Innovation for Tourism Sustainability: Priorities & Opportunities

Published 23/11/2022
regenerative tourism

Innovation for sustainability: More and more destinations and tourism businesses are now acknowledging and implementing sustainability practices in their operations. With the scope for sustainability expanding, which innovations would the visitor economy particularly benefit from, in the next years? Systemic innovation, or smart(er) products and services.

We asked our panel of sustainable tourism specialists, and here’s what they answered (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).

Some key focus areas for sustainability innovation, according to the panel:

  • regenerative tourism: change of mindset – tourism as a tool for communities to reach their sustainable development goals, rather than as a leisure activity enjoyed by those who visit
  • circular economy: everything that supports smart use of resources
  • carbon neutrality, e.g. in the hospitality sector

Brian Mullis, sustainable tourism expert panel member

Brian Mullis

Speaker profile

We have to move away from the status quo that the tourism sector is comfortably settling back into. If we are to evolve beyond a dying economic model focused on endless growth and resuscitate the natural systems that sustain all life, we have to take a completely different approach to tourism development and management. Regenerative tourism has quickly emerged as the solution.

While it’s no silver bullet, it is a complete deviation from the industrial production and consumption tourism model. Embracing and fostering such change requires a shift in mindset to understand how tourism and hospitality, and the heritage, economy, and ecology of a place work together as a living system. Embracing the Inner Development Goals is an ideal place to begin the journey that is required to foster a shift in mindsets.

Jonathon Day, sustainable tourism expert panel memberJonathon Day

Speaker profile

One of the big topics in innovation is “adoption”. I’d like to see many current trends in sustainable and regenerative tourism “cross the chasm” and become mainstream/standard operating procedures. 

Raj Gyawali, sustainable tourism expert panel member

Raj Gyawali

Speaker profile

A tool that brings all players in the tourism industry together to have a common understanding of sustainability.

The biggest problem is that sustainability in practice is understood differently by everyone and unless we bring it all together, the impact will always be minimal. The method to do that is measurement. That’s where it all comes together. We need a tool for that.

Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith

Speaker profile

Crises: COVID, climate, conflict, loss of biodiversity and social inequalities are five mega-crises we need to deal with. Across the world and industry, challenges and tensions spur creativity.

Innovation to counteract and improve any of these issues will be well-placed. The opportunity is to be brave and address head-on, purpose-first, not ignore until they are unavoidable, then try and profit when mainstreaming consumer consciousness as a ‘trend’.

Other perspectives: The sector narrative is still largely driven by originating countries. But what about the voices of those we visit? What innovations do they need? What innovations do they have that we’re not showcasing and supporting? Innovation isn’t just material, it’s changing ideas and attitudes too. Carbon budgets per capita, aside from carbon accounting, could shift consideration to the global south.

Awareness: The attitude-action gap is still huge. Innovation which engages, educates, encourages, influences and prompts consumers to vote with wallets for more sustainable tourism and closing the gap between intent and behaviour is welcome! This calls for responsible marketing and measurement.

Responsible Marketing: There’s the marketing of responsible tourism, and then there’s responsible marketing. You can have seemingly responsible marketing of irresponsible products (greenwashing); marketing of responsible products (greenhushing – under-communicating credentials); but now is the time for responsible marketing of responsible products. This requires open, honest, transparent information on impact, which is much needed.

Measurement: There’s big data in sustainability. Tourism has only just started tracking elements, few have barely put those elements together, let alone smart analytics for a holistic, benchmarked triple bottom line view along a sustainability journey. There’s no standardisation yet, but creativity and consolidation are bound to come. For example:

  • Certification: With so many hundreds of options in the market, yet so few known, there will inevitably be mergers and acquisitions among certification providers to strengthen the alliance, market shares and offerings.
  • Sustainability expertise: Valued – not just historical sales trajectories (especially given the Covid industry sales impact). With more consumers and organisations turning to sustainable tourism, knowledge and experience will be sought, to help implement and improve. Previously resource-challenged, tourism sustainability experts could be in demand.
  • Financial support: needs to match sustainability values. Currently, traditional short-term ROI models jar with long-term investment for better business and sustainable returns. Sustainable startups are square pegs in round holes: new models of funding are required to match purpose and value vision as integral to business and development, and not seek to minimise founder ownership to exit but support growth for win-win-win for business, founders and investors.

Willy Legrand - sustainable tourism panel

Willy Legrand

Speaker profile

On the hospitality front, the industry professionals active in the hotel industry today are making decisions on how the hotel sector is to be shaped for the next five to 30 years. Then, there is the next generation of hoteliers – those currently at university – who will shape the industry for the next 50 years. Therefore, both parties, those developing and operating hotels today and the future generation of hoteliers all have to play a role in partial decarbonisation by 2030 and close-to-complete decarbonisation by 2050.

Since a large portion of our carbon emissions are linked to the way we design, develop, construct, refurbish, retrofit as well as heat, cool and ventilate our buildings; the larger picture involves our current supply of hotel properties as well as the construction pipeline. Once we obtain better coordination between investors, developers, brands and operators, we can see that sustainability has a chance to be enacted from the very first planning stages and this is crucial.

So, the innovation needed is: to rethink our development and operation processes. Best practices are out there to show that carbon neutrality is possible now; that ecosystem restoration can go hand-in-hand with hospitality and tourism development, and that fair tourism is possible.

The opportunity: take matters into our own hands and shape the tourism we wish to see, develop and experience.

Gianna Moscardo

Often innovation is equated with technology or new products or services but what we need is to rethink our underlying assumptions/worldviews about what tourism is, what a destination is, and how these are linked.

The simplest, but seemingly hardest of innovations is to first reframe tourism as about personal value for the tourist, not the distance they travel. Further, reframe tourism not as an external force that uses destinations as resources but tourism as a tool that destination communities can use to improve all aspects of their quality of life/community well-being.

Rachel Dodds

I would like to see communities having a voice and also tourism start to consider limits of acceptable change rather than just growth metrics. Limits of acceptable change are when stakeholders consider what is acceptable and what is not. Once a limit has been considered, it is easier to outline measurement indicators.

Steve Noakes

What’s good for tourism businesses can be good for the whole industry/system – and vice versa. A lot of good ‘circular economy’ work has been accomplished in turning waste into productive uses but there is much to do still.

You only have to go to a destination where the resources are not available to clean up marine and land waste to make a healthy environment for locals and visitors. Especially in emerging/developing economies, it would be great to see more large-scale adaptation of innovations for waste management that have worked in higher-income destinations.

For example, expand the use of plastic credit mechanisms.

Urs Wagenseil

DMOs should not focus on marketing and selling the destination only but hire new staff with sustainability skills and focus on product development.

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.