News & Views

Trend or Foe: Ecotourism and Sustainable Travel

Ecotourism and sustainable travel are not new. We know. The ideas have been around since at least the 1980s, if not before.

What is new is how the tourism industry has been embracing ecotourism and sustainable travel in countless ways in recent years. It’s impossible to go anywhere, even to Disney World, without wading through literature and websites about “green hotels” and “sustainable initiatives.”

Green is the new black, and the tourism industry is buying bolts of fabric – ethically-produced, of course – in bulk.

For all these concerted efforts, however, how much of ecotourism’s latest activities are simply greenwashing? Is it all as sincere as we’d like to think? Sadly, there are examples of tourism simply failing to live up to its potential, and Ryanair is just one of the latest offenders.

Either way, it’s true that travel is a polluting activity. Some recent headlines, however, show how activists often take this idea to the extreme. Look to the Greta Thunberg’s of the world, who are leading the way valiantly, and it may seem that our only option is to stop flying and seek alternative forms of transportation. Flying shame is a real thing that’s happening.

We’re living in a world where some people are trying, others are failing, and everyone is pointing fingers. Overwhelmed?

Instead of sending travelers on a guilt trip, it’s important to help send them on an eco-friendlier one. And the industry is trying. While the clock may or not be ticking on the environment, every little step is one in the right direction for the tourism industry. Embracing sustainable practices doesn’t mean turning people away from your destination, but it also doesn’t mean setting up a few recycling bins and calling it a day.

Sustainable travel is not just about the destination

Getting to a destination is quite possibly the most polluting portion of travel. Airplanes, especially, create lots of emissions that trains and boats don’t – not that any are perfectly clean. Still, it’s important for the tourism industry to think about all steps of a trip. Do airlines need to use one-use plastic cups? Are airports recycling their food waste? Are we all taking Ubers to the airport instead of public transit?

There are some exciting examples of airports helping travel destinations to be more sustainable. Long Beach is pushing its Green Airport program and sources food from local restauranteurs instead of working with big chains. The Chattanooga Airport features solar farms and LEED-certified facilities. These are all positive steps.

Remembering that travel starts the minute someone leaves their home will help distinguish between true sustainable travel and a trip that pollutes more than it should.

Sustainable travel is not just about the environment

In the same vein, sustainable efforts need to look beyond the environment. Yes, being green means saving water, recycling, and all of those practices which reduce carbon into the atmosphere. Got it.

But what about focusing on local communities and creating sustainable business practices? What about focusing on ethically sourced materials and food items? What about making sure everyone is paid a fair wage?

Sustainability involves economic and social elements, not just environmental ones. There are many people involved in tourism as an industry and so a truly sustainable travel experience will have to address more than just saving some water in the bathroom.

Greenwashing undermines honest efforts

If you say you’re going green and sustainable, but then don’t fully embrace it, there’s an issue there. I traveled recently to a hotel that prides itself on its sustainable efforts in the restaurant’s kitchen. I was then bewildered as to why the coffee machine in the room had cups and elements wrapped in more layers of plastic than anyone ever needed.

It made me question everything the hotel was trying to promote. Ultimately, I didn’t believe there was anything sustainable about the experience at all – even if I was wrong.

It may seem trivial, but for every big, wonderful program that will make a tourism sight seem more green – the Louvre redid its lights to feature friendly LED bulbs – there are countless practices that can be critiqued – the museum still prints countless paper maps. Practices that seem at odds with each other are all part of the growing pains that the tourism industry is struggling with, but being aware is a solid step.

Actions speak louder than words

Saying that you’re LEED-certified is good, but honestly, most travelers don’t know what that means. It’s really simple to throw around words like “green” and “eco-friendly,” but what are you actually doing? Your efforts will go noticed more if visitors can see them or experience them.

In The Islands of Tahiti, for example, some environmentally friendly hotels offer free coral reef-friendly SPF. The sunscreen is not only part of sustainable practices, but also a way to engage visitors and open up conversations that they otherwise may never have had regarding the environment. Does the casual traveler even know that SPF is harmful to coral reefs? It’s a concrete action that visitors can see, and participate in, that will do more than simply pay lip service to the environment.

Not everyone will care

At the end of the day, it’s sad but true. There are people who just don’t care. They’ll use bottled water all the time. They’ll have their towels changed every day. They’ll take private car service everywhere when mass transit is a better choice. Some people just can’t change.

While some resorts are trying to rethink the way humans interact more ethically with elephants while traveling, other people are still happy to go hunt them. Sustainability is not everyone’s priority.

Accepting that tourism will never be perfectly sustainable does not mean that industry actors should give up completely. As education continues and new generations grow up traveling more sustainability, it’s only a matter of time before new sustainable practices become the norm – we hope.

Goals are goals, and you won’t reach them all

We can set goals and follow indications, but we can’t do it all. While we are setting our goals and trying to save the world, even the tourism industry has to recognize that there are limits. Until planes can cease to create emissions, we are stuck reaching for sustainability.

Far from a defeatist attitude, you have to be honest with what you can and cannot do as a destination to make sure your sustainability efforts are genuine. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than to do the opposite. Lofty goals are good, too. Big changes can lead to exciting things in the future.

Looking green and being green are two different things. If your strategies and media presence need an environmentally-friendly makeover, get in touch with Kayla Leska at [email protected] to find out how DCI can help put your destination on the sustainable radar.

Written By

Kayla Leska

Kayla is Managing Director of DCI's Tourism Public Relations Division. She oversees communications strategy for DCI’s tourism clients and directs the firm’s tourism crisis and recovery communication efforts. Kayla leads publicity teams in the U.S. and Canada. She earned her BA in Public Relations at SUNY Oswego.

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