leading to mass migration. From sinking Jakarta to the melting glaciers of Iceland, the world is beginning to feel the wider effects of climate change with governing authorities at a loss for how to react.
With the world teetering on the brink of a climate catastrophe, global citizens and politicians are preparing for meaningful action to reduce the impact of big business and resource consumption on the environment.
The travel industry, though, has paid only lip service to meaningful change that would make its operations more sustainable. Carbon offsets, reduced plastic use, and charitable contributions are some of the widespread efforts travel companies use to avoid greater scrutiny over the impact of their operations.
Few of these efforts so far have led to significant change, yet travel has an important role to play in mainstreaming more sustainable experiences for consumers. The sector has willingly abdicated its responsibility as it operates on the frontlines of communities around the world and has so far aimed to avoid paying the costs of repairing the damage it has caused.
Serious change is necessary. Instead of designing marketing initiatives to assuage the fears of travelers, leaders across travel need to help build an industry defined by a commitment to green practices. Business as usual, or a rush to make money before the sector is truly disrupted by environmental or political issues, may very well doom global travel in an era of nationalism, nativism, and political polarization.
Here are eight tenets for global travel and its sectors to become leaders in the fight against climate change — and to help create a more equitable path forward and the foundation for travel’s future growth.
Travel, as an industry that helps connect people around the world, has a duty to limit its destructive effect on the environment and tourist destinations.
Global population growth has led to many problems around the world. Travel has helped exacerbate them, adding an increased burden to cities and countries that have become magnets for visitors.
Tourism companies and hotels, in particular, have built their businesses on the infrastructure and resources made available to locals. In a quest to compete and drive profit, these companies have no long-term commitment to any particular destination and often choose to grow quickly instead of sustainably.
Tourists have deluged cities in Western Europe, Barcelona and Venice in particular, altering the fabric of local society and leaving authorities at a loss for how to repair the changes. Remote destinations as well, ranging from Bali to the Galapagos Islands, have scrambled to find ways to limit tourism as rapacious travel companies prioritize profit over responsibility.
While travel has the power to build opportunity in developing countries, creating new jobs and providing a tangible path out of poverty, the increased number of visitors these destinations serve have a destructive effect on communities and the environment. Populist backlash — and the coming wave of climate change — mean global travel must redefine how it does business and plan for the future.
Global consumers are ahead of the industry right now in their concern about climate change. The general polarization of the world, when married to climate change, is leading to more radical calls for change, like the Green New Deal.
The travel industry’s words have rung hollow when it comes to truly protecting the environment and adopting green business practices.
In the last few years, however, consumer sentiment toward making more responsible purchasing decisions has shifted. Skift Research’s Millennial and Gen Z Traveler Survey 2019, released in August, found that more than half of millennial and Gen Z travelers from the U.S., UK, Australia, China, and India find it important to choose travel companies that prioritize sustainability. Most of those travelers are also willing to pay more for experiences from companies with a track record of green operations.
If legacy travel brands are unable to adapt to this new set of demands from consumers, forward-thinking companies and brands will emerge to take advantage. Leaders and workers alike also will resist joining companies that they view as unethical.
Choosing environmentally sustainable travel businesses is especially important in China and India, but fewer millennial/Gen Z travelers in all five markets are willing to pay more to use these businesses.
It is important to me to choose travel businesses that prioritize environmentally sustainable business practices (% Very + Somewhat important)
I’m willing to pay higher rates/fares to use a travel service provider who demonstrates environmental responsibility (% Strongly + Somewhat agree)
U.S. N=1046, UK N=509, Australia N=523, China N=1143, India N=1015
Source: Skift Research
It’s not enough to encourage individual travelers to make more mindful decisions about their impact on the environment when the structure of the travel industry itself leads to not just pollution but the erosion of destinations around the world.
Companies must commit to tracking their environmental impact and become much more transparent about sustainability, allowing consumers to make an educated purchasing decision.
It’s extremely difficult for consumers to gauge how sustainable their chosen travel brands are for a variety of factors. While more companies have chosen to release a sustainability report over the last decade, those reports are designed to avoid comparison with competitors and help create a false image for travelers.
Airlines are one of the largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, as the technology used to power planes is inherently pollutive. The bigger an airline, the more carbon it emits into skies around the world. Sustainability reports from major global airlines show an increase in emissions and waste over the last few years.
