Greenwashing, ecotourism and sustainability are now a major concern for travellers

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There is no denying it. The last two years were difficult for all of us. But as we take a collective breath on the other side of the pandemic and ruminate on the positive takeaways from that time, many of us will settle on the same sentiment – sometimes it’s good to slow down. Our lives, which are so often defined by constant motion, suddenly came to a halt, a change of pace that many of us would never have chosen or stumbled upon organically.

As social calendars were cleared of activities, travel plans were postponed, and work obligations came home with us for the foreseeable future, we had a unique opportunity to pause and look inward, taking inventory of our lives and habits in a reflective fashion. For many, this inspired a shift in priorities – from work to our daily routines, relationships, and more. But for those of us with a relentless appetite for travel or those of us (like myself) who work within the travel and hospitality sector, the pandemic also prompted an undeniable industry shift towards a more sustainable future.

With more time to consider our impact on the world we live in, discussions surrounding the rise of ecotourism and sustainability have now reached a fever pitch. Before the pandemic, these trends had been set in motion, but now? They’ve reached center stage, and travel and hospitality brands can no longer afford to skirt their responsibility to the planet if they hope to remain aligned with consumer concerns and preferences.

The Call for A Responsible Return to Travel

In a 2022 survey conducted by The Vacationer, more than 87% of American adults said sustainable travel is either somewhat important or very important to them. The 87.32% represents nearly 225 million people based on the current census. Notably, a Booking.com study conducted in 2016 showed only 62% of global travelers were interested in sustainable travel, which leads me to believe that the pandemic was, perhaps, a global wake-up call for our industry. In fact, 51% of travelers in a recent study said that the pandemic made them want to travel more sustainably in the future. Moreover, over the past year, almost 60% of travelers said the beauty of nature was what inspired them to think about the environment and the grueling effects their trip may have had on the environment. Finally, Booking.com’s annual Sustainable Travel Report (which gathered insights from over 30,000 travelers across 32 countries and territories) revealed that travelers are selecting planet-first options and looking to brands for sustainable choices and more purposeful travel.

This collective shift in perspective is, if anything, long overdue. While tourism is the economic lifeblood of many destinations around the world, it also takes a physical toll on those nations – both literally and with respect to the erosion or displacement of locals and their respective culture. Back in 2018, a survey found that tourism is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In her recent book, Go Lightly, travel writer Nina Karnikowski notes that during the lockdown, global carbon emissions decreased by as much as 17% (the lowest level in 14 years). “Once our devastation about the loss of lives and livelihoods abated, we realized the pandemic could show us a cleaner, slower, and more conscious travel world,” she wrote.

Now, as the travel and hospitality industry once again finds its stride, we face a new challenge: how can we balance our renewed appetite for travel with consideration for the destinations we hope to visit and the world at large? To this effect, The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has now called for a “responsible recovery of the tourism sector” to “balance the needs of people, the planet, and prosperity.”

Greenwashing – The Hidden Truth

Greenwashing is best described as a form of advertising or marketing in which green initiatives or promises are used deceptively to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly. In a recent Washington Post article, author Christopher Elliott pointed out that greenwashing runs rampant in the travel industry, specifically. “Many travel companies relaxed their sustainability efforts during the pandemic, adding sanitizing programs that increased the use of disposable or non-recyclable materials,” he wrote. “Even today, everything seems to be wrapped in plastic.”

Joshua Zinder, a managing partner of JZA+D who was also quoted in the article, noted that greenwashing is not always easy to spot, even for eco-conscious travelers eager to vacation responsibly. “We’ve all seen those little cards in the bathrooms in guest rooms suggesting that you may decline to have housekeeping provide clean towels,” shared Zinder. “Who really benefits from this practice? The hotel operator does, of course, since they stand to save on the energy, water, and human resource utilization related to laundry. This is a cost-saving strategy with little impact on the environment.”

According to a new study in the Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, greenwashing practices, combined with corporate social responsibility claims, have reduced the trust of U.S. consumers who increasingly recognize hotels’ green claims may be self-serving. Any hotelier knows that the trust of guests is integral to a hotel brands’ success, and, to this effect, research shows a majority of travelers are willing to boycott a company if misled. Greenwashing isn’t just a corrupt manipulation of travelers’ good intent – it’s bad business that will cost hotels their reputation and negatively impact their bottom line.

A Truly Greener Future

As it currently stands, our industry has not yet established a concrete blueprint to truly eco-conscious standards – and we have our work cut out for us in that department. To get that ball rolling, however, hotels can establish goodwill with travelers and the world at large by earning certifications from well-known and respected agencies such as Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) and Green Seal.

In addition to certifications, hotels should prioritize transparency in their marketing efforts, especially with regard to environmental practices and standards. Preach only what you practice, and avoid being vague with information that may inform a traveler’s decision to book with your hotel. Hotels can also look to adopt renewable energy, abandon the use of single-use plastic, advertise incentives for travelers to book during off-peak times, implement ‘smart room’ technology that reduces energy consumption, and partner with local providers of cultural tours and activities.

Remember, 83% of travelers want to decrease their energy consumption, 79% want to use more environmentally friendly transportation, 76% would like to lower their water usage, and 69% want to reduce the carbon footprint of their vacation. The writing is on the wall – sustainable travel is here to stay (as it should be), and the hospitality industry needs to do more to appeal to consumers who want to make a difference. So, fellow hospitality leaders, how can we band together to establish better standards, practices, and indicators of sustainable excellence as an industry ecosystem dedicated to doing better for our planet and our travelers?