Sustainable tourism is an ever-evolving concept in the travel industry that can leave tour operators and their customers feeling overwhelmed—and for good reason. There’s no debate the industry needs to take steps toward further protecting our precious environment and beloved travel destinations, but it can be difficult to know precisely how to take action. It’s easy to feel like a microscopic piece of a very large, confusing, and complex puzzle, which can leave you wondering if one person or business can truly have an impact and make a difference.
“We are at a critical moment where we are already losing resources we consider near and dear as trav- elers, including significant species extinction events, coral bleaching, wildfires, ice melt in the Arctic, and the list goes on and on,” says John Sutherland, director of community impact with Tourism Cares, a nonprofit whose mission is to unite the travel industry and be a catalyst of positive social, environmental, and economic impact for the people and places of travel. “We cannot wait to act or else we will have a dramatically reduced quality of our product.”
Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) also sees sustainability as a crucial part of the industry. “Sustainability is critical to building a viable, long-lasting future for tourism,” he says. “Some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations are also the ones most at risk of suffering the negative effects of climate change and global warming. Responsible travel practices protect the destinations, people, and experiences that travelers seek.”
The good news? Tour operators aren’t alone. Industry associations and organizations like Tourism Cares and USTOA are helping their members and the entire travel community navigate this complex topic. And individual travelers, too, are finding value in these efforts. A recent study by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Trip.com Group, and Deloitte reported that nearly 70% of travelers actively seek sustainable travel options. Another study by Expedia Group Media Solutions found that two-thirds of consumers want to see more information on sustainability from lodging and transportation providers, and half want to see this information from destination or tourism boards. In addition, a recent survey conducted by tour operator Audley Travel found that 48% of respondents said they wanted to know more about how to travel sustainably and 45% are more likely to travel with a company that prioritizes sustainability. Almost a third of respondents are willing to pay more to incorporate sustainable options into their travel plans.
The Path Forward
Recognizing the need for sustainable travel solutions, organizations throughout the tourism industry have created initiatives, programs, roadmaps, and even a sustainability superhero to help educate tour operators and planners on this issue.
Earlier this year, USTOA hired its first global social impact manager to work alongside its members to establish and pursue sustainability and DEI goals for the industry, as well as to provide insights and resources to USTOA members on their sustainability journeys. Additionally, USTOA partnered with Innovation Norway to launch its first Sustainability is Responsibility (SIR) summit in Norway last May. “Delegates came together to share innovative approaches and best practices, and to plant the seeds for future, mutually beneficial collaborations,” Dale says. SIR 2.0 took place as part of the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit this past April.
The association also established its Sustainability Committee, where its community collaborates on sharing best practices and resources for both active and associate members. “Sustainability is a topic that is constantly changing, and the learning process never stops,” Dale says. “USTOA is reinforcing the meaning of a sustainability community, so all members can learn and strive together to make a stronger impact on the world. Whether it be through partnering with a carbon offsetting company or integrating sustainability into an onboarding process, USTOA is creating a bridge for members to share best practices of their sustainability work.”
Last year, USTOA launched a somewhat unconventional sustainability campaign by introducing its members to Sustainable Suzie—a USTOA tour guide whose superhero powers fight the good fight toward a more sustainable future for travel around the globe. Through a comic book, members can follow along on her crusade for responsible travel. “We were looking for a new, fun way to support and promote sustainable tourism and responsible travel practices, and [we] did something that no other association has done before—create a comic book,” Dale says. “As part of our ‘50 Years Forward’ anniversary mission to encourage travelers to tread lightly, Sustainable Suzie was brought to life. Through the humor of a comic, USTOA was able to deliver messages and tips for being a more responsible traveler. Sustainable Suzie has been well received and the campaign performance was strong with 163 million consumer impressions and 402,000-plus views on the comic book video.”
Meanwhile, Tourism Cares is pushing forward its own initiatives, specifically in climate mitigation, climate justice, and nature-positive tourism. Through training and education, the nonprofit is helping companies understand their footprints and their consequences on global climate change and individual communities. “We are encouraging our members to sign on to the Glasgow Declaration, which requires signatories to put out a public climate action plan aligned to global goals around greenhouse gas emission reductions,” Sutherland explains.
Then there’s the concept of nature-positive tourism, where the industry comes together to recognize its reliance on nature and biodiversity, and to integrate biodiversity safeguards into companies and policies, in addition to finding ways to actively protect and restore nature. “This has the added benefits of helping us toward global climate change goals and protecting our product, since so much of what makes travel amazing is our natural resources,” Sutherland says.