The three major global cruise lines also release giant reports touting sustainability bona fides and the various partnerships they strike around the world to reduce their impacts. The problem is that the core data regarding carbon output and energy use show that the companies’ impact on the environment isn’t shrinking at all.
Even if a consumer were to scour one of these sustainability reports, she would possibly be manipulated by the misleading nature of the document. These lies obscure the truth that public companies in particular operate to maximize shareholder value instead of showing a greater responsibility for their operating practices to the wider world.
There is also the issue of quantifying the impact that tour operators have on a destination. There is a need for standards that cut across borders to give travelers perspective on the impact their chosen vacation has on where they’re going. Companies have the opportunity to set industry metrics for tracking and communicating their environmental impact; in a few years time, this likely will be mandated by law in countries most at risk from the dangers of climate change.
The narrative of traditional travel marketing will have to shift as the disruption from climate change affects tourist destinations. Destinations that make a greater effort to mitigate the impact of climate change will have a major competitive advantage in the future.
As destinations become stressed and global calls for truly green business practices rise, travel marketing will have to reinvent itself once again. The images of empty European streets, bucolic hikes, and isolated beaches already don’t reflect the reality facing most travelers once they land in a destination.
Sustainability will soon become not just a selling point but something mandatory, although not in the sense that travelers will only partake in eco-tourism or voluntourism.
Places protected from both overtourism and increased pollution will have the best chances of becoming premier tourism destinations in the future.
With premium destinations like Bali and the Faroe Islands already closing to tourists in a variety of ways, expect more destinations to follow suit.
Skift Research found that 53 percent of global travelers are willing to pay more for products that demonstrate environmental responsibility, an increase from 40 percent in 2018.
The destinations and companies that commit the soonest to green practices will have a competitive edge as global competition for travelers heats up.
The reduction of single-use plastics is an important first step for the travel sector. Work must be done, however, to shift the approach of companies toward food waste, water waste, and reckless use of other natural resources.
The shift by hotel companies and airlines to reduce their waste by removing common single-use plastics from their operations is already under way. The first companies to take action will get a nice publicity boost, but the ease at which companies have taken action belies just how difficult serious change will be in other areas.
Food waste is a surprisingly difficult challenge to tackle given the gluttonous reality of most commodity travel. Hotels and attractions that piggyback on the local resources around the world will face pressure to cut back on their usage as natural resources become stressed.
With recent research showing the need for changes to how land is used for farming, destinations will have to make difficult decisions about how to feed their population in an environmentally friendly way. Many authorities will choose to target elements of the travel sector as particularly wasteful and restrict the availability of their market to the travel sector.
Rising sea levels will force lodging companies to reconceptualize not just their growth strategies but the way the contemporary hotel operates in general. Cities that meet this challenge head-on will be better prepared to compete in the marketplace for global travelers as well.
With coastlines across the world at risk from rising sea levels and an increase in dangerous, volatile weather patterns, global hospitality giants will have to reevaluate their development strategies. Coastal cities and beaches will become less attractive destinations for travelers, disrupting the traditional business of hospitality. Business travel destinations will shift as well; the rise of secondary cities across North America and Europe will provide alternative travel options for leisure and business travelers alike.
As quintessential vacation destinations become less attractive to consumers over time, a shift will take place in how hotel companies do business and build their businesses outside of traditional leisure destinations.
Before long, smart money will put itself behind projects with less risk from rising sea levels and other extreme weather caused by climate change. Cities with a geographic advantage or long-term planning to mitigate these events will become more attractive destinations for visitation.
Destination marketing organizations must become destination management groups, helping steward destinations into the future with a dual focus on visitor growth and sustainable economic expansion.
The role of the destination marketing organization in a world impacted by overtourism and climate change will have to evolve. Growing tourism in an age of overconsumption isn’t sustainable, and backlash is already happening across Europe and Asia.
Destinations will have to more closely monitor and adjust policies as a stronger effort is made to reduce the negative impact of travel. Managing a destination is quickly becoming more important than marketing one as social media moves to the forefront of travel inspiration.
As backlash to overtourism has increased, adjacent industries have leveraged the importance of travel to further their own goals. The threat of disrupting the lucrative summer tourism season has been used as a bargaining chip in labor negotiations across Europe, for instance.
