Sustainability is an increasing concern for consumers, and a growing number are voting with their wallets by choosing brands that provide sustainable or environmentally-friendly options. The travel sector is no exception.
One of the world’s biggest employers, travel & tourism can provide huge benefits for host nations and for the communities that live in and around tourist destinations when it is managed sustainably, but all too often locals are excluded from the biggest opportunities that tourism brings.
The negative impact of the sector is something consumers are increasingly concerned about. Awareness has grown around the huge emissions from air travel, the social harm caused by over-tourism, and the environmental destruction that can be caused by the development of tourist infrastructure — especially in ecologically sensitive areas.
As travelers have become more aware of these issues, it has influenced their purchasing decisions to a greater extent. While the age of budget airlines or package holidays has not come to a close, sustainability is a factor that all travel brands will have to contend with — those that embrace it may even find themselves with a healthy share of a burgeoning new market.
How Sustainability Became One of Travel’s Biggest Issues
In 2019, before the pandemic shuttered much of the tourism industry, there were a record 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals across the globe. The impact of all these travelers was felt in numerous ways in different places.
In European cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam, the sheer number of visitors negatively impacted the lives of locals. Overcrowded streets, anti-social behavior, and rising living costs forced many destinations to enact measures designed to reduce tourism.
In other places, the natural environment has suffered. For example, Ko Phi Phi in Thailand has become an infamous symbol of the negative effects of unsustainable tourism. On top of destroying coral, visitors damaged local plants and wildlife and left huge amounts of plastic litter in their wake. In Venice, the impact of huge cruise ships in the Venitian lagoon was so harmful that it has now been banned by the Italian government.
While social media has definitely contributed to surges in tourists to a few popular destinations, trends like “Instagram vs reality” have also helped to slowly raise awareness at the stark contrast between the idealized version of a destination and the crowded, littered, and over-developed reality.
The negative impact of travel is now something that a majority of consumers appear to be aware of and concerned about. A study from travel site The Vacationer revealed that 83% of respondents felt sustainability was somewhat or very important to them. Another study by Expedia found that “three in five travelers are willing to pay more fees to make a trip sustainable” and “about half will choose a less crowded destination to reduce the effects of over-tourism”.
Ultimately though, cost is still the primary consideration for travelers when choosing their next trip. In another study by The Vacationer, 71% of survey respondents said they would be willing to pay more to lower their carbon footprint, but only 33% were willing to contribute between $50 to $250 to do so.
In response, many travel brands have begun to confront the issue and a growing niche industry has emerged that prioritizes sustainability.
How Brands Are Tackling Sustainability
Just as the negative effects of unsustainable travel have taken different forms in different places, so too has the reaction from the travel industry; with established brands making pledges to reduce emissions and offer sustainable packages and new players striding into the market with sustainability at the heart of their offering.
The guided tour sector of the travel industry has perhaps been best placed to take on the issue of sustainability. These brands aren’t usually aimed at budget travelers and have the ability to adapt their core products to make them more sustainable — steering tourists off the beaten path, away from harmful developments and into attractions owned and operated by local communities.
Intrepid is one of the best-known travel brands to fuse sustainability into its identity. It’s the world’s largest travel company with B Corporation certification, joining other activist brands such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s which all “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
Carbon neutral since 2010, the brand announced in 2021 that it planned to “remove flights of under 90 minutes on its top 50 itineraries by 2022 – if there is a viable land or rail alternative.” On top of this, Intrepid’s messaging highlights how sustainability can actually add to the customer experience, allowing travelers to experience greater authenticity and interact with host communities.
Responsible Travel is another example of a tour operator that is placing sustainability at the heart of its brand and product. Founded in 2001 by Justin Francis, the self-proclaimed activist company sells trips and tours that “support communities and preserve nature” — every tour page has a “responsible travel” section where customers can review the company’s own self-assessment of the tour and its sustainability.
Like Intrepid, environmentalism is only one strand of the company’s sustainability goals, with equal focus given to ensuring that their tours have a positive effect on host communities, with profits shared locally and equitably, too.
Their over-tourism map highlights the areas that suffer most and directs customers to take action with tips for visiting a well-known destination responsibly or going completely off the beaten track and picking a less popular location.
