The tourism industry has witnessed a sea of change in the past three years due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. While many of us hoped for a shift toward sustainable tourism on a massive scale, the industry continues to be plagued by problems. What are those challenges? How can destinations and businesses overcome them?
For those who are earnestly looking to start or transition into running a sustainable form of tourism, our panel of sustainable tourism specialists provides an excellent breakdown of the problems and what can be done to overcome them to achieve sustainability. Below are the answers (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).
Some key takeaways of main challenges:
- Failing to acknowledge that every destination is different, with its own specific circumstances and priorities.
- Working in silos. Not understanding that sustainability is a collective journey that requires collaboration.
- Lack of political will – the switch to sustainability is not easy and even more difficult if local or regional public policy doesn’t support it.
- Using inadequate measures of success, such as merely the number of arrivals (which can lead to overconsumption).
- Not involving employees and supply chain adequately.
- Consequences of the Pandemic, especially the focus on quick earnings over a slow and sustainable tourism.
- A missing sense of urgency – e.g., while the climate has begun changing considerable, action is slow.
- No adequate measures in place to manage overcrowding now that tourism will bounce back.
- Greenwashing – not finding the right balance between touting one’s green credentials and exaggerating claims of sustainability.
- Lack of awareness – insufficient awareness among the tourism industry of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Interview | Speaker profile
This topic is already well covered. In short, we need more purpose-driven businesses that are directly or indirectly involved in the visitor economy by applying commercial strategies to deliver tangible social and environmental impact. And we need more governments working across ministries and with all of the players in the tourism value chain (e.g., private sector, NGOs, communities, etc.) to unlock systems value.
Interview | Speaker profile
It’s a vast subject, that’s often overwhelming with a lack of understood practical steps. Also, no environment is necessarily the same, so you are always trying, shaping and developing relevant and local solutions to ensure the right impacts.
Interview | Speaker profile
Sustainability is a complex activity. It requires keeping many plates spinning at once. It is a commitment to a way of doing business – not just an easy add-on.
Interview | Speaker profile
- various demands by tourists (think supply chain)
- transportation-related issues
- organizational constraints (chains)
- human and financial resources
- growing population and number of travellers, overwhelming some systems
Interview | Speaker profile
- Egos and associated values
- The pursuit of profit at the expense of others
- Want and greed over need
- A superiority to assume better
- An unwillingness to listen and learn from others
- An unwillingness to change because it’s harder work
- An inability to face harsh truths
The human condition takes the path of least resistance (like other animals) and doesn’t want to be made to feel bad.
I think the main problem is the same old mindset and way of doing things. It is not helping if you pick new and better tools, but still have old aims, which are most often so simplistic as “more tourists, more turnover, more profit”. The challenge is to give up on the idea of endless growth within a limited planet. All tourism professionals should understand that tourism is not an industry but a living system. When changing the way we see ourselves and our sector, we can change everything else too.
Black-and-white thinking; focusing on narrow KPIs without an appreciation of sustainability as a holistic concept and 2nd/3rd order consequences; conflicts of interest in senior business and political decision making/system failures; ego.
A lack of local policies supporting sustainability, and the unavailability of sustainable products or services.
First, the mentality of managers and human resources in charge of the management of tourism activities and who should have updated training in sustainable development and its impact on business and on ecosystems. Secondly, the segmented approach of some decision-makers who have an interest in adopting a global vision and a holistic and sustainable approach.
The main challenges, therefore, remain awareness-raising, training and policies in favour of sustainability.
I think a great deal of the challenges relates to a lack of awareness of what needs to be done to become more sustainable. This is further compounded when there is a need for skills, resources and effort.
A presentation I gave on this topic at a “Sustainable Tourism Training for Tomorrow”’ event, along with other contributions from notable speakers on the same topic, can be found here.
I’ve been privileged to work over the past 20 years with tourism businesses and destinations at the forefront of sustainability (see for example the book co-written with Sue Snyman ‘Private sector tourism in conservation areas in Africa‘)
Recognising the information challenges that are faced, I recently published a book that aims to help transfer more knowledge to tourism businesses and destinations, and help improve their successes: the “Handbook for Sustainable Tourism Practitioners: The Essential Toolbox”.
The handbook is divided into four main parts that address different elements of sustainable tourism planning, operation and evaluation. It contains 27 chapters providing insightful detail into key sustainable tourism issues. The authors share step-by-step approaches to practical problems – such as how to write bankable financial proposals – how to consult with stakeholders – and how to manage visitors.