A key role that destination groups can play is around creating a consensus built around the needs of politicians, locals, and business groups in terms of planning for long-term sustainable growth. By devising a plan that incorporates the needs of all a destination’s stakeholders, and iterating on it, the travel sector can work together with destinations to produce more positive outcomes.
By playing a pivotal, proactive role in the embrace of green business practices, travel can not only repair its image as a destructive force but set the stage for a new phase of global growth.
The effects of overtourism, waste, and pollution caused by the travel industry represent an existential threat to its continued worldwide growth. Environmental restrictions and a backlash against tourism are all but assured should the travel industry not become more proactive in engaging with stakeholders around the planet.
Companies and leaders that transition to operating in a green framework will have an advantage once climate change becomes more severe. Companies that begin the transition now will have an easier time attracting the new wave of eco-conscious travelers emerging across all age groups.
With the fate of not just travel but the wider world at stake, it’s time for the industry to step up and become part of the solution as a stakeholder in global affairs. Anything less represents an abdication of travel’s responsibility to not just bring people together, but to build a better world.
By Sarah Enelow-Snyder
Plastics awareness in travel is trending right now. Companies and travelers alike are skipping the straw and saying no to single-use bottled water. What’s missing from the current dialog is that straws and bottles are just the low-hanging fruit, an easy PR win, and something for influencers to tweet about.
There’s a chain of responsibility here, and the buck stops at no one in particular because everyone needs accountability. Making choices based on convenience and affordability, which plastics provide in spades, is just human nature. Pressure must be applied from one party to the next, or else skipping the straw is all we’ll ever accomplish. That’s why we at Skift decided to dig into this topic with a new series this year: Travel Beyond Plastics.
We know the alarming stats behind the microplastics in our drinking water and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A ridiculous 91 percent of plastic waste isn’t successfully recycled, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic, and nearly one million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute worldwide, according to National Geographic.
The solution comes in strengthening every link in the responsibility chain: governments, travel companies, travelers, and the rest of the world.
“It takes a whole spectrum of players,” said Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition. “All the players have an equally important role.”
At the top of the chain, governments must pass legislation that forces hotels, airlines, cruise lines, and other travel companies to use less plastic. The European Union has one of the more extensive laws slated for 2021, but even so, it only targets specific items like cutlery, plates, straws, and cotton bud sticks. California sets a good example by targeting toiletries in hotels, but most U.S. states don’t go that far.
“I think they’re critical,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, of laws on plastics. “Most environmental solutions have some component involving a top-down government mandate.” Leonard said we’re just now seeing the first wave of plastics solutions.
“These legislations severely impact the airline industry,” said Anne De Hauw, founder of Monaco-based design firm In Air Travel Experience. “Airline catering often relies heavily on single-use plastic and its lucrative waste management, and is not prepared for such impactful change.”
When referring to these laws, there’s also a problem with casually using the phrase “plastic ban,” which is concise but misleading. None of these laws constitutes a complete ban on plastics, but rather a specific set of restrictions, frequently on single-use plastics and not plastics that are designed for multiple uses, which end up in landfills as well. The same logical fallacy applies to “zero-waste” flights, which often only aim to divert waste from landfills, not to actually produce no waste.
Most companies will only do what’s mandated by law, which is why non-binding pledges from companies to reduce plastics mean nothing. This also explains why companies, when they do take action preemptively, will typically do something simple, easy, and quick like cutting straws and bottles.
“Once again we’re going to scratch the surface and leave the big issues under the rug,” said Benjamin Lephilibert, founder and managing director of Bangkok-based LightBlue Environmental Consulting. “Governments should impose stricter rules on plastics producers first and foremost, regardless of which industry the end product is destined to,” he added by email.
Companies avoid digging into the hardest part: pressuring their producers, suppliers, tenants, and other stakeholders to stop creating and shipping products like food and cleaning supplies with plastic. “Fortunately there is a growing awareness that airlines and airports need to foster an omnichannel aggregated ecosystem and align their interests,” said De Hauw. Marriott and InterContinental Hotels Group report working actively with their supply chains, potentially creating a bigger ripple effect than small hotel companies pursuing the same goal.
Cruise lines have especially bad optics because they literally operate in the oceans that their plastic waste pollutes. The Cruise Lines International Association claims that some ships repurpose 100 percent of the waste generated on board, which is awfully hard to believe, given the low rates of success with plastic recycling.