Other categories are also developing sustainable options to meet consumer demand. Online travel agents such as bookdifferent.com have designed their booking process to make it easier for customers to find the most sustainable options.
Their “staygreencheck” allows bookers to see how their prospective hotel scores on five key categories: management, fair & local, culture friendly, and nature & environment. The website “automatically shows the most sustainable hotels at the top of the search results for any destination”.
It’s not just new brands that have been taking on the challenge of sustainability, established brands have also been making changes to their product and marketing campaigns to meet the demands of sustainability-concerned consumers.
American airline giant, Delta, announced in 2020 that it would commit $1billion to become the first carbon-neutral airline globally — pledging funds to use less fuel and offset its carbon emissions by “investing in forestry, wetland restoration, grassland conservation, marine and soil capture, and other negative emissions technologies”.
Climate activists, however, have cautioned that there are few low carbon options “available at scale for airline companies” and that it will be “critical that the offsets they purchase are credible and real”.
Both Thomas Cook and Airbnb have also made new sustainability goals and standards and Kayak has added a “Least CO₂ sorter” for travelers looking for the most environmentally-friendly flights available. But unlike Intrepid or Responsible Travel, sustainability is not especially central to the core messaging of many established brands.
Following the pandemic, Expedia, Booking.com, and TripAdvisor have all launched new ad campaigns but instead of sustainability, the focus has been on reigniting consumers’ desire to travel after two years of cancellations and uncertainty.
With consumers more concerned about sustainability than ever, many established brands are quietly making changes that only those researching into the topic might discover — but engaging with unconcerned travelers using more traditional messaging.
Meanwhile, specialist brands and new players in the industry are filling the gaps by placing sustainability front and center to cater to a new niche audience of sustainable travelers.
What This Means For Your Brand
Sustainability is not a challenge that travel brands can simply brush under the rug. When it comes to your own brand, making some important changes could help you gain the edge over your competition and increase the quality of your service. Here are some important considerations to remember when thinking about improving your brand’s sustainability:
1. Sustainability Can Improve your Customers’ Experience
At the moment, most consumers are not prepared to pay more than $50 to make their trip more sustainable, but brands need to realize that cost is just one factor.
Sustainability can improve the overall experience of the service in question, whether that means travelers have more authentic interactions with host cultures or visit locales that are free of litter, eye-sore developments, or mismanaged crowds — and by improving customer experience, brands can grow loyal customers that book with them for every trip.
2. Responsible Tourism Helps Protect Your investments
Travel companies also have a vested interest in protecting the destinations in which they are invested. Travel trends come and go as many consumers search for undiscovered gems, pristine beaches, and authentic experiences —over-development and over-tourism can swiftly spoil the very thing that drew travelers in the first place. By investing in sustainability, brands are also protecting their investments and ensuring that visitors continue returning for years to come.
3. Take Action, Don’t Greenwash
It’s also vital to remember that actions speak louder than words and that concerned consumers will often do their research. It isn’t enough to just say that your brand is sustainable and doing so might damage your reputation.
Instead, find a solution that fits your offering and take action. That might mean making pledges and investments, changing your core service to meet new standards, or just making the booking process more transparent to meet the demands of environmentally-conscious consumers.
You’ll need to make sure you are demonstrating how you’re making an impact and provide updates on the actions you’ve made to address concerns on sustainability. It’s important to be transparent with consumers, who are increasingly aware of greenwashing and are more likely to have negative views of companies that practice it.
While the pandemic may have taken the spotlight off the travel industry’s worst excesses, many consumers have emerged from lockdowns and travel bans with an increased awareness of sustainability.
Now more than ever it is vital for brands to check in with their target audience and gauge how important these issues are to them. With brand monitoring software, you can examine whether consumers already view your brand as a sustainable option or if you’ve got more work to do and measure which changes are the most effective at winning over your audience.
As travel slowly begins to return to pre-pandemic levels, there’s an opportunity for brands to re-evaluate their offering, looking at sustainability as an opportunity to be embraced and not a challenge to be overcome. By doing so, they can not only future-proof their investments and give customers more fulfilling experiences but also do something good for the planet.