The book transfers knowledge from the academic realm, and from extensive practitioner experience, into one essential 550-page volume. It’s available in e-book and hardback here.
Anne de Jong
When they do it because they feel it will make more money or if they feel it’s something they need to do because it’s the right thing. And even though the latter is important, in the end, they do have a business to run. So, they need to find a way where sustainability fits into their business and actually makes them better. Creating a situation where sustainability is fully integrated into the business and not something on the side.
Lack of vision and weak understanding of the role that sustainability should play in the business. Too often see the action without a solid background, which leads to a certain agitation without effective change. We often listen to people saying that they know, do, and they are champions, but, in reality, they have no clue about it.
The tourism sector is very resistant to accepting the need to include other professionals and other skills. This is the case when it comes to environmental issues. Hotel managers, for instance, tend to consider that anyone in the organisation is able to assume professional and technical roles instead of recruiting qualified people. For the restaurant, they want the best chef, but for handling environmental issues, anyone can do it. It is a basic mistake that we see every day everywhere.
In terms of businesses, lack of real commitment to sustainable principles (such as the SDGs) on the part of management and employees along with a lack of training. Destinations will fail to reach sustainability goals if they:
- lack a critical mass of sustainable tourism businesses
- if they do not have a competent DMO that can coordinate these businesses and
- if public tourism policy is only paying lip service to sustainability, permanently fixated on arrival numbers and expenditure per head
Sustainability should be thought of as a long journey that will likely last forever. New approaches, technologies and ecological realities are ever-changing. However, many tourism businesses/destinations won’t know where to actually start and they can get overwhelmed by the complexity of criteria/certifications and feel that sustainability is “all or nothing.” Many businesses think that it’s too expensive and still too niche to be profitable.
At least in Latin America, the main pitfalls are corruption, greenwashing, and short-term vision. The main challenge is in raising the awareness and the lack of action towards the sustainability of this world, which affects all of us, where we live and where we travel to.
Convincing the decision-makers involved to think regionally instead of operationally, long-term instead of in terms of investment periods, and complex instead of one-dimensional – and then to act accordingly. Not to shift the responsibility and wait for consumers to express the desire for more sustainability.
Too often it is decided from top to bottom what the sustainable orientation of a company or destination should look like. However, the participation of employees, the local population, guests and other partners is crucial, as they ultimately have to accept and implement the measures. If a participation process is designed correctly, it can also generate many ideas and creative approaches.
Self-interest is the primary one. People consider their own needs, but don’t recognise those of others or the impacts of their own actions. By not considering externalities you are inherently creating a short-term business that will not have sustainability in any sense.
The main pitfalls that can prevent tourism businesses from success are forgetting that sustainability is a collective journey and, therefore, separating the actions of the actors involved.
Another big pitfall is considering the different dimensions of sustainability as disconnected areas that need segmented interventions and focuses.
They should be highlighted and understood as different areas of intervention, however, on the practical level they should be unified, and a specific effort should be made, at the destination level, to create solutions that can include more than one dimension. And above all, the local communities should be active in the process.
Also, I am among those people that think that we cannot work on environmental, social, economic, and cultural dimensions if we do not include an additional one to the equation: the political.
This means that the political institutions should continue the journey towards sustainability beyond the limitation of the mandate and the people that initiate those specific actions. Sustainability should be understood as a collective journey through generations, driven in a consistent way, whose direction should be dictated exclusively by the destination’s circumstances and contextual priorities.
Regarding challenges, there are big economic interests involved in the tourism business and a huge disparity of power in its management. In fact, most of the people that directly feel the impact of tourism has no part or voice in shaping the industry.
However, there are encouraging examples of innovative government, like the municipality of Barcelona, which show that new solutions to the democratization of the process can be found.
Seems that local governments are finding new ways to really listen and include the local community voices.
While the technology factor can be an important ally for the urban communities, a way is yet to be found to include the voices of the traditional, indigenous, and ancestral rural communities left out of the loop and mostly left alone to face the consequence of deregulated tourism activities and the effects of the climate change.
Therefore, the main challenges we face are changing the balance of power and opening up spaces to new stakeholders who could greatly contribute to sustainability if only they were given more space in the decision-making process.