There’s a data problem here too. Almost none of the travel companies we’ve spoken to in 2019 can say how much plastic they use, in large part because no one requires them to tabulate it. Hotels keep numbers for water and energy use through utility companies, and airlines and cruise lines keep track of fuel, but no one makes them tally every last pound of plastic. Some hotels count voluntarily at specific properties — which is better than nothing — but these numbers are self-reported and we must take them with a huge grain of salt.
When asked, most travelers will say they want to save the environment and are willing to pay more — in money and convenience — to do so. They’re ready to shell out for an ecolodge or a dubious carbon offset, and they’re ready to cram a heavy, reusable, glass thermos with a metal straw into their tiny carry-ons.
But one glance at an airport will tell you that in the heat of the moment, flyers want their lunch in a plastic to-go container with plastic cutlery stuffed into a plastic bag, so they can sling it over one arm while they grab an iced coffee from Starbucks and dash to the gate. And Cibo isn’t helping when it wraps every individual apple in plastic.
Many travelers will also not stop to recycle properly unless the airport forces them in the right direction, according to a study conducted at San Francisco Airport by design firm Gensler. The study found that on average, with SFO’s new test bins, 54 percent of trash was placed into recycling or composting, compared to just 25 percent with preexisting bins.
"Just because something has some kind of recycling symbol on it does not mean it is recycled, will be recycled, or could be recycled, particularly in the United States,” said Cohen. “It just identifies the type of plastic.”
Companies also have a big opportunity to incentivize travelers to avoid plastic by offering discounts or other rewards for using their own reusable containers, according to Cohen. This can often result in stronger customer loyalty.
Lastly we have general outrage from non-traveling citizens, who can force an issue into the mainstream media, bringing it to governments’ attention so new laws can be drafted. This might be a tenuous link in the chain, but every now and then, protests can actually nudge the world in the right direction.
The Skip the Straw movement might only be the tip of the plastic iceberg, but it’s a good example of the general public influencing corporate behavior, as companies cite the movement while enacting new policies. Plastic bag bans, which arguably target grocery and everyday retail more than travel, are popping up worldwide in recent years. Then again, non-traveling citizens can fall into the same lazy trap as travelers, and need to participate in the system by recycling properly and practicing what they preach.
“There’s nothing that beats consumer pressure,” said Cohen. IHG CEO Keith Barr reached a similar conclusion, telling Skift that guests, not government mandates, apply stronger pressure for companies to change their practices.
“I am a firm believer in consumers as an extremely powerful agent of change, a change that can be remarkably swift in the context of today’s hyperconnectivity,” said Lephilibert. “The issue is that travelers only have a limited knowledge, so they can skip the plastic straw but would have no clue about what alternative is best, bioplastics versus biodegradable.”
The travel industry is capable of closing these gaps. Each participant needs to commit, hold one another accountable, and start to collect more reliable data. This is a crucial part of promoting a circular plastics economy, in which plastics get continuously reused to lengthen their life span, and this requires a lot of collaboration and awareness.
“I wonder how many people drink that coffee that’s in their hotel room,” said Martine Volmar, frequent traveler and member of Nomadness Travel Tribe, when asked about in-room coffee makers and Keurig K-Cups.
We bet the hotel doesn't know either.
We asked Gary Knell to offer recommendations for the travel industry to make itself more accountable to the world. So why Knell? First off, as chairman of National Geographic Partners and earlier CEO of National Geographic Society, Knell knows a thing or two about running a mission-driven organization. He’s also been a global business executive for decades, having also led NPR and Sesame Workshop. And lastly, we wanted a less-obvious voice, somebody who could look objectively at travel and lay out the hard truths.
What follows is an edited interview with Skift Editor-in-Chief Tom Lowry.
What advice would you give to companies in travel that might not have had an activist mindset as part of their original corporate DNA?
You have a great business opportunity. According to a research report that we plan to release on September 27, World Tourism Day, only 15 percent of Americans are familiar with the concept of sustainable travel today, yet 42 percent of Americans would be willing to prioritize traveling sustainably in the future. Since three-fourths of Americans have taken a leisure trip in the past year, I'd say to any travel company: It’s high time to begin a conversation around sustainable travel with your consumers. I would add this: Sustainability is the future. In our survey, the consumers most familiar with travel are young, 50 percent are 18–34, and affluent, 26 percent make more than $100,000 — a desirable audience.
