With COP26 on the horizon, sustainability will be a stronger theme than ever for businesses, especially for those in the travel and tourism sector. Sustainable tourism is fast becoming more of a necessity than a choice in the field: According to research from GlobalData, global international arrivals between 2010 and 2019 grew at a CAGR of 4.7%. This large growth in international travel has brought with it unsustainable impacts, with a 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change stating global tourism is now responsible for nearly 10% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Due to governmental and consumer pressure over this sizeable footprint, the issue of sustainability is now at the forefront of tourist companies’ agendas, whilst also keeping CEOs in many industries awake at night. Proof is in the data: GlobalData’s Company Filing Analytics Database found that “sustainability” was mentioned 539 times in 2020. This is up from 295 in 2019 with a year on year increase of +82.7%. While this is data taken across sectors, there’s no doubt the tourism industry has its part to play.

The travel sector is often scrutinised in terms of its progress on sustainability as its development has, in GlobalData’s words, “regularly been accommodated for at the sacrifice of the environment, local communities” – and sometimes of small, local businesses.

Travel and tourism is one of the largest industries in the world, contributing $9.2tn to the global economy in 2019 according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, at 10.4% of total GDP. But how can lead it the way for business in sustainability? And in what ways are travel brands remaining conscious of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities?

Examples can be found of leaders in the theme, along with the laggards in sustainable tourism.

Lodging in Longsheng

Sustainable tourism doesn’t necessarily have to mean regulating the amount of tourists going to a location. Nor does it always involve calculating the air miles behind a journey.

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Take the example of Airbnb, which was allowed to embed itself in China in a way most Silicon Valley giants can only dream of. In 2017 the accommodation disruptor rolled out the Guilin Rural Empowerment Project scheme in the village of Jinjiang, which aimed to upskill villagers in the profession of hosting international tourists.

Through the “Host Mentorship Project”, Airbnb arranged for local Guilin hosts to divulge information about home sharing in local villages, in the aim of spreading wealth to areas below the poverty line. The project, as GlobalData reports, saw villagers given the skills and tools to keep on hosting, offering a sustainable source of income. Some of Jinjiang’s traditional stilt-style homes meanwhile were remodelled by acclaimed designers to become more functional home stays.

According to an Airbnb blog, the tourism industry in Longsheng County, where Jinjiang can be found, directly employed 25,000 people in 2017, while as many as 50,000 people were indirectly employed. More than 45% of locals living below the poverty belt could reap the dividends of rural tourism, according to the company.

Xi Jinping would no doubt approve of the scheme today, what with his recently announced vision of a “common prosperity” for China. Whether such moves offset the global impact of Airbnb is another question. As GlobalData researchers remind us in a recent report on sustainable tourism, companies such as Airbnb are guilty of “house price inflation and contributing to overtourism” through their services.

“The increase in ‘professional renting’ supported by Airbnb can price out many locals from living in popular cities due to the shrinking of the property market,” write the researchers. “Short term rentals are becoming more financially attractive for property owners, but there is no incentive for them to rent to locals.”

From Hipcamp to Hilton

A more sustainable option in tourist accommodation can be found in what GlobalData describes as two “breakthrough companies” based in the US, Hipcamp and Outdoorsy.

Hipcamp is a place for private landowners to primarily list campsites, glamping sites, cabins and more. Outdoorsy meanwhile offers a platform for outdoor travellers to rent, among other options, recreational vehicles, trailers and motorhomes.

Both startups have witnessed quick growth during the pandemic as travellers worldwide have looked for staycation options instead of voyaging abroad. Although some companies have claimed unsustainable impacts related to the sharing economy, these two companies, according to GlobalData, could help to “create a more sustainable sector.”

“Camping at a Hipcamp campsite will require significantly less environmental resources than staying at a hotel,” write researchers. “Furthermore, undertaking vehicle sharing, such as using Outdoorsy, can have a positive environmental impact by decreasing the number of kilometers traveled.”

Other more established names in the lodging industry are recognised by GlobalData as leaders in sustainable tourism. Marriott International for one has declared it is building energy-efficient hotels, utilising renewable energies wherever possible and to use at least 30% renewable energy by 2025. Hilton meanwhile declared it will lower its emissions by 66% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.

