Innovation for tourism sustainability: which are the main challenges, barriers to overcome?
We asked our panel of sustainable tourism specialists, and here’s what they answered (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).
Some of our takeaways…
- There is still not enough focus on destination management, and too much emphasis on destination marketing.
- Lack of a tool to measure the impact of tourism on a destination’s shared assets.
- Insufficient coordination among the various stakeholders in hospitality and/or destination management.
- Tourism brands not yet adopting responsible marketing practices.
- Travel is still perceived as an extractive industry and not as an opportunity for the regenerative development of communities.
Companies, destinations, and travellers need to be more aware of and held accountable for their impact. They all have an important role to play to ensure that tourism lives up to its promise to improve people’s livelihoods and protect the environments they depend upon. Each player seems to be missing an opportunity to use tourism as a vehicle for social, environmental, and economic advancement.
Since there is no single stakeholder group that is solely responsible for generating economic outcomes or preserving a destination’s natural and cultural heritage, a collaboration between sectors is required to catalyse the change needed to keep tourism destinations healthy. Truly innovative thinking is needed from destination authorities and business leaders working together to determine how to manage growing visitor numbers, address changing traveller expectations and shape and improve both visitor and host experiences.
There is a substantial opportunity for businesses, visitors, host communities and residents to derive greater benefits from tourism. The strategic use of private, public and community partnerships, for example, supports destination-level tourism strategies, empowers host communities to protect their tourism assets and creates opportunities for private sector enterprises and NGOs throughout the tourism value chain. Residents’ well-being and the visitor experience are improved in the process.
Many problems can be addressed through:
- The utilisation of complex collaboration and collective impact methodologies
- The principles of circular economy
- Evidence-based policies and planning
- Regulatory simplification
- Strategies like the sharing economy, market-driven enterprise and product development
- Economic, environmental and social impact measurement
- Monitoring and reporting across relevant spatial scales
Cumulatively these efforts will support science-based decision-making and help to mitigate tourism’s negative effects. Furthermore, they can reduce the commoditization of the beautiful and historic places on which the tourism industry depends while providing more opportunities for travellers and tourism businesses. When travel and tourism activities are planned and executed with the impact on communities and commerce in mind, tourism as an industry can live up to its potential as a great catalyst for economic, social and environmental prosperity.
It is critical that we “mainstream” more sustainability practices. Few manufacturers discuss whether they should or shouldn’t implement quality programs. Quality is expected. We need to get to a place where it is commonplace for a range of sustainable activities in every tourism business. We’ve reached high levels of adoption on some activities (most hoteliers have linen programs and energy conservation activities), but many actions still seem to be treated as optional.
The general understanding of sustainability is a huge barrier in the industry. We need a common understanding.
The global tourism market is made up of hundreds of thousands of SMEs. And dominated by a relatively small number of huge players whose revenues leak and never make it to destinations. Sustainability start-ups are incredibly important for creativity and challenge to the market, and yet few get support, so scaling is a challenge: existing players seek out positive-halo sustainability partnerships based on unsustainable values, and competitions just look for new versions of business as usual, sometimes receiving thousands of applications which can’t possibly be judged by human consideration.
This isn’t innovation for what the world needs, but looks for what we already know and have: volume plays for profit. Innovation has somehow just come to mean just technological. But to innovate is to make changes in something established, introducing new methods, ideas or products: it’s those systems and behaviour changes in which we need innovation for impact. Sustainability is currently having to operate within a “business as usual” world not aligned with values and purpose.
Sustainable tourism suppliers and products are plentiful, and technology abounds in tourism. The hindrance to sustainable tourism growth has been slow consumer demand, thus ROI, and consequently investment and support. Big business has its operational structure, startups don’t – they can be creative, brave and disruptive in a way traditional tour operators and agents won’t.
But resources are required before ROI: supply is ahead of demand. But to gain the support, values and behaviour change is required in existing support structures that have to align: investors, grants, donors, education. Sustainability is about the long term.
While the general perception is that financial benefit is one of the greatest advantages of investing in sustainability innovations, the costs involved in installing a strong sustainability strategy as well as the doubt on return on investments for those sustainability initiatives are perceived as strong barriers still to this date, although evidence of positive financial return is plentiful.
One of the greatest hindrances in enacting sustainability, particularly in the hospitality sector is the inherent complexities surrounding ownership, brands and operators in the hotel industry. While ownership and management are often under one roof in the private hotel industry, this is not the case for most hotel chains. The parties involved in the hotel investment and development are not the same operating the property, which in turn may be running under a brand.
Achieving substantial changes, including a clear plan towards carbon neutrality, equates to significant investments required in existing or new hotel infrastructure. This is often the responsibility of the investors and/or owners. This may translate into directing capital away from shareholders’ short-term gains and growth plans.
However, in terms of risk management, investing in carbon neutrality is the best (only!) option. Therefore, the combination of the hotel industry’s structural business model and the emphasis on quick economic returns works as the greatest barrier to rapid and necessary changes in light of the climate and biodiversity emergencies.
An inability to see the whole system – each organisation or business sees itself at the centre and does not always understand the wider system in which it operates.
DMOs often see themselves at the core as destination marketers, not sustainability managers, even though we know that their marketing makes a limited difference to tourist decisions. This is made even harder because tourism people are often quite disconnected from the rest of the communities they exist in = they often look outwards towards the international distribution and transport system and not inwards to other sectors and community matters.
Finally, a continuing challenge for tourism is that businesses can make money out of building tourism infrastructure or out of making tourists move to different places, and not out of making tourism at any destination successful. So they have no incentive to be concerned about sustainability at the destination level which, while not the sole area of concern, is the most important level for sustainability in tourism.
The entire industry needs to shift its metrics of success and also measurement. There is first a general lack of measurement and this needs to increase so that comparatives and progress can be viewed objectively.
Measuring just visitor numbers is not a measure of success and therefore making changes to support communities and the environment becomes difficult when no weight is put on these aspects.
Being too comfortable in your own space. Take heed of three quotes from Winston Churchill:
“Great success always comes at the risk of enormous failure.”
“Play the game for more than you can afford to lose, only then will you learn the game.”
“Victory is only wrested by running risks.”
- Tourism managers who are not willing, or not skilled, to adapt their classic roles.
- Tourism managers who believe that experience from the past is enough to solve present and future challenges.
- Politicians that want to collect low-hanging fruits only and do not have the goal to develop their region according to long-term sustainable development goals.
- National, tourism-relevant associations that focus on economic goals only.
- National governments that do not support a shift towards a more holistic development strategy and that are not willing to adapt laws and regulations fast enough.
More about the sustainable tourism expert panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable and its development regenerative.