You also need to work to change your company culture from the inside. Help your employees participate in your efforts by setting a series of internal sustainability goals, both short- and long-term. For example, National Geographic’s cafeteria offers meatless Mondays where employees get 5 percent off for choosing planet-friendly foods. And we have no waste baskets — employees must recycle their trash. Small steps, perhaps, and we’re introducing more, but it makes our people realize everyone has a part to play in this effort.
What ultimately will push companies to pursue ethical product sourcing through their supply chains, an unsexy area of operations that many consumers don’t see?
Both their employees and customers will demand it. For example: For those travelers who understand the sustainable travel concept, 56 percent realize travel has an impact on local communities and that it’s important to protect natural sites and cultural places.
Our National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World members are making a real positive impact in this area. We have a rigorous sustainability screening process to select properties that are committed to local product sourcing as well as giving back to the local community. A National Geographic sustainable tourism expert has spent time at each lodge ensuring that they incorporate innovative sustainability practices into their everyday operations, support natural and cultural heritage, and engage with the local community in tangible ways.
For example, in South Africa, Grootbos’ Masakhane Community Farm and Training Centre teaches food production and entrepreneurship to the local community. Through this program, the lodge has given plots of land to people who have completed the training, increasing their income and access to local, healthy foods. They have localized their supply chain and the lodge has an incredible story to tell guests who enjoy the food — more than 138 community members had participated in the program by the end of 2018.
Another example, Topas Ecolodge in Vietnam, provides guests the opportunity to learn about the diverse cultural traditions of the Red Dao ethnic minority during their stay. On village walks, guests witness artisans at work, learn about medicinal plants, and make rice paper. The lodge’s on-site marketplace showcases the hill tribe’s handicrafts, and annual lodge events — such as the Vietnam Mountain Marathon — help raise funds for community needs.
What will it take for companies to make better progress with racial inclusion, not just gender inclusion, within their ranks?
Companies are starting to realize they need to do a better job reflecting the audiences they serve. Especially as it pertains to travel. In order to have a unique travel experience, it has to be authentic to the region. We are proud of the fact that 43 percent of our Unique Lodges of the World members hire 77 percent or more of their staff from local communities.
What do companies have to gain or lose by waiting for government legislation to define sustainability for them?
The risk for companies that don’t begin sustained action now is that their voices will not be heard when the government legislates — on the federal, state, and local levels. It’s better to get involved than hang back because change is coming. The travel industry is more dependent than most industries on the health of local communities, environments, and cultures. To continue to provide authentic travel experiences, we also need to invest in the resiliency of these places in the face of big challenges like overtourism and climate change. We are looking at a population of 10 billion by 2050 and that is going to take a massive toll on our resources. The companies that will thrive will be the ones that have learned to be creative and innovative with sustainability.
chairman of National Geographic Partners
Many sustainable measures are more expensive than cheaper avenues, for example relying on plastics. What would have to happen for companies to choose the more expensive fork in the road without being legally required to do so?
They might look to travelers for inspiration. Again, our new survey results will better inform the industry about sustainability issues most important to travelers and how much they are willing to financially support those initiatives.
At National Geographic, we’re looking at the long-term picture. Our Expeditions trip business looks at creating the best possible experience for our travelers — complete with world-renowned experts as their guides — to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We believe it’s that experience that keeps them coming back. Issues like overtourism and plastics are not going away, and it’s time for the leaders in the travel industry to step up and address the issues, and not just because the government requires it.
One of the reasons we embarked on this study was to have a better understanding of what consumers really want and what sorts of sustainability practices matter to them.
What can airlines and hotels learn in the pursuit of sustainability from what you’ve accomplished at National Geographic?
Lean in with your key values. For us, it’s storytelling — what we’ve been doing since our founding in 1888. We have been showing people the world for over 130 years, and today we are reaching more than 700 million consumers. We are now dedicated to alerting them to climate change’s impacts, other environmental assaults upon the planet, and showcasing solutions for them — celebrating human ingenuity because it’s going to take all of us to solve the problem. As storytellers, we at National Geographic believe it’s important to celebrate the beauty in the world, natural and cultural, so that people are keen to take the steps necessary to protect it.