Innovation for sustainability is a key component on tourism’s journey towards a more sustainable development. Around the world, businesses and destinations are getting creative in their approach to achieving sustainability – or even regenerative tourism. How do they do it?
We asked our panel of sustainable tourism champions which destinations or organizations have done a particularly impressive job with regard to innovation for tourism sustainability. Here’s what they answered (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).
It is well known that tourism has inherent negative environmental impacts and is extractive in nature when it’s not well managed. Sustainable tourism is usually focused on sustaining current tourism activities and / or limiting environmental damage and negative impacts on host communities.
Rather than sustaining an approach to tourism that is unsustainable by design, regenerative tourism is a holistic process that uses nature’s principles to restore degraded environments and uplift host communities helping both to flourish.
Innovation comes in a variety of forms: Here are three examples that include technological innovation, and process innovation:
- EV [electronic vehicle] transportation will change tourism for the better. Hoteliers and other tourism organizations are working through the challenges of introducing these new technologies. That’s critical – because the EV change is happening (at scale), and we need to get in front of it.
- Groups in destinations all around the world are coming together and thinking through ways to make tourism better. These changes are co-created with a range of stakeholders and unique to each location. Even though the solutions are “local” – the regenerative approach is an example of innovation in how we approach challenges that are global in scope.
- Another innovation that is worth watching is the move to destination stewardship. This is a paradigm shift that a few “early adopters” have embraced.
In 2020, Ethical Travel Portal won an innovation grant in Norway for the idea to research and develop a measurement tool for sustainable tour operations. The measurement itself might not be a big innovation but engaging the travellers as a decision making partner in sustainability is innovative, as the traveller is the one affecting change in the long run. The tool is being prototyped, and collaboratively formed in the community to help develop and nurture it. That itself is innovative, as sustainability is an issue that should be for everyone, and not about market shares.
In 2021, the same company won another innovation grant from Innovation Norway to prototype the first version of travel community engagement through a local storytelling website. This again is based on the principle to actively engage travellers – or intending travellers – in understanding destinations, through stories owned by the destinations and not by content generated by massive media machines which constantly misrepresent destinations. This is being prototyped and populated at www.resonate.travel.
In 2020, women in tourism in Manang, Nepal started agriculture as tourism dried out and rediscovered the joy of community agriculture. They then partnered with karma coffee in Kathmandu to get help on product packaging, marketing and exposure to the market. With an active focus on sustainable sourcing and packaging and smart marketing these products were launched as ManangDirect, and later KarnaliDirect also joined in from Far West Nepal. The spin off smart marketing via Instagram raised the profile of the product, and hence young people from Manang started owning their produce. And feeling a sense of pride. The produce was also used by chefs to create fusion food and presented at an exclusive dinner in Kathmandu, further raising its profile.
Post this, a further innovation was done by my own company, socialtours, in developing an agritourism experience of understanding this phenomenon, going back to the village to see the agriculture. This is an example of using tourism for regeneration.
Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency has done a fantastic job growing from what was called a “specialist group” of nearly 30 travel organisation launch signatories to become the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, to more than 500 organisations today.
Decarbonisation: we’ve seen EasyJet recently drop the bandaid of carbon offsets to focus on actual emission reduction. Our partners’ electric game drive vehicles aren’t just better for emissions, but quieter for watching wildlife and so a better customer experience. We’re also seeing meat-free menus (at least some days) pop up all over the world. Such reductions also help transition focus to restoration and regeneration.
- Collaborations: With such global, existential issues as Covid and climate crisis, we see how cross-sector and public/private partnerships are required to pool resources to support the wide-ranging, intense efforts and energy needed for big change. Tourism isn’t an island, and we are now seeing the intersection of the SDGs play out – not just SDG 17 (partnerships), but in implementations like Doughnut Economics in Amsterdam, really understanding how different priorities inter-depend, impact and are impacted by tourism, in order to deliver social needs within planetary resource boundaries.
- Consumers: are finally starting to demand sustainability. Where pioneering suppliers have led the charge for triple bottom line impacts, Covid and lockdown have increased public consciousness of wellness of community, economy and environment, and their ability to join the dots between issues of concern and how tourism can offer solutions. Annual surveys like Booking.com’s show yearly increases in interest and desire that the future of travel can only be sustainable.
- Greenwash: Unsurprisingly, as demand for sustainable tourism grows, so does greenwashing as companies try to appeal to the demand, without necessarily having the evidence to substantiate sustainability claims. Where in the past we’ve seen UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ban ads such as Ryanair’s claiming the ‘lowest emissions airline’ (based on per passenger per kilometre flown with little substantiated comparison), they’ve now taken the proactive positive step of publishing advertising guidance over misleading environmental claims and social responsibility. This gives tools to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and European counterparts to investigating misleading claims. Will our governments even stack up to their own policies?
If we take a look at the environmental pillar and in particular climate and biodiversity related issues, three innovations (which have actually been around for decades but increasingly being rediscovered and applied in the hotel and tourism settings) include:
- Nature-based solutions for urban destinations (a source of solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change and protect biodiversity while ensuring human well-being with street trees, green roofs, green walls, green spaces which are particularly applicable to the urban building sector in general; some of this best represented by concepts such as green cover replacement or green plot ratio in urban settings)
- Biophilic design in hotels (related to the point above, plenty of application in the hotel settings with ROI on investment calculated environmentally, socially and psychologically as studies demonstrate the use of nature elements in a hotel minimizes employee burnout and increases productivity, work engagement satisfaction and employee retention, let alone the restoration benefits to guests)
- Blue roofs (the water cycles in urban areas are often broken with increased sealed spaces by building and asphalts; hotel buildings with blue roof allow for storage of rainwater which can be slowly drained, mitigating local flooding)
This is hard as since the pandemic I have seen almost no innovation in tourism in the areas I am familiar with. One that was emerging of interest was Istria In Spirit as a community based group engaging locals and tourists in regional stories.
- Amsterdam: refocusing their campaigns to focus on ‘Enjoy & Respect’ rather than just attracting visitors.
- Intrepid Travel: The company offered vaccine equity. When someone booked a trip, they offered a vaccine to someone who didn’t have access. This supported safety and equity within the regions Intrepid was visiting.
- 4VI: Vancouver Island in Canada shifted their focus from just being a destination marketing organizations to a social enterprise.
Three examples from Indonesia.
Doing innovative environmental things: Urban Biologist Bali –
- A responsible waste management service for residents or business
- A chemical-free mosquito control for local community and private sector
- A wildlife exploration and education platform in the urban settings of Bali
Doing innovative things to change human behaviour: Greeneration Foundation, an Indonesian non-governmental organization that focuses on utilizing adaptive creative media in changing human behaviour to implement Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) in Indonesia.
Doing innovative good things for small scale (but important) economic benefit to local communities – Indonesia Conservation Foundation. One project during COVID shutdowns was to establish goat farming using zero grazing at the homes of the staff of the ecolodge that had to be closed (now reopened as Satwa Elephant Ecolodge).
Systemic innovations we are seeing more and more:
- Installation of Destination Management Organizations in tourism destinations with a clear task of sustainable development
- Adapting the tasks, duties and goals of already existing DMOs towards a more sustainable development
- Bridging DMOs and local governments with institutional structure to combine forces for a more sustainable development
- Installation of destination-specific monitoring systems
More about the sustainable tourism panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable and its development regenerative.