Marriott has also announced that it is to stop providing toiletries in single-use plastic bottles, in an attempt to reduce waste caused by the packaging. The company forecasts that the move will keep 1.7 million pounds of plastic from ending up in rubbish dumps each year.

Hilton has also set goals to reduce 30% of its food waste by 2030, alongside Accor and Hyatt. Technology can play a key role here: Machine learning computer vision, a solution where the computer recognises and reacts to the visual world, can ascertain the amount, quality and type of food thrown away daily. Currently, hotel group Accor is among the earliest adopters of the tech, cutting their food waste in half and saving over $880,000 annually.

Intrepid leadership in sustainable tourism

More tour operators are beginning to specialise in more responsible travel experiences, such as G Adventures and Responsible Travel.

Such brands not only tap into a variety of niches such as adventure, gastronomy and eco-tourism but also encourage tourists to be more responsible when they are enjoying a destination.

G Adventures for example holds a “ripple score”, launched in partnership with non-profit Planterra and Sustainable Travel International. This evaluation tool gives individuals the chance to see how much money is staying within a local community rather than suffering economic leakage. The higher the ripple score, the more money staying in a local community.

Leading the sustainable pack is Intrepid Travel, one of the first carbon-neutral tour operators which has invested more than £2.5m ($3.5m) into grassroots projects globally. The company has also donated 100% of profits from a season of trips to Nepal to help rebuild projects after the country’s 2015 earthquake.

Intrepid measures its annual greenhouses gases (GHG) inventory in accordance with the global GHG Protocol, offsetting its emissions from operations and trips by purchasing international carbon credits. As of December 2019, the company has offset more than 351,000 tons of carbon emissions.

The company plans to offset 125% of its emissions each year. It expanded its carbon management program to offset sources of emissions beyond its trips and offices ,  like offsetting customers’ flights, and double offsetting Polar Expeditions.

2019 saw Intrepid report $22.6m in earnings before interest and taxes , up 56% on 2018,  while the company’s total transaction value rose 21% to $488m.

“Like all other tour operators, Covid-19 has decimated earnings growth for Intrepid,” writes GlobalData. “However, its success pre-pandemic showcases how Intrepid’s responsibility towards environmental conservation was rapidly increasing revenue growth.

“This reinforces the trend that many travelers will be willing to pay more in return for a product or service which showcases higher levels of sustainability.”

Transformative travel

What tour operators will need to keep in mind in future both for profitability and ensuring sustainable tourism is the theme of transformative travel.

One of the main selling points of transformative travel for tourists is to be involved in something that is significant and adds purpose to their trip. In Booking.com’s Travel Trends for 2019, 68% of global travellers said they would consider participating in cultural exchanges to learn a new skill, followed by a volunteering trip (54%) and international work placements (52%).

“Based on this trend which is being spurred by (younger consumers) in higher socio-economic classes (or with parents in higher socioeconomic classes), tour operators and other tourism companies can focus on offering unique and purposeful activities along with their usual products and services,” writes GlobalData.

“This also means that companies can charge a premium as it is highly differentiated. Expensive trips then tend to attract high value travelers, that usually act more responsibly during a trip and inject more money in to local economies.”

This acts as another sustainable aspect of transformative travel.

Sustainable tourism or “jumbo sized greenwash”?

Worldwide in 2019, flights produced 915 million tons of carbon dioxide, despite jet aircraft today being more than 80% more fuel-efficient than the first jets from the 1960s.

The good news is IATA (The International Air Transport Association) has committed to cutting CO2 emissions in half by 2050 with innovative technologies, sustainable aviation fuel and improved operations and infrastructure.

The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, formed in September 2008, now has 25 members, representing 33% of commercial aviation fuel demand, working to accelerate the development and commercialisation of sustainable alternative fuel for aviation. It also has five affiliate organisations from the aviation industry (Boeing, Airbus and Embraer) along with each from the fuel industry and supply.

