How to succeed as sustainability entrepreneur in tourism

Most tourism businesses are small or medium-sized, whose success often depends on the leadership of an entrepreneurial professional (often the business owner) who takes risks and has the courage to try new solutions to growing problems, such as unsustainable supply chains or outdated business practices.

Without the vision and innovative ideas of entrepreneurs, sustainable tourism examples and success stories would be rare, probably non-existent. But how to succeed as a sustainable tourism entrepreneur? Which factors determine entrepreneurial success?

We asked our virtual expert panel for advice on the key success factors for sustainability entrepreneurship in tourism. Reading through the many answers, we identified 14 common characteristics linked to successful sustainable tourism entrepreneurship.

Tip: Through our Information Scout service we can help you gain and maintain competitive advantage by providing overviews on latest thinking and research on topics linked to the sustainability of tourism businesses and destinations. Simple knowledge base search queries are included in our Premium and Pro plans. More about your subscription options here.

14 characteristics of successful sustainability entrepreneurs in tourism

Ordered by importance (number of mentions), here the success factors our panel associates with entrepreneurial success linked to tourism and sustainability.

1) Passion, drive and determination

Succeeding as entrepreneur dedicated to sustainability is hard work and no easy task. Hardly surprising thus that passion drive and determination is what makes successful sustainability entrepreneurs stand out, in the eyes of our panel. Such deep commitment is often triggered by specific events or experiences – “wake up moments”, and fueled by a strong belief in the need to do the right thing, even if it goes against market forces and business trends.

Focus is what helps entrepreneurs channel their passion and put ideas and vision into practice, and which gets them through difficult time. It is this unwavering grit, persistence and resilience which builds entrepreneurial capacity to press for change in tourism, which is not quick.

2) Clear vision and strategy

Clearly, passion alone won’t make a successful business. A clear vision, together with a good strategic plan of how to implement your idea or tell your story is the second most important factor for entrepreneurial success, according to the panel. Having this clear vision is important because entrepreneurs inevitably face many obstacles and things they have to deal with in the short-term – management decisions which can take up all of their time.

Successful entrepreneurs always have the long-term strategy and desired outcomes present: they are able to visualize what “success” will mean. In tourism sustainability, success might be in the form of intangible benefits enjoyed over long time periods.

3) Social capital: strong networks in local community

The third key characteristic of successful sustainable tourism entrepreneurs is their ability to network and connect with their local community. Caring for your destination and actively collaborating in restoring, protecting and maintaining it isn’t just “the right thing to do”. It is also a smart business strategy, since in tourism the product/experience depends on the state of the destination as a whole.

Especially in developing countries, sustainable tourism and ecotourism entrepreneurs are often foreigners. In this case, getting involved with the locals and building up social capital can be a key factor for your business success, in that it helps you build capacity, supply chains, and create the goodwill you need for your guests to be able to enjoy the rich, authentic experiences you have promised.

Cooperative actions across the destination and the resulting relationships and backup network are what for many tourism entrepreneurs will be what keeps them afloat when crisis hits.

4) Business plan which connects profit with sustainability

It’s important that, as entrepreneur, you don’t set out with the idea of saving the world, but take the time to work out a business plan which details on how you are going to make the money needed to make it work.

Already at that early stage, you can factor in minimum standards for sustainability, such as the GSTC Industry Standard, which will help you to keep expenses low, for example by conserving energy and water.

Too many small tourism businesses dedicated to sustainability ultimately fail because their leaders follow a vague, utopian idea of life in harmony with nature. The simple truth is that when you are busy thinking about surviving, it’s difficult to think about sustainability.

Entrepreneurial success is often the result of a good understanding of figures, feasibility planning and business plans created by Doers who use common sense and keep both feet on the ground.

5) Skills and knowledge

Tourism entrepreneurs need the knowledge, capacity and tools to implement sustainability best practice. Successful entrepreneurs manage to obtain education and to acquire the necessary skills, despite the lack of resources most SME face.

Finding the time to investigate best practices while running a small business is tough, but the only chance to stay innovative and competitive. If you find yourself in this situation, perhaps our Information Scout service can help.

