From Jan. 22-25, more than 300 travel industry delegates gathered in Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the 2023 Impact Sustainability Travel & Tourism conference. Representing destinations, tour operators, airlines and airports, Indigenous groups, hotels and other suppliers from across the tourism industry, attendees participated in panels, workshops and presentations designed to empower positive change for the sector.
Here are five key takeaways from the event, including the role that tourism businesses and professionals must take on in order to create a more sustainable, responsible industry and future.
1. Time Is Short and Urgent Action Is Needed
As in any discussion that involves climate change, there are hard truths we must face, says Robert Sandford, who holds the global water futures chair in water and climate security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He shared that we could be facing a climate tipping point as soon as 2030, and that within this time, we face the greatest need for transformation “in the history of civilization.”
According to Sandford, it is no longer enough to discuss solutions — immediate action must be taken. He also cautions that the industry should be prepared for further business disruptions (such as those caused by COVID-19) as climate events and political instability continue to affect global tourism.
2. The Tourism Industry Can (And Should) Lead the Way
According to Sandford, governments are failing to meet agreed-upon climate goals, thus allowing carbon emissions to continue to rise. This negligence, he argues, puts additional pressure and responsibility on other sectors to make positive change.
The good news for the travel industry is that it has a chance to lead the way in sustainability. Here are a few ways that travel businesses — from corporations to individual professionals — can make a difference:
- Education matters more than ever. Raising awareness among travelers can create a change in public attitudes and, hopefully, a ripple effect on other industries. For travel advisors specifically, educating clients on their choices and recommending sustainably minded companies can make a big difference in how travelers think about their actions and spend their dollars.
- Appearance cannot be confused with substance. In other words, businesses and individuals should be careful not to misuse the language of sustainable/regenerative tourism, and all claims need to be backed up with action. Advisors should make sure any “sustainable” companies they recommend are actually practicing what they preach.
- Respect and restraint are key to this fight. Encouraging clients to travel in a way that is respectful to the environment and local communities — and not contributing to issues such as overtourism — is a way to help spread awareness.
3. We Have to Address the “Controversial” Issues of Our Industry
Adam Burke, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, contends that it is time to “fundamentally change [tourism’s] business model” — and a big part of this means actively acknowledging and addressing “third-rail” issues that the travel industry might typically shy away from discussing. These include contributions to climate change, or the potentially negative impact tourism can have on local communities and environments.
For instance, he notes that the pandemic drove travelers to destinations they were not typically visiting en masse, causing rural locations to face issues of overtourism for the first time.
4. A Community-Based Approach to Tourism Is a Way Forward
One of the ways to combat the potentially negative side effects of tourism, Burke argues, is taking a community-centric approach to business. To this end, Los Angeles Tourism conducted a resident survey to figure out how tourism is affecting life for locals around the city, providing a way for the organization to identify problems and work toward resolving them.
Travel businesses can also put this advice to good use. As the tourism industry continues to face an unprecedented labor shortage, companies (both large and small) should be looking at their own community: their employees. By assessing and adjusting employer practices and creating quality career opportunities, brands can attract skilled professionals to the industry and contribute to better community health in the destinations where they operate.
5. Taking a Stand — and Sharing it Clearly — Is Key
Speakers throughout the Impact conference emphasized how now is not the time for neutrality, and encouraged brands big and small to take a stand and actively share it. That said, if companies claim to be sustainable, transparency is a must for reaching clients.
What does this mean in practical terms? Brands that clearly state their values and practices, outline their goals or plans and, where possible, enact a method of tracking or measuring these efforts will have a competitive advantage among sustainability-minded customers. This information should all be readily available for travelers to find.