Some airlines are looking more to offset rather than use different types of jet fuel. easyJet for example became the first major airline carrier to offset its carbon emissions with a $35m a year scheme avoiding the release of additional carbon as well as tree planting schemes. Both British Airways and Air France also pledged to offset all domestic flights emissions from 2020 onwards, unaware of course that a looming pandemic would do half the work for them.

More recently, Delta Air Lines announced a $1bn pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030. The carrier highlighted it will invest in innovations designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere through the use of forestry, wetland and grassland conservation.

But Greenpeace has labelled these offsetting schemes as a “jumbo sized greenwash.” Indeed, the dark arts of greenwashing PR may present a huge threat to the development of real sustainable tourism.

In a report from last year, GlobalData cites the example of travel giant TUI. In its sustainabilty strategy, the British-German brand claims to be the only integrated tourism business to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The aircraft, introduced in 2007, is 20% more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 767 it replaces, and produces around 60% less noise pollution.

TUI stated that it operated eight 787 Dreamliner planes in 2015, and it would expand its fleet up to 17 by 2019. However, according to the United Kingdom Civil Aircraft Register, it has 14 of this aircraft in its fleet as of the start of September 2021, 11 of which are in service according to Planespotters.net. In contrast, TUI operates 31 of the 737–800 aircraft, all of which are in service currently besides one. These models are significantly smaller, meaning an increase in flight frequency which will be more harmful for the environment.

“Coming short on a claim of this magnitude could be seen as greenwashing,” states GlobalData.

The tour operating division of TUI has also seen it rated by GlobalData as a laggard in sustainable tourism. In a move recalling Airbnb, the company has advanced in terms of social sustainability in recent times. On its website TUI states its ‘TUI Collection’ excursions “benefit people living in the destinations we travel to in all sorts of ways, like creating jobs for local tour guides”.

However, GlobalData notes TUI Collection experiences were only available in 66 destinations that the giant operated in during 2018.

“Many of its other destinations may have had no socially sustainable alternatives and could offer very little reason for guests to leave the resort, meaning that the economic impact for the local destination economy would be minimal,” GlobalData reports.

According to UK charity Tourism Concern, few countries benefit directly from all-inclusive resorts, as foreign owned tourism companies like TUI usually own the hotel, airline, ground transport and often excursion providers. Their research found that in Turkey, only 10% of tourist spend from all-inclusive holidays found its way into the regional economy, with even less reaching the immediate local area.

Another laggard in GlobalData’s book is Kazakhstan’s Air Astana. According to atmosfair’s most recent Airline Index and its evaluation of long-haul flights ranging more than 3.800km, Air Astana was deemed to be one of the least efficient and was ranked 117th out of the 125 airlines which were assessed in the Index.

Overall, Air Astana was given an efficiency class of ‘F’ ahead of the worst designator of ‘G’. Airlines’ efficiency was measured by assessing features such as type of aircraft, engine, winglets and capacity and occupancy within the craft. Passenger occupancy was judged to have the greatest impact on efficiency (48%), whilst winglets was deemed to have the least impact (2%).

In the summer of 2020, FlyArystan, the low-cost subsidiary of Air Astana, announced it will offer a daily service between Atyrau and Aktau, with these two cities located just 367 kilometers apart. Even though travelling between these two points takes around 12 hours on land transport, scheduling a daily flight between two destinations that can be reached by using more sustainable transport methods will be seen as acting unsustainably.

“Even though Air Astana has embarked on its program to acquire new, more environmentally friendly aircraft and simultaneously phase out older ones,” reports GlobalData, “its current environmental performance does not match up to the majority of other airlines, which could impact brand image as the issue of sustainability continues to grow in importance.”

With the growing importance of sustainable tourism, keeping a squeaky green brand image will be fundamental in the years to come. According to a GlobalData survey from December 2020, a company’s ESG credentials influenced 76% of global respondents in purchasing decisions. 47% also identified that reducing their environmental footprint was now either a top priority ‘significantly’ or ‘slightly’ more important than prior to the pandemic, alongside 54% supporting small or local businesses.

Tourism brands therefore would be wise to keep their global footprints in step with travellers.