Dear Travel Leaders, Sustainability Is Not a PR Exercise

Sixty-one percent of U.S. travelers want to vacation in a more sustainable way — a 15 percent increase from last year — while 73 percent of global travelers say sustainable travel is important to them, majority feeling the need to make better choices in the wake of recent climate change news.

This is the latest data from 2022 Sustainable Travel Report, published this month, surveyed more than 30,000 travelers in 32 countries and territories. “Sustainable travel is no longer the ambition of the few but of the many,” the report says.

It is indeed a compilation of warm and fuzzy consumer intentions and values. But the data belies an alarming continuing trend in consumer data on sustainability: a say-do gap, the industry’s nearly decade-long failure to catch up with growing consumer awareness beyond the marketing campaigns, and the long growing feelings of shame… transport flights with almost a third of travelers now feeling that way.

There’s every indication that industry leaders as a whole have been talking a lot about sustainability, but they’re not doing enough, or fast enough.

The values-behaviour gap

Travelers may be more interested in traveling sustainably – who would disagree on not helping to burn the planet or exploit host communities – but in the eight years since reports from and other surveys indicating the same, the data shows that they still don’t know how to do it, where to find the information, or simply lack initiative.

Despite some progress by online travel agencies such as’s Travel Sustainable research tool, knowledge is lacking, but the conviction to dig deeper to find the few options that exist and put your money where it belongs is. Cost and convenience continue to trump sustainable travel decisions.

“[I]Clearly there is work to be done to shift perceptions and change behaviors,” said Glenn Fogel in the 2022 report.

We can look back to 2019, when 40% also mentioned They didn’t know how to make their trips more sustainable, and a similar amount said they couldn’t afford the extra expense. Three years later, more than half don’t research the property’s sustainability efforts before booking, 31% say they didn’t know sustainable accommodations existed, and 29% don’t know how to find them.

Encouraging sustainable behavior by giving some sort of benefit to the traveler in return could help change behaviors, mentioned Elke Dans, Global Director of Programs at The Travel Foundationat the Skift Forum Europe, adding that tourist offices are well placed to positively influence behavior through nudging techniques.

Of course, there have been improvements from a handful of global tourism to meet this demand for conscious travel. Small independent tourism businesses are leading the way with low-carbon itineraries and stays. Tourism boards’ marketing messages have made strides with conscious, equity-focused travel choices since the pandemic, as they have embraced a hybrid model that includes destination management.

Destinations are also taking their role more seriously in guiding consumers’ conscious pre-travel and in-destination behavior. Carbon calculators are on the rise, as are sustainable tour packages. Considerable efforts are even being made to develop community tourism experiences.

Last but not least, the Glasgow Declaration has brought together over 500 global tourism signatories to date, an increase of 200 since 2021, all of whom have pledged to table climate action plans by autumn. and prioritize the biggest crisis facing global tourism. .

Yet time is running out and overall there is a deep complacency in this industry that is hard to fathom as the days go by.

The feeling of shame from the leak lingers

How many travel brands have changed their business model to place racial equity or sustainability as a primary goal? Tourism Vancouver, a 60-year-old destination management organization, announcement a few days ago it turned into a social enterprise. “We don’t want to sit around a conference table and just talk about responsible travel and sustainability,” Anthony Everett, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, now named 4VI, said in a statement, acknowledging the need to evolve over time. Will others follow by abandoning the status quo?

Perhaps the most revealing data for the industry in this latest survey, showing the urgency of time, is this: almost a third of travelers “are ashamed to fly because of its impact on the environment.

Twenty percent of travelers also said they have chosen to travel by car or train over long distances, while 57% will consider traveling closer to home to reduce their footprint. Who could blame them? The travel industry’s lack of transparency and accountability continues to translate into a lack of trust.

At the macro level, there is the unwillingness of world governments to tackle climate change, evident in the wake of the latest Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Fossil fuels are the main cause of the climate crisis, the report says, adding that mitigation is always possible and that a rapid reduction in emissions is essential. Yet governments are increasing their commitments to oil and gas investments, partly under the guise of the war in Ukraine, to the detriment of the planet – a long, sobering list that includes destinations which may have seemed pro-climate and pro-green tourism like Norway, Canada, New Zealand and Germany.

At an industry level, there is the continued lack of viable options from major airlines to fly guilt-free amid allegations of slow progress on sustainable aviation fuels and continued compensation upsells. as a mechanism, a practice that has proven questionable at best, if not rubbish.

Example: Mitigating the footprint of my return flight from Punta Cana to London for Skift Forum Europe meant either donating to a reforestation project or donating $1,000 to sustainable aviation fuel research .

Are consumers expected to trust the aviation industry’s net-zero commitment promises and pay an extra $1,000 to mitigate their emissions when there is reports emerging that major airlines are pushing to weaken the European Union’s Fit for 55 climate regulations for aviation? The reasoning alleged: the proposed limitations on fossil fuels would weaken the overall competitiveness of European airlines and lead to the loss of economic benefits for the EU. Profits on the planet and people.

Then there are the cruise industry megaships that continue to burn bunker fuel like they did in 1999, among an alarming number of anti-climate and anti-social sustainability practices.

Should consumers then be blamed for dragging their feet on paying more for sustainability while much of the tourism industry continues to greenwash with promises to halve emissions by 2030 or 2050? The dates announced by the scientists are too distant to prevent further warming to the point of no return, and too vague to prompt action.

When a third of travelers in 2022 say they want to fly less and stay closer to home – probably not the 1% super emitters – because they’re ashamed of flying, tourism is surely losing the forest for the trees. ?

Back to 2019 We Go

Two years into the pandemic, the carbon footprint of global travelers is poised to hit new records. Summer travel is expected to rebound more than last year, regardless of the war in Ukraine, regardless of the ongoing pandemic, inflation or vaccine inequality. Bucket lists continue to populate social media, travel blogs and online travel agency offerings. Earth Day PR machine spending aims to show intent and interest in a green tourism industry, but tourism seems eager to see its revenue rise again – head in beds, butts in the seats, masks away, vaccine fairness be damned, and throwback to 2019 here we go. Let’s not forget that travel is indeed an extractive and profitable business for the few at the expense of the many.

But what will tourism do when there are only skeletal versions of the ecosystems, communities and cultural heritage that this industry needs, and when the list of countries and seasons to avoid grows longer? Shouldn’t this existential crisis inspire G-10 tourism industry leaders to protest alongside scientists and risk it all?

It is not surprising that the traveler’s speech gap continues. In fact, it is behavior that mirrors that of the industry – expressing a desire for more sustainable travel, committing to change but not acting collectively urgently, while blaming the lack of funding, knowledge and weather. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.