Convincing governments at all levels to enact and enforce rules for sustainable tourism.
Erik van Dijk
Sustainable tourism is not expensive as people think. Bring the right balance between hospitality and sustainability.
In the past, there hasn’t been much encouragement for tourism to be sustainable but fortunately, I think that is changing now with consumer pressure and expectations in an evolving market. And also with the new generation showing genuine concern over their future on our planet and how our everyday actions contribute to it.
I think many businesses are concerned about viability as a sustainable operation can require a lot of short-term investment with little immediate return and some businesses cannot survive long enough to benefit from the long-term gains when faced with non-sustainable competition. A lack of support for ‘green development’ and funding contributes to this problem as the sustainable option often costs more than the quickest and easiest option.
More successful sustainability trailblazers are needed to encourage and support those who want to follow suit, lead by example and show that it is worth taking the risks and that it can succeed.
Tourism has two features that make sustainability a challenge.
It occurs across so many different sectors and spaces that a lot of tourism is conducted without any one organization in charge of it. Let’s take the example of Stag parties in a European city with young drunk men behaving badly in public spaces and damaging those spaces – who is responsible for them?
- The places they stay (no because they have no control over the public spaces)
- The airlines that bring them to the city (again no)
- The bars that served them (maybe a little bit)
- The DMO who didn’t encourage them to come and often don’t know there is a problem until it is a major problem
- The international tour operator who has no connection to the destination but organises the package (maybe morally but legally none at all)
That latter example is the second sustainability challenge – a large chunk of tourism is organized by businesses who have no connection to, or interest (other than financial gain) in the destinations that they send tourists to and make money from. They have no incentives to behave well and bear very little in the way of negative consequences if they behave badly. Not all businesses in this sector behave badly but enough do to create problems.
There is one overriding essential component to “sustainable tourism” and that is financial sustainability. Without a profit, your business cannot survive and therefore the possibility to do good is erased. So, all tourism businesses- whether regenerative or conventional -must first and foremost create viable and researched business platforms and seek to understand who their clients are and who they will be.
New small-scale tourism businesses usually function on a thread of support both financially and experientially and are often family-owned and operated. They frequently have little or no real experience in how to manage and grow a tourism company and usually spend too much time in the tourism world learning curve while sacrificing the opportunity to enjoy the best part of owning one of these businesses: the innovative idea-driven projects that not only help to create a fresh approach but also a niche for new and hopefully loyal clients.
One of the main challenges is the mindset of the community, where the tourism products are offered, the other one is the tourist visiting the area, without responsible, I mean respecting the culture and the people they are visiting.
Getting caught up in how to look good, virtue signalling and a desire to be seen to do good. The most important stuff happens behind the scenes with no one watching, yes there are some great inclusive components which need a song and dance to promote and spread the word to generate buy-in but it is not the starting point.
Joanna Van Gruisen
Competition and profit lead to overtourism. However sustainable the operation of a tourist company is, its very success can invite others who may not entirely share the same sustainable philosophy. Nothing can kill a destination faster than overtourism. Competition can lead to price wars too which can compromise sustainability. At a village level, this can be avoided by tourism operating with community, not individual, benefits, in a wider context, it is harder to avoid without government intervention and support/regulations.
Using wrong or incomplete measures of success, such as the number of arrivals; ignoring local opinions and desires (or heeding only local desires); inability to counter the power of large corporations (e.g. cruise lines); short-term government thinking and quick-buck solutions; proclivity of donor agencies to fund infrastructure over human capacity development; siloed thinking at the destination level.
Jorge Moller Rivas
Wrong public policy without involving the community.
Especially in the extreme economic and social suffering post-COVID in many destinations, when tourism returns it will be tempting to cut corners in the desperation to survive and succumb to market forces. We are already seeing this in unsustainable under-cutting and price slashing, for example. Many operations have been forced to lay off staff without pay, causing enormous hardship and threatening the quality of the product once visitors return. The challenge will be to stick to your sustainable tourism principles.
Pitfall – being shallow, superficial or irrelevant. Eg. a hotel communicating not to wash towels frequently.
Challenge – go deeper, and think of business as a tool to create value for society. Rethink business model and relation with stakeholders.
Nothing can prevent individual businesses from doing more to be sustainable. Only it takes leadership by owners of the business to motivate and inspire change commitment among employees. Fear of failure is the biggest constraint coupled with the human approach of being comfortable with the status quo. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination (a glib definition!) and that ongoing process can put people off.
