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I recently attended a meeting with executives in travel, and I was surprised that there was some debate over the meaning of the word “sustainability” — particularly regarding how that term applies to the travel industry.
One colleague was sharing how Finland is promoting its secondary and tertiary towns as part of its Sustainable Travel Finland initiative. Another executive piped in: “But isn’t sustainability more about vacationing at eco-lodges?”
I understand the confusion. Sustainability is quickly becoming 2020’s word of the year — and like most words or phrases du jour, it’s under threat of being spread so thin as to mean nothing at all. (Remember when “living like a local” meant something?)
Fortunately, it’s not a new term, and there’s real criteria associated with being considered a sustainable travel outfit. Since 2008, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has been updating criteria that aim to “serve as the global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism.”
I encourage everyone to visit www.gstcouncil.org to review the criteria for hotels and tour operators, as well as the standards for destinations. The two sets of best practices highlight that sustainable tourism maximizes social and economic benefits for the local community, enhances cultural heritage and reduces negative impact to the environment.
Tourism that is sustainable is supposed to do it all. Choosing under-the-radar destinations can protect traditional livelihoods that may be threatened due to urbanization and help prevent overcrowding in popular places. And supporting eco-lodges usually means choosing businesses that employ local people, practice ethical animal welfare, actively conserve biodiversity and avoid the exploitation of natural resources.
It might seem like a lot to track, but travelers do care. According to the 2019 MMGY Global Portrait of American International Travelers, the perception of a company’s sustainability efforts goes a long way: 63% of those who travel more than three times per year agree that a provider’s focus on sustainability and environmental considerations impacts whether they will purchase from that provider.
The quicker we all get onboard with the same definition of sustainability, the better our industry will be. Together, we can protect not just natural resources, cultural heritage and local communities, but also the integrity of the word used to describe these things, too.