Tourism Cares offers many practical resources for tour operators looking to implement sustainability practices into their companies. The Meaningful Travel Map connects tour planners to impact organizations in destinations like Jordan, Colombia, and North America, with more destinations being added soon. “The organizations on the map are vetted by Tourism Cares for impact and all offer immersive, engaging experiences for travelers,” Sutherland says. Additionally, the Meaningful Travel Platform is an educational tool providing training and resources around topics in meaningful, sustainable, and regenerative travel. “It is designed for travel industry professionals to understand the issues, to learn what they can do to make a difference, and to get activated to make change,” Sutherland says.
Finally, the Guide to Meaningful Travel Product is a PDF training resource for product developers to do a deep dive into how they can use their tour product and their supply chain to generate positive impacts for destinations, communities, and environments. Sutherland explains, “It is a step-by-step guide on how to create a strategy, source product, evaluate the experiences, and understand success.”
You might still be wondering what actionable steps you can take to make an impact. Should you only frequent restaurants using paper straws? Do you need a fleet of electric buses? How can you make sustainability fit seamlessly into your tour business?
“Your tours themselves are your most powerful weapon for creating change,” Sutherland says. “You can use philanthropy and other partnerships in your value chain to achieve some sustainability objectives, like reducing single-use plastics, reducing carbon, etc. But the experiences on tour are an opportunity to support organizations that are protecting natural resources and to do so in a way that generates ongoing income for locals, creating a positive feedback loop.”
Focusing on your carbon footprint is another way to make positive change. Tour operators can create climate action plans and reduce tour carbon through multiple approaches like minimizing or removing on-tour flights, planning longer stays in each location with fewer transport miles, and using alternative forms of transportation. In addition to your own footprint, it’s wise to ask suppliers about their climate action plans and to support those that have similar sustainability goals. “Offsetting has a role to play, but it won’t be enough,” Sutherland says. “We need to focus on driving down emissions and expecting that not just of ourselves, but all of our partners and supply chain, including the airlines.”
Above anything else, educating yourself and your staff about sustainability and responsible tourism is key, and new initiatives surrounding this topic should be treated like any other new product or program. It’s important to understand your competition, the best practices out there, your business’ strengths and weaknesses, and the stakeholders at play. “Putting a group together of cross-departmental employees who care about this topic is a great way to get started and keep people accountable, but it is also good to hire experienced professionals in this space since some expertise is always good, just like other business departments,” Sutherland says.
“Training is key,” Dale agrees. “A sustainability initiative is only as strong as the staff training behind it. Implementing sustainability into the onboarding process is vital to ensure that it will last and grow with the company.” He also recommends implementing new tour initiatives in small, pilot programs to monitor successes and hurdles before applying them across your entire business.
Both Sutherland and Dale emphasize the importance of leaning on and learning from the overall sustainable tourism community. Sutherland says, “We all have the same goal: to make travel a force for good and something we can keep doing for many decades to come.”
Leading the Way
Last year, the U.S. Travel Association launched its Sustainable Travel Coalition, which aims to align the travel, transportation, and technology sectors in developing and advancing strategies to enable a more sustainable future. More recently in March, U.S. Travel announced the Journey to Clean Sustainable Tourism Campaign. The website shares statistics, stories, and sustainability commitments and visions from industry organizations and leaders in all areas of travel, including attractions, destinations, and transportation companies.
These domestic destinations promote sustainable and responsible travel.
- The Care for Colorado Coalition is a partnership between Colorado Tourism and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics dedicated to educating visitors and locals alike about how to protect the state’s natural and cultural resources.
- Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Malama Hawaii Campaign invites travelers to give back and gain a deeper appreciation of the islands with programs like beach clean-ups and native tree plantings.
- The Monroe County Tourist Development Council features a green travel page on its website that promotes responsible travel and environmental stewardship in the Florida Keys through green vacation tips and attraction spotlights. Its Ten Keymandments guide visitors to do the “right thing,” like planting coral and helping rid the local waters of the invasive lionfish.
- Travel Oregon’s Travel Guide to Climate Resilience in Oregon explores ways to leave the state a better place during your travels, including staying in pedestrian- friendly cities, touring during the shoulder season, and visiting eco-friendly wineries.
- Visit California launched an initiative earlier this year to promote smart, sustainable tourism over the next decade. The DMO has hired a global consulting firm to prepare regional strategic plans that examine tourism issues like overcrowding, environmental challenges, and infrastructure.