It’s here to stay and it’s on course to go mainstream. Sustainable Tourism has arrived at your doorstep and it’s ringing in some long-term changes to hospitality operations, client experiences and local collaborations. It doesn’t matter what came first: the trend that’s taken flight among travellers or the documented challenges to capacity in tourist destinations the world over. What the research teaches us is that travellers are looking for unique travel accommodations and activities, travel products with minimum carbon footprints and positive integrations with host communities in-destination. And no one is going to be exempt from change.

#IY2017 The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, as designated by UNWTO, prescribes a series of social and environmental initiatives to factor into our planning for the future. It coincides with the trend that’s gaining momentum among travellers, but looking at the big picture, it’s more of a change in mindset. It requires the trade to graduate from having the occasional eco-friendly company specialising in what has been to date a niche market, to becoming a far more inclusive and permanent strategy for tourism and the hospitality industry.

You might protest, but I’m already where I am, my structures are built, can’t go back in time to use different building materials.. and I can’t afford or justify spending large sums of money to become eco-friendly!

But there’s a lot you can do to fall in line with the sustainable tourism movement.

Take comfort in the fact that luxury travellers are increasingly motivated by brand loyalty and may be persuaded to spend a bit more to support a brand that endorses their values.

Among the European market in particular, the desire for authenticity and an environmental consciousness among travel brands seems to be growing. This speaks to a demand for tours and accommodation that break from the old way of doing things.

These travellers want their adventures served to them with a low ecological impact and cultural experiences managed with respect and sensitivity.

That’s a fancy way of suggesting that any improvements you make going forward should be guided by the principles of sustainability. And as a concept, it’s worth understanding what sustainable tourism entails.

Responsible Tourism invites you to employ, involve, educate and empower the host community of your destination. You accomplish this in a number of ways, including purchasing local produce in our kitchens or collaborating with local food providers (restaurants, cookery schools, caterers, appropriately skilled locals) to ensure that your clients sample exactly what locals consume.

Stimulate local economic activity and share the spoils of tourism.

You might be bringing the traveller into the area, but you’re also offering them an experience of the destination which goes beyond your core travel product.

So develop collaborations around local manufacture of handicrafts, music and cultural events/festivals, as well as gastronomy.

Kill 3 birds with 1 stone: you provide the community with economic value, you satisfy the immersive travel trend, and you help keep a culture alive and thriving.

Does your city have stories to tell from different perspectives? Hear it straight from the people who lived it. In the process you avoid the pitfalls of misrepresentation and cultural insensitivity, since it’s just good manners for visitors to enter someone else’s ‘home’ to show some understanding and appreciation of your host’s local issues and taboos.

It’s like applying the heritage-based tourism concept to your local community, managing it as a cultural asset and the environment as a natural asset.

Ethical Tourism takes a deeper view of the way local inhabitants are included in decisions that affect them, especially where tourism impacts upon their economic well-being, their working conditions, and their habitat. It invites you to facilitate meaningful interactions between visitors and local people, promote mutual respect, local pride and confidence. On a practical note, it requires you to make allowances for travellers of all sorts, including disabled people who aren’t always guaranteed access to facilities and sites.

Ecotourism invites us to redress the effects of overtourism – it means to balance available resources versus consumption – and the resulting negative impact it can have. Many popular destinations suffer the ravages of overtourism while some less well-known sites may be vulnerable in terms of capacity and access. There are places where visitor numbers are capped or sites are closed altogether.

Those locations are at risk of being failures at sustainability. Santorini in Greece, Venice in Italy, Machu Picchu in Peru all struggle with excessive visitor numbers, for example. They could, but hopefully won’t, end up like the Caves of Lascaux in France – closed to the eyes of the world forever. Then there are the disruptive animal interactions that used to thrill travellers for years. And worst but not least, modern day slavery in the workplace. There are instances of mistreatment of locals or seasonal workers that can do a great deal of harm to a brand, even by association.

