Embracing sustainability for competitive advantage.

Travel and tourism is inherently a human resources intensive business - hotels need staff to manage and cater to guests’ discrete needs, tour operators need guides and drivers to shuttle and chaperone travellers, airlines need pilots, flight attendants, ground staff and customer service reps. Yet the industry for decades has relied on cheap labour and focused limited resources in effective training and adequate retention. The industry can also be immensely destructive to natural environments whether it is mega cruise ships docking in pristine coastal environments, the extreme use of precious water resources in hotel operations or the overcrowding of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Increasingly, traveller expectations are rising for travel and tourism businesses to find ways to secure, replenish, and restore natural and social capital wherever they operate, and act in a more sustainable fashion. Travellers have begun to question how their dollars are being distributed to local communities, the effect of their presence in natural environments and whether fair wages are paid to hotel, tour operator and attraction staff. Some in the industry have noted and have put in place new policies and pushed for a change in practices.  Hotels encourage guests to reuse towels and turn off lights and many tour operators offer optional donations to carbon offset programs and local charitable foundations.  Largely speaking though, these efforts are limited in scope, not independently verified to measure impact and are not integrated within the total business.  On the government side, limited regulations and lax enforcement have led many non-governmental organisations and industry observers to label the travel and tourism industry’s sustainability efforts as ‘green washing’.

Exceptions do exist – there are a number of leaders who have embraced sustainability as a core tenant for their business and/or destination. These organisations and destinations deeply understand the role of travel and tourism in economic development and the importance of shared value. Sustainability, sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, philanthropy – there are many labels to describe business’ and governments’ role in society.

Organisations need to build the business case for sustainability, define how to integrate corporate social responsibility positioning within their brand framework and better define their communications to target aspirational travellers. Fundamentally, sustainability is about innovation and transformation. Those tourism organisations that embrace this transformation will in turn will lead the markets and create durable value for all society.