How to make a career in sustainable tourism? In this post, we share with you some tips and career advice for recent graduates interested in the fascinating field of sustainable tourism development, management and marketing. If you are keen to combine skills with passion and want the satisfaction of knowing that you can do well by doing good, then this is your starting place.
10 Tips for a successful career in sustainable tourism
Here’s what tourism professionals suggest in terms of getting a foot into the sustainable tourism door:
1. Bring the right skills
Communication is key to a successful career dedicated to making tourism more sustainable, says Dagmar Lund-Durlacher of MODUL University in Vienna, Austria: “Communication with stakeholders within and outside the organization or business is crucial for a successful sustainable tourism development.”
Rebecca Hawkins of the Responsible Hospitality Partnership in the United Kingdom also emphasizes the benefit of being a good communicator when working in tourism sustainability:
“Learn the skills of listening, engaging and motivating … most staff teams are more than able to create solutions to sustainability dilemmas they just need a bit of facilitation and support along the way.”
2. Don’t look for a job in “sustainable tourism”
This one is particularly important because it could stop you at a very early stage. “Sustainable tourism” isn’t a business sector or discipline with established procedures and career paths.
The key, as Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council advises, is to “seek careers in any facet of travel and tourism and be an agent of change for greater sustainability.”
Salli Felton, CEO of the Travel Foundation agrees, and urges career starters to “take your knowledge, drive and passion and find ways to implement sustainability in a regular job in the travel industry. Once you’re there, don’t lose hope at the first hurdle, if you need support then it’s out there for you – give the Travel Foundation a call and we’ll help you plug into the right networks.”
Patience, and over time finding ways to change the tourism industry from within is also the advice of Fiona Jeffery, founder of water charity Just a Drop, who advises to “listen to your conscience and ensure whatever job you take put sustainability in the agenda as part of its DNA.”
Which of course links back to the importance of communication skills, so you can, as Rebecca Hawkins puts it, “convince your employer that the sustainability path is one that will pay dividends (financially, reputationally, morally).”
Lastly, to succeed as a sustainable tourism professional, “make sure that a career in sustainable tourism is what you really want to pursue, not just follow the trend.” Wise words by Laos-based hospitality teacher Soulinnara Ratanavong.
3. Collect field experience
Many topics, especially in the humanities, are well suited for theoretical work and academic research with the chance of recognition and a successful career. From what we hear, tourism isn’t usually part of them. Your best bet to succeed in making a real difference is thus to get your hands dirty as a tourism practitioner. And to become one, you’ll want to collect experience early on.
Masaru Takayama, a Japanese advisor, business owner and the founding Chair of the Asian Ecotourism Network, puts it like this:
“I always say to students, you need to first learn how to write a good resume. To do so, you will need some working experience. What you learn in the book is good, but better if you combine with the field experience. You can never drive a car well just reading the manual.”
By collecting field experience, you also widen your horizon, which is essential for success as tourism professional. Traveling and living different experiences will give you a more comprehensive view of the world, and the role that tourism plays in it, notes Nuria Chacon of Spanish ecotourism agency and consultancy STIPA.
An ideal situation would be for you to get experience across both the private and public sectors. As Tony Charters of Ecotourism Australia recalls, “having that broader experience has been invaluable to me over the years as it helps you to see the perspectives and motivators of both sectors.”
4. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel
Sometimes, when we’re very passionate about something, we become so focused that we don’t see what’s already there. Starting up from scratch is also very time and energy consuming. Instead, if you want to make a difference, follow the advice of Brian Mullis and “determine how you can support and/or complement existing initiatives.”
Or, in the words of Tensie Whelan, former President of the Rainforest Alliance: “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Go to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the UN World Travel Organization, and other organizations active in sustainable tourism for help.”
5. Focus on impact, not outputs
In the academic world, number of publications is often more important than their usefulness for society, for example when hunting for a job. What really matters – or should matter – though isn’t outputs, but the impact you are making: be it with your research publication or as a practitioner.
“Work with industry, make sure your research has impact, record what difference you are making to the behaviour of others. Most research grants now rely on evidence of that impact.”