The biggest challenges are:
- lack of understanding of what sustainable travel means and why it is important
- lack of awareness
- the short-sightedness of people who want a quick financial gain
- lack of political will, but that comes mostly from the lack of awareness and understanding
Megan Epler Wood
This is a very complex question, but I would say this – we need to change governance and decision-making procedures. Our leadership institutions are still mainly driven by growth.
Having a united vision and making sure investors (which one may or may not need) have the same vision.
Natalia Naranjo Ramos
Implementing sustainability requires a coordinated approach to face the challenges and the potential negative impacts of tourism activities.
The main pitfall is believing in ineffective ‘solutions’ like offsetting emissions, battery aircraft, and bio-fuels, trying to weigh economics and social aspects against existential issues like climate change and biodiversity. The latter is not possible and means that for relatively vague reasons (losing jobs, while there are many ways to generate labour) to lose the earth systems that are essential for the survival of humans.
Challenges are: get away from the over-valuation of distance, international travel, air travel and back to the essence of being from home even if a short distance. Also focusing on policy-making is essential to make all elements of tourism, but particularly flying, zero emissions by 2050. If that is technically unsuccessful, it should be clear that aviation will be reduced to a small sector.
There are so many.
Internally: Greed, weak understanding of ‘why?’, weak leadership, lack of prioritising and giving time, lack of resourcing (either intentionally or unintentionally) lack of motivating and encouraging staff, lack of good management systems to systematise and scale-up impacts.
Externally: weak government support, corruption undermining competitive environments, weak demand by customers, lack of access to modern technologies at a reasonable price.
There are many:
- the focus on numbers, rather than yield
- the fact our political cycles are often 3-5 years but real change takes 10-20
- that all stakeholders are not equal in terms of power
- the political will to change is lacking
- humans have short memories and so make the same mistakes over and over and those that want change are often not in control of the things that need to change
Depends on the business/destination. Sometimes belief, passion, and the quest for growth at any cost. Very occasionally it is downright irresponsibility. More often than not it is a combination of conflicting priorities (e.g. between service standards and sustainability criteria), bonkers business models (that separate property ownership from management), perverse incentives (that reward consumption rather than conservation) and a firmly held belief that if the customer wants it we as a service industry have to provide it.
Digital marketing under the social influence has enormous potential to cause overtourism which can not be sustainable anymore. For instance, when destinations are using their unique mountain lake for a destination campaign, “Instagram” travellers perhaps flood the spot. Nature and locals have to pay the price for the mass invasion.
The fact that the majority of tourists and many operators and governments are not prepared to adapt their behaviour/operation to the extent it would be needed to become truly sustainable.
Separating the green from the greenwash.
Understanding. While we carry on debating the best term or definition to use, our industry, which is largely SMEs, must engage in action. However, the concept of ‘sustainability’ is daunting, and so many businesses remain uncertain about where to begin. This, in my opinion, is a massive issue. Those of us engaged must offer our resources and approaches – we must help businesses to determine the scope and supporting tactics, rather than intimidate them from joining the effort.
Right now the economic realities of a recovering world will be a real setback for many. Some headway was being made with single-use plastics for instance and this area seems to be regressing because of COVID.
Also, there is no sense of real urgency for the environment or climate with the general public. Until the public understands and believes the seriousness of the situation, it feels like we’ll spin our wheels in many situations.
- Business models prioritize volume over all else, ignoring planetary boundaries.
- Sustainability as a niche, rather than a norm.
- Placing the burden of choosing sustainable travel on the consumer.
Economic sustainability is essential to be able to lead activities. The pandemic has shown the limits and fragility of tourism all over the world. The wide supply chain is suffering from this crisis.
In poor countries like Madagascar, it’s impacting the well-being of communities directly, lemurs are hunted for meat, and forests are burnt down for charcoal! Without a vision for the future, without a vaccination plan, the biggest challenge will be for travel. to bounce back!
Greenwashing, even if it’s done unwittingly, needs to be rooted out. Third-party certification can help avoid this trap that gives the industry a bad name. Developing destinations also need to ensure that foreign investments benefit the local community while protecting the interests of the investor.
The urgent get in the way of the important. We aim to reap short-term benefits without being aware of the long-term consequences of our actions. And too much selfishness.
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.