Responsible travellers want to know what measures you’ve put into place to mitigate the negative impact of their presence, consumption and waste in-destination. Say yes to some of these practical ideas:

  • eco-friendly laundry servicing of all linens
  • low flow fixtures to minimise water consumption
  • run-off water collection
  • avoid detergents that are harmful to the local ecosystem
  • fluorescent light bulbs or LED lights
  • natural and organic, pesticide-free mattresses
  • aluminium or glass water bottles and fittings

The bigger, meatier initiatives could be factored in if you’re planning on refurbishing or extending onto your existing structure: use recycled steel or building materials; install outdoor-to-indoor air circulation systems; capitalise on solar, hydro or wind energy – more renewable and less fossil fuels.

To measure returns on your investment, you need to take a long-term view or you’ll never spend the extra cash it’ll cost you. LED lights, for example, may cost more but they last way longer and cut down on energy cost significantly. The real measure should be based on what you’re putting out there ecologically and how your efforts will attract the patronage of conscientised clientele.

Out in the community, you can explore opportunities for collaboration with local service providers (taxi, public transport) but on more socially uplifting note, you could do fundraisers for and with the community.

Fun runs, market days, educational projects for conservation and rehabilitation, cultural programmes for both guests and locals run alongside NGOs, and much more.

All you have to do is show the interest and willingness to get involved, and the rest will follow.

Make no mistake: travellers want to interact with the locals in your area and your host community wants to show off their home and be, well, good hosts. Source goods from within the community as far as possible. It’s a way to boost local income and develop skills among locals. Inclusive tourism is integral to sustainability.

Karongwe Portfolio conducts training for unemployed adults in the area in various departments of the hospitality industry to assist them in job hunting. They also support local art by featuring it in their lodges. Jaci’s Lodges has a staff trust, which empowers employees with shares in the business, in addition to its conservation and eco-friendly community projects, such as anti-rhino poaching, community upliftment, use of non-toxic products, and waste reduction. Amakhala Foundation use bed levies from Amakhala Safari Lodge to fund community education and training, HIV/AIDS awareness and support, and income generation via their craft centre, among other initiatives.

Within the industry itself, efforts like these are recognised and rewarded, particularly where positive sustainable development impact is effectively communicated to trade and traveller alike. So you can communicate and market this value via social media and get your staff, guests and local partners to advocate your brand similarly.

Offer behind-the-scenes tours for guests so that they can see for themselves, and present those tours digitally for easy public access.

Produce videos of your sustainability efforts to add to your marketing collateral.

Hotel Terra Jackson Hole has an entire page on their website devoted to what makes it a green hotel, how they keep their greenhouse gases to a minimum and energy usage low. It’s important to show and tell.

Environmental & community responsibility has become more and more of a priority for guests in recent years, and they want to know that the companies they choose to engge with are having positive impacts on the world around them.

The Ritz-Carlton

Skift has identified a trend among 5-star clientele of an expectation of luxury accommodation without compromising on environmental sustainability; that is, how operations impact ecosystems. It’s important enough of a consideration to affect future business if they’re not seen to be protecting the local natural resources or promoting sustainable practices by staff, operations, the local community, and even guests.

It’s about enhancing the client experience without doing damage to the destination and its people. If you have the resources and the necessary conviction, you could follow the example of Six Senses. They have as one of their amazing experiences in the Maldives, a conservation initiative based in Laamu, called ‘Saving the Sea Grass‘. Offering its usual range of luxury features, the resort simply but effectively reassures concerned travellers that they’d be buying into a brand that espouses the tenets of responsible tourism at all their properties. When the words on the website are backed up by educational activities for guests, it confirms the brand’s commitment.

This quirky notion of clean and ethical travel, previously owned by scientists and hippies, has shown itself to carry tremendous gravitas. It presumes, in all likelihood correctly so, to be the future of tourism. It makes all the sense in the world when you think about it. People travel to see and enjoy natural beauty and learn how their global neighbours live life, and if that’s what we butter our daily bread with, we’d better do all that needs to be done to safeguard those resources. As long as it lasts, and stays in good condition, and everybody grows and develops, then tourism will happily continue.

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