And: continued training is now easier than ever. Many organisation offer online seminars on topics linked to tourism and sustainability. We can help you find a suitable one.

6) Funding

Funding is key to the success of any entrepreneur, not just in tourism. Those who make it beyond the first years do so because they have access to funds or a financial cushion. They know how to link long-term investment in social capital to a viable cash flow.

Knowing where to get financial backing from is thus a key factor for succeeding as a sustainable tourism entrepreneur.

7) In-depth knowledge about your market

The seventh success factor for sustainability entrepreneurship in tourism, according to our panel, is about knowing your market extremely well. Understanding it and being aware about its needs, trends and opportunities is crucial for finding your own, profitable niche, and the right business partners.

Too often, sustainability gains aren’t made because the right suppliers are missing, or because of lack of market access. Successful entrepreneurs overcome those challenges by being creative, pragmatic and alert.

8) Marketable product, unique selling proposition

Knowing your market very well is no guarantee for success, if your product or service has no demand, or is hard to sell. As one panelist put it, there is a big difference between a good idea and a good business. Entrepreneurs have a well-developed idea for a genuinely marketable product.

The key (and this is probably new) is to not aim for “green aware markets” by advertising your product or service as green or sustainable. Rather, successful sustainability entrepreneurs and business owners focus on offering comfortable, convenient, high value for money products or services to the mass market. In other words, characteristics which holiday makers are actually looking for at the point of purchase (very few travellers purchase “sustainability”).

9) Value-driven leadership

If you don’t live it, nobody will. Successful sustainability entrepreneurs live their business ethics. It’s the personal commitment from the owner or manager that motivates the rest of the staff. Only together can sustainability be fully integrated in day-to-day business practice.

10) Good idea and story, well communicated

Successful entrepreneurs in tourism and sustainability have a good idea or story, and know how to communicate it well – both internally and externally.

11) Skilled team and good partners

If you team doesn’t believe in sustainability, then your chances for success on that front are limited. It’s them who have to implement procedures at the operational level. Key to success is to train and make staff aware about sustainability practices. Not just how to do it, but also making sure they understand the why.

A sustainability-smart team will make your life as entrepreneur and business owner much easier, and success much easier to obtain.

12) Focus on adding value, not reinventing the wheel

Here’s an important observation shared by one panelist: Entrepreneurship in tourism isn’t necessarily the creation of a new tool, practice or product. It’s about coherence, integrity and offering quality services and experiences which are true to your identity (=authentic).

In a world where reputation is the strongest currency and your brand the king, success comes to those who create and add value while staying true to their core product, ideals and beliefs.

13) Courage: ability and capacity to take risk

There’s no way around the fact that to succeed as entrepreneur means that you are able to take a certain amount of risk and wiling to give something new a try. Courage is perhaps the key to it all.

14) Luck!

Last but not least, you need luck to succeed. Luck to run the right business model in the right place at the right time.


The following panelists have contributed:

Albert Salman (Netherlands), Alex Tsuk (Indonesia), Antonio Abreu (Portugal), Ariane Janér (Brazil), Asma Rasheed (Maldives), Brian Mullis (USA), Dagmar Lund-Durlacher (Austria), Eduard Mueller (Costa Rica), Fiona Jeffery (UK), Gavin Bate (UK), Gianna Moscardo (Australia), Karen Kuhl (Nicaragua), Kelly Bricker (USA), Kevin Teng (Singapore), Louise Twining-Ward (USA), Maria Lougari (Greece), Mariana Madureira (Brazil), Masaru Takayama (Japan), Paul Peeters (Netherlands), Peter Richards (Myanmar), Philippe Moreau (Portugal), Rachel Dodds (Canada), Richard Butler (UK), Ronald Sanabria (Costa Rica), Shannon Guihan (Canada), Steve Noakes (Australia), Tricia Barnett (UK), Vicente Ferreyra Acosta (Mexico).

More about the panel here.


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How to Succeed as Sustainability Entrepreneur in Tourism: 14 Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs
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Expert panel: leading sustainable tourism professionals answer questions linked to tourism and sustainability. More about the panel here.

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