Networking is a must for a successful career in most professions, and tourism is no exception. So please follow the advice of Dagmar Lund-Durlacher and get engaged with networks. Sustainable tourism networks are easy to find and free to join, both online and offline.
Much professional online networking takes place on LinkedIn, so the first step here is to create yourself a LinkedIn profile, so you can join relevant groups there, suggests D’Arcy Dornan, Brazil Country Representative of the GSTC. He also recommends to “attend trade show events, conferences, meetings and introduce yourself to people (always asking for their business cards).”
On LinkedIn, you might want to make sure to actively participate by contributing useful comments and information.
The flagship events for tourism professionals are the annual ITB in Berlin (March) and World Travel Market (November) in London. That said, there are now events smaller but similar to those two on almost every continent. Both ITB and WTM have dedicated networking events for tourism pros working towards sustainability. To meet someone at those events, make sure to get in touch and ask for time a few months before.
7. Never give up
In tourism, as with sustainability, change can be frustratingly slow. Be patient and don’t give up is essential advice which various leading professionals shared with us. Passion is the key, together with “a great deal of belief and tenacity”, to quote Justin Francis, founder of ResponsibleTravel.com.
Natalia Naranjo, sustainable tourism advisor and lecturer in Colombia, also advocates this combination of passion, belief and tenacity: “Love what you do, learn every day and don´t give up on sustainability.. we are on our way and we are becoming a big force.”
This of course is easier said than done, since we all need to make ends meet. For Fiona Jeffery, the best way to go about this is to “balance short term issues with long term goals.”
As entrepreneurs, Nuria & Alberto of STIPA know all to well how difficult it can be to get started:
“Regardless of your training, you need perseverance, professionalism and dedication to gain a foothold and recognition in the field in which your business operates. And, this takes time, so you have to be patient and take into account this period of establishment in your business plan.”
Let’s finish with the wise words of Rachel Dodds, sustainable tourism advisor and professor at Ryerson University in Canada: “Do what you are passionate about… don’t get discouraged by rejections and remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
8. Don’t be a dreamer: Make it financially viable
Another important piece of advice comes from Valere Tjolle, who recommends career starters or entrepreneurs to “try to make it economically viable for yourself and the industry.” We also share the sentiment of Tony Charters, who stresses that just like any other business, hotels or tours focused on sustainable tourism must be profitable to succeed. Right he is!
9. Bring the right mindset and think outside the box
Keeping an open mind is important for many jobs, but an absolute essential part of a career dedicated to tourism and sustainability. As Erik van Dijk of Green Key Netherlands notes: “Look to developments of sustainability in other business sectors. There are a lot of innovations the tourism industry can take profit of. Think out of the box!”
Justin Francis‘ personal story illustrates the point:
“When I told Anita Roddick from The Body Shop that I planned to start my own company she got out a very large piece of paper and drew a line down the middle of it. She asked me to write the ‘conventions and norms’ of the industry down one side, then on the other suggested I find a way to do things different and break every rule. Our industry has ‘coded in’ some very selfish and unsustainable behaviour. Understanding and breaking those codes, and developing a deep understanding of your customer, will lead to success.”
Equally valuable is the advice from Stewart Moore, the founder and CEO of EarthCheck in Australia: “Always take a 360 degree perspective on how to approach any sustainability challenge. Be happy to step back and seek other perspectives and ideas no matter how counter intuitive they may seem at first.”
This already starts when choosing your studies which, in the eyes of Nuria and Alberto of STIPA, are ideally a combination of “training in marketing, tourism and the environment.”
10. Watch and stay close to sustainability leaders
Last but not least, keep an eye on the leaders – either those in charge at your organisation or leading professionals whose work you admire. Says Dagmar Lund-Durlacher: “Stay close to decision makers. If a sustainability approach is not supported by the decision makers of an organization or business, it most likely will fail.”
Let’s conclude our tips for a successful career dedicated to sustainable tourism with this quote of Susan Santos de Cardenas, ecotourism expert from the Philippines:
As the saying goes, leadership is not a position, but action and by example, so even if new graduates are starting out in their careers, they should look up and emulate role models and advocate sustainability ethos.