Sustainable Tourism: Does anyone care?

04/05/2017 By Jon Young

It’s rare a month goes by without some mention of sustainable tourism in the travel press, and with 2017 marked as the UN’s Year of Sustainable Tourism, this is set to continue.  But for all the good-natured noise, the degradation of our planet continues. ‘Over-tourism’ at destinations like Venice gathers pace, and local-revenue-sucking all-inclusive holidays are as popular as ever.

This begs the questions: Do holiday-makers actually care about sustainable tourism?   And do they care enough for it to influence their holiday choices? 

We tried to answer these questions in our Holiday Trends 2017 survey this January, where we asked 1,000 members of the British public to list the factors that most influenced their holiday choice in 2016.  Out of the 28 factors we gave them, ‘sustainable tourism’ was ranked 26th most important, which may make sobering reading for people (like myself) who place it higher up the list.

There are some ‘market research’ drivers of this low ranking - not least people’s understanding of the word ‘sustainable’.  But if we look at the response to sustainability elsewhere, we probably shouldn’t be surprised.  Governments, often consumed by short-term goals, do little more than pay lip service to the idea. Economies are reliant on endless growth - which in turn relies on endless consumption - so self-interest will always come first.  Maybe self-interest takes precedence amongst British holiday-makers too - the desire to experience, learn, relax, escape or have fun superseding sustainable choices.

But perhaps our research paints an unfair and incomplete picture.  It may be that for the 48 weeks of the year when Britons are not on holiday, sustainability is an important feature in their lives.  Indeed, there is some evidence that the British public care.  Holiday Trends 2017 also reveals that 55% would research the environmental or working conditions before their next holiday, which at least highlights a baseline of concern (even if there are 25 more important reasons at the moment of choice!)  We should also acknowledge that sustainable tourism rises in importance amongst certain holiday types.  For niche spa and wellness holidays it was the 10th most influential factor, and for luxury holidays it was 13th.

Sustainable tourism chart

With 55% of Britons researching sustainable tourism before their holiday we can view its low placing as a decision influencer through a more optimistic lens.  Perhaps destinations do not offer enough information about sustainability, disqualifying it as a driver of choice.  It’s also possible that people see sustainable tourism as a ‘hygiene factor’ (something they expect), like safety on an aeroplane or cleanliness in a restaurant (although the hordes descending on a sinking Venice may challenge this theory).  Others may argue that the concept is too overwhelming to address or understand, which is certainly supported by 73% of our respondents saying ‘government’ should be responsible for ensuring environmental standards at a destination.

But however optimistically we look at these findings, it’s likely that the champions of sustainable tourism would like it to be of greater prominence in people’s minds.  Their concerns are likely to be exacerbated when our research is placed alongside a Unilever Research study which showed the UK significantly behind other developed countries when it comes to support for ‘sustainable products’.

With the UN now flying the sustainable tourism flag, 2017 may be the year where it rises in importance.  But this is far more likely if tourism providers, governments and environmentalists get on board too.  We’ve outlined a few ways we think they can help below.

  1. Tourism providers: The low importance attributed to ‘sustainable tourism’ may prompt destinations and tour operators to ignore it as a marketing hook.  But the baseline of concern highlighted in our survey, suggests sustainable practices could be positioned as a USP over other similar destinations.  To achieve this, it is important that sustainable practices are given increased prominence and are easy to understand.
  1. Local government: Sustainable tourism choices are unlikely to be driven by the market (at least in the short term), and there is an expectation from the public that local government takes responsibility. So in the interests of meeting people’s needs and protecting destinations, regulation should be a priority
  1. Environmentalists: Increased awareness is clearly needed to push sustainable tourism up people’s priority list. This may well drive the market forces that are necessary for long-term change.  Highlighting what the individual has to gain from a sustainable holiday may cater to people’s self-interest, as will making trips to unsustainable destinations taboo.

Of course, this is an area that would benefit from more nuanced research. The latest figures are available in the Holiday Trends 2018 report, and we’d be delighted to discuss this further.